Monday, February 02, 2009

Q & A 167

If a writer is writing fiction, why does it have to be accurate at all? I don't get that. Doesn't fiction mean something feigned, invented or imagined? For instance, I've written a story that takes place during prohibition, but I have a lot of people drinking: a) because when it comes to booze no self-respecting American is going to let something like the law get in the way and b) because I do believe a lot of people actually did continue to brew and drink during the entire period between 1920 and 1933 and c) I love anachronisms! So, if I have people drinking beer and having radios in their cars before car-radios were installed will that be a problem?

First of all, drinking during prohibition isn't an anachronism; not drinking during prohibition is. Most drinking took place in homes and back rooms and private clubs. Restaurants didn't allow open drinking in the main dining room for fear of losing their liquor licenses.

Now, if Calvin Coolidge walks into a Chicago restaurant during prohibition and everyone in the place is drinking--and talking on a cell phone--you're either writing alternate history or you're writing a script for a Mel Brooks movie or you've screwed up.

For some reason readers will devour a story set in the 19th-century about a count who's been alive hundreds of years and drinks blood and can turn into a bat. But throw in a scene in which the count is wearing an iPod, and those same readers will toss the book against the wall. Maybe readers want to believe published authors are smarter than they are, and when the author puts a radio in a car before either was invented, the reader loses respect for the author.

As a lover of anachronisms, you should try writing alternate history, where the anachronisms are intentional and expected. Just ask yourself, How would the world have been different in 1905 if there had been radios in cars? The book will practically write itself.

18 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

If a writer is writing fiction, why does it have to be accurate at all?

To keep the readers' walls looking pretty.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like excellent advice to me. Your brilliance, O Evil E, and not the radiant sunrise, caused ole Phil to dive back down into his hole.

John Grisham told Charlie Rose the other night that apparently he starts a new book every April Fool's Day and finishes within 6 mos.

Melanie said...

It's like Dan Brown's infamous gaffe in The Da Vinci Code. I haven't even read the thing, and I know that he described a cell phone as having a dial tone. The "WTF?!" could be heard around the world.

150 said...

We willingly suspend disbelief for things we don't or can't know (the habits of vampires) but when something comes up that we know isn't right (Victorian iPods) it breaks the suspension of disbelief for everything. If I spot a premature car radio, I assume you weren't right about anything else (or were right accidentally), presume it's because you didn't bother to research it, and conclude that it's not worth reading.

Tough mandate!

freddie said...

Writers do the work so their readers don't have to.

Chris Eldin said...

If a writer is writing fiction, why does it have to be accurate at all?

Just wanted to clarify, given the discussion on my last opening, that this is not my question.
ahem.

Neelloc said...

It strikes me as pointless to use historical references then waste them by deliberately not tying the technology, ideology, etc to that era. An author may as well just make up their setting and throw prohibition into the mix, if they're not going to stick to the reality of that era.
Good fiction of that sort ties anachronistic/alternative present ideas to the technology and styles of the past to create gloriously improbable yet consistent ideas, giving our world the flavour of fantasy, but having consistency. Steampunk comes to mind, for an example.
Sumthin' like that.
Mind you, I'm not brave enough to write either fantastic or alternative history, so I commend anyone who can pull those off. Have fun!

freddie said...

Chris, : )

Dave F. said...

If you want to do anachronistic fiction, then do Steampunk or Alternative History.

However, those two particular genre (or sub-genre) take are demanding and take lots of research.

I routinely research names and places/settings. I do that even for my stupidest and trashiest stories (some of which I love dearly but they are just that - personal slush/trash). When I use a city, the streets and directions are accurate. If I mention a neighborhood house, pub or church, the proximity is accurate. When I use an island in a story, I've read about the island. I know the features on the island. That way, like the others have said, the reader doesn't have to do any work.

And if you think readers don't catch errors, I once got an email from Greece that I had reversed east and west on an obscure island. I thanked the reader and fixed the error.

