Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where fact meets fiction

In this era of fake news, the line between truth and make-believe has become so blurred that it's becoming increasingly difficult to know what's real or to trust anything you read. And I'm not referring to a profound philosophical debate on whether there exists such a thing as absolute truth or whether all truth is embedded within a context- cultural, physical, or what have you.


I mean facts that can be supported by evidence or replicated in some way. Claims for which there is some proof. People vary on the breadth and type of proof they require to accept something as likely true; rigorous science types demand evidence based on objective scientific knowledge, while others entertain other possible, as yet unknowable, realms of truth such as the supernatural, astrology, ghosts, divine revelation, etc.

But within the realm, some consistency and set of principles exist against which information's veracity can be measured. So if two news sources make opposing claims, or someone says one thing one day and the opposite the next, most of us know one of the claims at least is not true. We may choose to believe the one we like better, or we may end up not believing either. The inaccuracy may stem from simple error, ignorance, incomplete knowledge, or deliberate deception, but in this global information age, in which social media allows the rapid dissemination of information without any checks on accuracy, "untruths" can be repeated over and over so quickly that the repetitions themselves become the proof. How do you know...? Well, I read an article...

One end result of this, besides confusion and ignorance, is a distrust of all information. It's a shaky foundation on which to stand - not knowing what is real and what isn't - and it makes us cling all the more fiercely to the sources we do trust.

What does this have to do with writers? Well, making things up is our stock and trade. Science fiction and fantasy writers make up entire universes, but mystery writers generally ground our sinister deeds in the real world. Readers generally know that the whole thing is made up, and don't rely on the facts from novels to support their PhD dissertations.

Yet among writers, there are those who research meticulously, not just the topics they tackle but the setting, the time period, the dialect, and the local customs, while others don't research much at all. I once heard a very well known and respected author of police procedurals say that he'd never talked to a police officer or checked protocols. Others say, "I make it all up. It's fiction, after all."

But what about historical fiction? Medical or legal thrillers? Or adventure novels set in exotic locales? If a writer makes up all the detail on which these stories are based, the reader is taken on a fake journey. Part of the thrill of these books is the the peek inside a real world very different from what we know. From these books, we learn about 12th century Spain, or the back alleys of Venice, or the drama of the courtroom. Most writers of these books are historians or doctors or lawyers, and we trust that the world they have led us into is real (except for the body, of course). We would feel cheated if we learned they'd made the whole thing up.

When it comes to regular, contemporary novels, the rules are less clear. Some readers don't care that hairdressers solve murders or that cats talk. They know it's all in good fun. But once the writer has set the rules of engagement, they should adhere to them. Is this a real place? A real profession? A genuine issue? If so, know what you're talking about. Writers spin a web to draw a reader into their story, willing the reader to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. Any false note that jolts the reader out of the story breaks the spell.

As readers, we all have our trip wires - those false notes that ruin a story for us. It can be crime scene investigators who tromp all over the crime scene with their long hair flowing in the breeze. It can be streets in the wrong place in a city we know intimately. It can be weather that is wrong for the season in that place. For me as a psychologist, it is any superficial, pop psychology explanation of motives and behaviour.

So I am firmly in the research camp. Not only do I want readers to go on a journey with me, but I don't want them to be jerked out of the story and I want them to trust that what they are reading is as accurate as I can make it.  That's why last year I spent my summer reading books on Jihad and ISIS, and my winter on a winter camping trip in the mountains, all to research THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY. It's why next week I am renting a cottage in Georgian Bay (a great improvement over winter camping!) to research the setting of my next book, PRISONERS OF HOPE.

I'm sure I will still get some things wrong, but the more believable the web I weave, the more I hope readers will stay under the spell. And in the process I hope it's more than a journey into make-believe; I hope they enjoy learning some interesting information about a world different from theirs. Information they can trust.

I'm curious to know how other writers and readers feel. As readers, what are your trip wires? Does it bother you to encounter factual errors or misrepresentations in fiction? As authors, how important is accuracy in your books and how much do you research to "get it right"?


Eileen Goudge said...

I'm in 100% agreement with you, Barbara.You make a great point about not jolting the reader from the story by misinformation or a scene or dialogue that doesn't ring true. This is why I attended the Writers Police Academy before tackling my latest which has a police officer as the main protagonist. I sure learned a lot about real police procedure!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I'm firmly in the research camp. I do research in my other job as an academic that sometimes overlaps with my crime fiction research. But even when it doesn't, when I'm writing fiction, I don't feel grounded until I have dug in (pardon the pun). I think it's in part because I'm need to verify even what I think I know. The other part is that research sparks my writing process -- and it's useful later when marketing the book.

Sybil Johnson said...

I think research is important, too. One of the reasons I use a fictional town in my series is so readers can't say that street isn't there, etc. But I do try to be faithful to the beach area it's set in, making up my own versions of festivals and issues that are typical in this area. I think research is particularly important if you're writing a historical.