Last issue, Victoria raised the question in her column as to whether "facts in fiction" matter to readers, and invited readers to respond. (Read my initial response in the previous Coffee on the Deck!)
Well, the votes are in, and... yes, accuracy does matter! Responses were unanimous on that point. But what might surprise some writers is how much it matters. Readers don't just "care" whether a writer's facts are accurate; they care a lot.
One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make, it seems, is getting details about a reader's home town wrong. "Two different authors have set stories in Charlotte and got details wrong, and yes, it did bother me when I was reading their books," wrote one reader. Another reader wrote, "Due to the huge inaccuracies in the Indian setting, I lost interest immediately. If the author had not done even basic research, he wasn't worth my time. He could maybe fool readers who knew nothing of India, but his inaccuracies were enough to put this Indian off. The worst part of it all was that if he had only asked a few locals, he would have gotten his facts."
Now, not every reader will reside in, or even have visited, the town in which one places one's novel. But you can be sure that whether you set your tale in Delhi or Detroit or Dublin, you will attract readers who are intimately familiar with the locale. For some, the promise of reading about a beloved location is itself enough to persuade someone to pick up a book -- and finding significant errors in the portrayal of that location is enough to make someone put it down again.
The same applies to any other aspect of a novel that is presented as "fact." If you write about a particular historical period or event, you can expect a significant percentage of your readers to be attracted to the book precisely because they are already interested in, and have some knowledge of, that period or event. If you write about a particular craft or hobby, your novel is going to appeal to people who practice that same craft or hobby, and know it inside and out. If your character has a particular career or skill, your book will be read by others who share it.
But why does it matter? After all, surely readers understand that a novel is "fiction," right? And fiction, by definition, is... well, not "fact." Why should readers get so incensed when an author who is clearly writing fiction plays fast and loose with "reality"?
The primary reason, in my opinion, is the issue of "suspension of disbelief." This, English teachers told us long ago, was the mechanism by which we enable ourselves to become utterly immersed in a story that, deep down, we know is "made up." It's what enables us to care so deeply about people who don't actually exist that their emotions become our emotions, their traumas become our tears. A novel won't really hook us until we reach that point where the characters become "real" to us.
However, when a writer makes errors in "facts" -- when a novel includes information that we know to be false -- that illusion of "reality" is shattered. If, for example, a character is speeding through your home town, trying to escape a terrible fate, and makes a turn into a street that you know quite well doesn't exist or goes in the wrong direction or ends in a cul-de-sac, you're going to be yanked rather abruptly out of the illusion that "this is really happening." Suddenly, you're presented with something that you know could not happen -- and your "suspension of disbelief" is shattered. In short, by failing to make real what actually should be real, the writer runs the risk of ruining the illusion that any part of the story is "real."
But what about readers who don't know? After all, for every reader who is intimately familiar with a setting, or period, or craft chosen by the author, there are undoubtedly hundreds who aren't. Can't we simply "write off" the readers who might catch our mistakes, secure in the knowledge that most of our audience may never be the wiser?
Perhaps -- but only, I think, if we abandon one of the basic principles of storytelling. Books, we're told, are doorways to the world, or to other worlds. They are our passports to places we may otherwise never visit, worlds we'll never be able to explore, times and events we can never experience, people we'll never meet. As readers, we've traveled through space and time, filling our lives (and our souls) with armchair adventures. I suspect many of us became writers precisely because we wanted to be able to pass those adventures on to others. But if we don't get our facts straight, we're cheating the travelers we invite to pass through those printed doors. If a book is my portal to, say, India, then I want to know that when I step through that portal, I am really going to visit India -- not an ersatz India that the author has cobbled together from Wikipedia articles.
That's nice and philosophical, but there's also a pragmatic reason not to write off the "readers who know." Even if those readers are only a small percentage of your overall audience, today their reach is far greater than it ever was in the past. Disgruntled readers tend to be vocal readers, with many ways to spread the word about writers who displease them. Readers who feel that a work lacks accuracy and authenticity (and especially those with the knowledge to back it up) don't hesitate to declare their dissatisfaction via such venues as Amazon reviews, blogs, and social media. None of us want to make a reader say, "I'll never pick up another book by that author again!" Still more should we seek to avoid blunders that lead would-be readers to say, "I won't even bother picking up a book by that author in the first place!"
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