Also, the movie "FLASHDANCE" was filmed in Pittsburgh. The filmmakers reversed the directions and distances between the locations and and when I saw it in the theaters, the entire audience laughed, giggled and whistled through the movie. Besides, there never was a bar located where they said, not to mention a bar with those dancers. I consider FLASHDANCE a comedy.

Do your research. You'll write better stories.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

I think of it like going a sports game. Say you're watching basketball: Michael Jordan grabs the ball, runs down the court without dribbling, and sinks the world's most amazing slam dunk. And then everybody boos. Yes, the slam dunk is more impressive than dribbling - but people expect athletes to play within ALL the rules of the game, not just the big ones. Otherwise, it's cheating.

Fiction works in the same way. As an author you get to make up the rules, but if you break your own self-imposed limitations the audience will read it as cheating. Even if it's something as minor and stupid as dribbling or historical accuracy, you are expected to play within the rules.

pulp said...

I think it's all right to make stuff up, even geography. In my last novel and in my WIP I used real places as starting points--and then changed them to suit myself and the story. Both novels have supernatural elements (although in one, the supposed supernatural has a scientific explanation). Still, if I were to write something totally realistic (not likely!), I would be inventing things. We expect characters and events to arise from the mind of the author; why not geography?

I do not write historical fiction, though. The supernatural is hard enough to get right.

Phoenix said...

I think it depends on how far off the beaten history your anachronisms are. Consistency is the key. So, if you have car radios during Prohibition, then you're positing a certain level of technology that would need to be carried on through the rest of the book, which would likely result in the whole work not feeling "right" and not just the part about the radios.

But to Dave's example, the reader has to meet the author part way in that "willing suspension of disbelief" thing. Otherwise, you get the people who dis you if you locate a fictional bar on a real street or those who'll dis you if you locate your fictional bar on a fictional street in a real city or those who'll dis you if you locate your fictional bar on a fictional street of a fictional city ... Some people are looking for a good argument (or a way of feeling more superior, to put a different spin on what EE suggests) more than they're looking for a good story.

IMO, while accuracy is important to the integrity of the story, there are certain times when things must be fudged to keep the story working. But don't fudge for the sake of simply fudging. Your typical astute readers will know the difference.

batgirl said...

*applauds Phoenix*
A writer of my acquaintance once got an angry letter because her story had the Whipsnade Zoo open two years early.

As long as
a) your agent loves anachronisms and believes you do it for comic effect and not laziness, and
b) your editor loves anachronisms and tells the copy editor to STET all of yours, then you only have to worry about
c) the random reader who will write you angry letters and emails.
The only way to prevent c) is the Author's Note, and even that's not really reliable.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's fine to mess with geography. Take a city and change it around to suit the story. If it's big enough, we probably won't notice. If it's small enough that we might notice, give the place a new name. I invented a town for my novels precisely so I could have it exactly how I wanted.

Problems arise when you have contemporary New York, only it's in the middle of the Sahara desert and consists only of Brooklyn and Queens....

talpianna said...

I was just rereading Dorothy L. Sayers's GAUDY NIGHT, set at Oxford, which begins with an apology by the author to Balliol College for installing her fictional Shrewsbury College on its cricket ground. Authors who do invent such things often make such notes at the beginning or as an afterword, as a way of establishing their bona fides, when altering real places, people, and times and events.
Of course, this spoils things for the Baker Street Irregular types...

sylvia said...

This to me is the key phrase: "the integrity of the story"

As a reader, I am trusting you as an author to take me someplace interesting. I have to trust you to be competent.

If your book is filled with inaccuracies, my faith in your ability is shaken. If there is no reason for these inaccuracies then I'm unlikely to bother to continue reading.

BuffySquirrel said...

I remember reading a story on a webzine that was set in London, but clearly written by someone who'd never been there. It was unintentionally hilarious in places. Not sure that was the effect the author was going for :). It was a horror story.

Katrina S. Forest said...

A lot of good points. There are always readers out there who know more about your subject than you do, even in speculative fiction. (I've been corrected on cyborgs hacking a computer incorrectly.) Best to do the research so it at least sounds like you might know what you're talking out.