Do you have to use all the facts you know in your fiction? When the facts contradict the story you want to write, what do you do?
Micky posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’ve been working on this book in FanStory.com and I’ve gotten articles from the Mayor of Ketchikan I’m using for ‘kinda’ the place this young woman is going to to be a teacher. He had a few girls that did the same thing at 19. Now that rules were if the woman got married she could not teach anymore. This rule was in 1920’s and lasted until the 50’s. In my story I have the teacher getting married. Do I have to make her quit teaching or ignore a rule no one else is going to know? Isn’t there some kind of writing rule that allows you to write things the way you want? I am making this a Romance book, and she happens to be a teacher in the 1920’s Alaska!
What is your answer?
Randy sez: Fiction is not required to follow the facts 100%. You are not only allowed to make stuff up, you’re expected to do so. Fiction is not a documentary.
Having said that, it’s important to be as true to your facts as your category requires. If you’re writing a police procedural, for example, your readers expect your cops to do cop stuff the way actual cops in your particular setting do cop stuff. However, your readers also don’t mind if you make up stuff in your cops’ personal lives that may not be typical of the personal lives of most cops. It’s fiction.
If you’re writing a historical novel set in a particular place and time, your readers expect you to not violate any known historical facts about that place and time. If you do, then you are disobeying one of the cardinal rules of historical fiction. Micky, it does no good to argue that this is a rule nobody will know about. If you know about it, then somebody else knows about it too — probably somebody close to your setting who could be a strong promoter for your book if it rings true. If it rings false, you can count on that “somebody” telling anybody who’ll listen that you don’t know your stuff.
There’s a way around this, of course. If you really insist on this woman continuing to teach after she gets married, then make that part of the conflict. The rules say she has to quit. She doesn’t want to — and she fights the system. Now whatever your story is, it just got better. Conflict always improves a story.
There are some classes of historical fiction where you don’t have to stick with the known facts. Some examples:
- Historical fantasy. Xena the Warrior Princess gets a lot of latitude from her fans, who really don’t care whether the history is anything remotely correct, so long as Xena does lots of fighting in an outlandishly skimpy costume.
- Alternative history. Harry Turtledove is one of the masters of this category. In this class of fiction, you’re expected to diverge from the known facts. It’s an exercise in “what if?” that lets you explore those pesky historical paths not taken.
The one thing you really must do is to make your category clear to your reader and then follow its conventions. In my view, one reason Dan Brown’s book THE DA VINCI CODE was so widely panned by critics was that it claimed to be giving the “correct history of early Christianity” when in reality it was giving an interpretation favored only by a few self-proclaimed “Holy Grail theorists.” Historians across a broad spectrum of philosophical persuasions saw no merit in this interpretation.
This would have been fine if the book were presented as a typical conspiracy book, like many of Robert Ludlum’s books. But Ludlum clearly never believed that his novels represented actual truth, whereas Dan Brown obviously does believe that his does.
Micky, I hope that answers your question. In your case, it seems like you need to account for the facts you know, and my idea to just use this to add to the conflict of your story makes sense to me.
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? If you were Micky, would you take note of this rule in the story, or would you ignore it?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: In scanning my favorite blogs today, I found three that sounded downright radical on the prospects of e-books and p-books in the immediate future:
- Seth Godin’s Blog. In a blog entry titled “But who will speak for the trees?” Seth argues that the demise of paper will “doom” newspapers, book publishers, and magazine publishers — probably within three years. (“Doom” means to change them beyond recognition.)
- Mark Coker’s SmashWords Blog. In a blog entry titled “How Indie Ebooks will Transform the Future of Book Publishing” Mark remarks that the future is bright for authors and for publishers willing to change. But he sees a dim future for those publishers who take a bunker mentality.
- Joe Konrath’s Blog. In a blog entry titled “Konrath on Wylie” Joe comments on the case of Andrew Wylie, an agent who has e-published some of the older books of his clients which were contracted before e-books were mentioned in contracts. Konrath warns publishers to embrace the e-future and start treating their authors better, with a better share of the e-book pie.
Things are changing even faster than I expected in my recent blog entry, “The Future of Publishing.” As writers, we need to be willing to adjust to the new realities. Bear in mind as the future comes rushing at you that we are essential to the future of publishing, no matter what form it takes. If you don’t have a writer, then you don’t have a story. Period.