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Do You Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story?

Does it bother you when an author writes something in a story that you know to be factually incorrect? Do historical anachronisms or omissions bug you? Those things definitely irritate me.

On the surface, it seems like the author is lazy and didn't do enough research to get the facts correct. That isn't an entirely fair judgment. Although common wisdom is to "write what you know," authors can't know everything. Yes, it's reasonable to expect some level of due diligence: read a book, watch a documentary, take a class, or talk to someone who has personal knowledge/experience if you're lacking. But authors can't spend all their time exhaustively studying a subject or they'll never get around to actually writing anything. Moreover, there will probably be some detail that the book/video/class/expert doesn't cover, and what then? You, the author, will probably have to extrapolate or even make something up to fill in the knowledge gap.

When writing Smithy, I felt particular angst because I had set the novel during a decade I didn't personally experience and which many people alive today do remember well, In fact, I was more anxious about possibly writing something historically or culturally inaccurate in this book than I am in writing my current Edwardian era novel. As I saw it, if I messed up the seventies, "everybody" would notice.

Granted, I'm still bracing myself for criticisms about my depictions of American Sign Language (in which I'm not fluent) or chimpanzees (which I have only seen through barriers in a zoo), but I figure fewer people in the world are going to be experts in those subjects than in the "Me Decade." I looked up what I could (e.g., movie release dates, current events, even, in one case, the weather in an almanac) and I gave the draft novel to beta readers who were at least teenagers during the time period when Smithy takes place, in the expectation that one of them would tell me if something felt false, Nevertheless, I'm sure I didn't cover every base, I tried my best.

Another common possibility behind factual inaccuracies is that the author is using good ol' dramatic license, consciously choosing to print a lie because it makes a better (i.e., more dramatic, more suspenseful, scarier, or funnier) story. I experienced this while writing Smithy, too.

It had been my intention to include a scene early in the novel where one character has to administer the Heimlich maneuver to another character. This was to be a dramatic event, a sense of threat sobering an the enthusiastic start to a new venture, and a bonding experience of sorts for the characters. However, when I researched the Heimlich maneuver, I discovered that the first published reference to this technique was in a medical journal in June of 1974. Smithy opens in May of 1974.

What to do? Should I go ahead and write the scene as I had planned, even though I knew the Heimlich maneuver effectively didn't exist yet? Should I deliberately violate historical accuracy, something I've always hated seeing other authors do? That's definitely something readers would catch. Should I cut the scene, or delay it until later in the book, even though I thought it was valuable to the story? Ultimately, I decided to shift the scene slightly, to June of 1974. Even though it's still highly unlikely that my character would have yet been aware of the Heimlich maneuver, the timing was a little more appropriate. At any rate, I felt at peace with the compromise.

Suffice it to say that after my own experiences striving to maintain a sense of accuracy and realism in my fiction, I have a little more tolerance for other authors' "mistakes." While I still think it's important to research a subject and make an honest attempt at accuracy, I know it isn't always 100% possible. Now, when I run across something "wrong" in a book, I think twice before condemning the author as lazy or uninformed. I wonder what processes went into the writing, what decisions were made. Much occurs behind the scenes that we may never know.

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