Thursday, January 18, 2007

Separating Fact From Fiction

When writing fiction, how close to the truth should it be? For instance, if writing a novel based in Los Angeles, how important is it to have REAL street names, locations, etc? Or if writing a mystery/suspense, how important is it to give REAL details of what the LAPD office looks like, REAL LA laws and regulations, etc?

Great question. And I think the answer depends on what specifically you're writing about. Though, I think when in doubt, it's best to stick as close to the truth as possible, since, even though you're creating a fictional world, you still want readers to believe that it's a reality.

What I mean by that is this: when writing TDLF, it was very important to me to try to be as factual as possible about the process of chemo and what a cancer patient endures. Not only out of respect for real life cancer patients, but also because it was important for the reader to go along this realistic journey with my heroine. To that end, I spoke with doctors, did a lot of research on the web, and also relied on my personal experience with both survivors and my friend who succumbed to the disease. And from what I understand from people who have read the galley, I did, indeed, do a pretty good job of mirroring the cancer process. So, in that case - something medical or scientific or even something like LAPD regulations, which you mention - I do think it's important to try to be as truthful as possible. After all, you don't want people to read the book and think, "There's just no way that this is realistic." You lose reader interest right there.

That said, I also have a scene in the book that's set in the world of showbiz. (I'm being purposefully vague because I don't want to give anything away!) Now, this scene was intentionally comical and slightly slapstick, and while some of the details might be off, I think that's okay: do readers really care if I nail 100% what happens behind the scenes of a show or whether or not a character's Blackberry would go off in the green room? I think - and this is solely my opinion - that in situations such as these, conveying an overall sense of the scene and the emotion that goes along with that scene (in the TDLF's case - joy, humor, elation) might be important than nailing all of the minutiae. That said, when drafting this scene, I certainly tried to adhere to reality as close as possible, or as close as I imagined it to be.

So what am I saying here? If you're setting your book in LA, I'd imagine that it's entirely fine to make up say, the name of a nightclub or a restaurant or a movie studio. Writers do this all the time, and readers - since, after all, this is fiction - expect it. But when it comes to specific standards or guidelines, like police rules or scientific facts, well, I think readers are less inclined to suspend their disbelief. And frankly, it might help your writing to do the necessary background research.

I don't know if I'm expressing this very well - maybe someone can do a better job. :)

So writers out closely do you stick to the truth? What can authors get away with and what can't they?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Allison. If there's an established process involved with what you're writing (investigative, medical, technical, etc...), then the descriptions should be as spot-on accurate as possible. If you're talking about inventing settings, I think authors should have carte blanche. The writer is free to create her world while also maintaining authenticity.