Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Accuracy in Fiction: Does It Really Matter?


I’m a stickler for correctness in writing, both my own and that of others. That doesn’t mean that I am perfect, but I do make an effort to get things right as a writer. As an editor, I obviously work to make sure my clients get it right, too. Despite the current state of writing in the digital age, I still cling to an idealistic notion that quality trumps quantity, and accuracy matters even in make-believe worlds.

But when it comes to the finished product, particularly in the realm of fiction, does it really matter how accurate the facts are?

Case in point: I just finished Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs, who is a forensic anthropologist by trade. She has become one of my favorite authors in part because of the technical expertise she brings to her stories. Now, I don’t know squat about forensics or anthropology, and only a minimal amount about police procedures and investigative techniques, so I really can’t say whether her facts are a hundred percent correct. Frankly, I don’t even care that I lack that knowledge. Reichs is a credible source. When she says things happen a certain way, I don’t question it. I roll with it and enjoy the story.

I imagine it's the same for anyone who reads a book in which there are scenes about fire, firefighting, and firefighters. If they don't know anything about those subjects, they will trust that whatever the author says is correct and won't give a second thought to anything but the most glaring errors. They just want a good story. But if I'm reading that same book, my reading experience will be different. Flaws will stand out like flashing neon signs because that’s my territory. It’s a simple matter of knowledge about a particular subject.

The question then becomes this: If subject matter experts only make up a small portion of your readership, is factual inaccuracy acceptable in fiction? And if so, how much can an author get away with?

Most firefighters I know are quick to pick up on technical inaccuracies in TV shows and movies. The amount of ensuing derision, or the speed at which they change the channel, largely depends on how egregious the error is and their willingness to let it slide. To some it’s a big deal; others, not so much. To paraphrase a comment I heard just recently from the wife of a firefighter who critiques every show and movie he sees, “Who cares? It’s just a story.”

When it comes to books, I’m solidly in that former category. I feel that if you’re getting paid to write, research and fact checking are a vital part of the process. While I have been known to grit my teeth against glaring firefighting inaccuracies just to get through the rest of an otherwise interesting story, I’m not happy about it. If those kinds of errors appear in a book that doesn’t grab my attention, isn’t written very well, or if the portrayals of fire and firefighting are unrealistic even for fiction (see my previous post), we’re done. 

However, I know I'm in the minority and many readers honestly don’t care about the technical stuff. All they care about are the characters, plot, and story. Just remember: It’s quite possible to get the facts straight and tell a romping good story. Why not give your readers the best of both worlds?