Fiction or Fact?

Authors sometimes get confused or upset when readers complain about historical inaccuracies or incorrect facts in stories. “But it’s fiction!” the author wails. Well, only part of any fiction story is fiction.

There is the story “world”—setting, background, plot actions, historical and geographical details, the science/legal/medical/law enforcement information. That is the FACT in the story, that is what must be believable, real and accurate and true-to-life. (Assuming the story isn’t fantasy or alternate reality, of course.) Otherwise, readers think very negatively of the author and are likely to speak up about it. You can’t have zippers in ancient Egyptian clothing, trains or the Underground in Regency London, sights on a hunting rifle in the 18th century, turkey and corn at a meal in medieval Europe. You can’t cross over the border from Canada to Mexico. If your character suffers a serious gunshot wound, it’s going to take months of recovery and rehabilitation. Tests based on crime-scene evidence or DNA takes weeks to months to process, not a few hours. If you have cops, lawyers, or medical personnel in your story, you had better either be in that profession yourself or have researched the hell out of it and have every detail and character action right and justifiable. (Yes, I have seen all these errors in not only submissions, but in published books.)

And don’t think readers won’t recognize the errors. Lots of them know about the professions or places you depict. And everyone else has seen it on TV. Yes, CSI is all wrong, it’s fake, don’t copy from that for your story. But other court, crime and history shows have taught people how things really work and they will spot the “I can’t suspend disbelief enough” inaccuracies in your story.

Then there is the FICTION part. In a fantasy or futuristic/scifi, that would be the part of the world you can make up. But it better make sense, be logical within the framework and world “rules” you’ve created! In a romance novel, the fiction is the relationship—romantic or sexual. People read romance for jolts of emotion. Readers know that what is depicted in this element of the story is not in any way a match for real-life relationships. Uh, a guy who can get it up five times a night, every night? Men who instinctively know what a woman is thinking and exactly the right thing to say or do to meet her emotional needs? People who recognize their mate within minutes and are irrevocably in love, talking about commitment for life? Now, c’mon. In reality, you’d give that relationship/marriage about a zilch chance of lasting. And those uber-alpha heroes that readers swoon over in books? We all know if we met a real guy like that, we’d probably kill him within days—or have him arrested for stalking, abuse, kidnapping… But in a romance story, readers happily buy into the relationship and HEA that would be unbelievable in real life. They know that it is fiction, but it satisfies an emotional need, so everyone is willing to suspend reality and play along.

So yes, readers expect that you as author will stick to the facts when writing fiction.

So, what unfactual “facts” have driven you crazy in a novel?


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