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.
Ray Smith says
I agree that the “have to quit when you get married” rule gives the opportunity to add a conflict and subplot to the story. First thing that came to my mind was to have the mc hide her marriage, which adds a couple levels of conflict and tension. In one, she has to keep her marriage from being uncovered. In the other, she not only must she keep the marriage a secret, but she must also be very discrete in her relationship with her husband, as (if I recall correctly) schoolteachers back in those days had to be above reproach in their behavior and reputation.
I agree with Randy. Don’t ignore the law, since you know about it. But if you do ignore the law, don’t do yourself the potential diservice of ignoring what would have been the social norms at the time.
Yes, the reader of your historical romance may not know that there was a law, and it may never come out that there was one. But they are sure to know that a teacher (which was the domicile of conservatives back in those days) would have been expected to quit after marriage.
In addition to the legal battle mentioned by Randy, think about the character battles it creates. Mother giving daughter unwanted advice. Love interest feeling scorned by her commitment to teaching. Not to mention the school may not want to support her out of fear that it’s reputation will be besmirched. After all, it’s certainly not that type of school;).
It can also help you add depth to your characters. How your characters interact based on her actions says something about their values and beliefs. If your story is character-driven don’t pass up this valuable opportunity to explore their psyche, surroundings and how they interact with it.
Regarding Micky’s questions, I would have to agree absolutely with Randy. History fiction is a genre where readers will expect storyline to fall within the boundaries of conventions of the time.
To have a marriage with a woman teacher existing in the 1920s-50s time period without any recognition of the fact that no such marriages were permitted to exist is a disaster waiting to happen. The initial violation might seem negligible, but imagine if your novel began to gain some popularity, and then someone called you on your facts? It could potentially ruin your career.
I’m not afraid to admit that historical fiction is way too difficult for me at this point in my life. I’m definitely historically “challenged.” I’d rather stick with writing based in the future: Science Fiction & Fantasy. Of course, that category has its own research requirements, and they can be quite hefty as well.
This blog is great and I expect to visit here fairly regularly once I get over a bit of a life hurdle I’m involved with. I offer a big thanks to Randy and anyone who raises valuable questions like Micky’s. I’d imagine that adherence to the perhaps unspoken “rules” of writing is one of the biggest chores of a writer.
Agreed. The law should be written into the story somehow, not simply ignored. If you don’t want to add a storyline of the teacher dealing with conflict created by her choice to continue teaching after marriage vs. the conservative dissenters who want her to quit, another option would be to add conflict (and acknowledge the law) by the teacher trying to keep her marriage hidden from her coworkers or friends & family – trying to keep the marriage a secret so she won’t have to quit her job. Let us know how it goes – sounds interesting. 🙂
And I really hope paper books don’t become extinct. I read them every night to fall asleep and don’t think it would be the same having to lay down and hold up an electronic device. Besides, a good old-fashioned book is something you know you can always turn to last minute – in a power outtage, doesn’t need any batteries, cheap, etc. And I spend all day at work on the computer (not to mention usually a bit in the evenings catching up on e-mails and Facebook), so when I lie down for a good read the LAST thing I want in front of my face is another glowing screen!!! >_
Those of us who read fiction like to believe what we are reading is true. Imagine that. We also have a deep need to believe there is some educational merit in reading a paperback, especially if the cover depicts a beautiful woman swooning into the arms of a muscle-bound pirate amidst a burning deck & sails. Whether we know it or not, we take away what we read in a novel as fact, unless we know the facts to be erroneous and in that case, the book goes flying.
Some of us may not admit that we learn stuff from novels. Speaking for all fiction fans, honest and not, I beg you to give us true facts, because we believe whatever you tell us! We want to learn something we didn’t know! And we’ll never buy your books again if you make us look like idiots when we argue about 17th century exploding pirate ships!
Good advice, Randy.
There are other situations in which absolute adherence to the truth is necessary. I’ll pull a couple of examples from personal life.
My husband is a railfan. He and the people like him know everything there is to know about the trains in which they are interested, whether it’s modern day diesels or old-time steam locomotives.
The best way to alienate them is to mispresent any part of the life or history surrounding the railroad. Getting anything wrong in such a story makes the entire story irrelevant to them. You may have a good story and it may appeal to a lot of people, but get one thing wrong and you’ve lost your railfans.
I paint horse paintings for fun and profit. I know if I get one detail wrong in a painting, I’ll hear about it from people who know that part of the equestrian world. Someome once told me the type of carriage a horse was pulling based on the way I’d drawn the harness. The carriage didn’t show in the painting and I couldn’t disagree because I don’t know the carriage world that well.
As a reader, I know when something is either miswritten or mispresented if it has anything to do with a field in which I have personal experience and expertise. I’m left wondering just how much the author got wrong about other details if they got anything at all wrong.
Granted, those sorts of things happen more often in fields of special interest, but authors need to be aware that if they choose to write about a field of special interest, people who know that field inside and out will be likely to read the resulting story. If you don’t want to lose credibility, pay attention to those details.
As Randy pointed out, the same holds true for certain genres within the world of publication. People who read historical fiction, for example, usually know more about the history involved than most people. That’s why they read historical fiction.
It’s a lot better to pay attention to those sorts of details and/or to make them work for you, than it is to regain whatever you credibility you lose with readers for fudging or openly disregarding the details of the era.
Paris Love says
I knew the single/married teacher conundrum. Anyone who grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie books will know about this old timey rule and how it effected the careers of women at the turn of the 20th century.
Just because a rule seems obscure to one person, doesn’t mean it isn’t common knowledge. I also agree including the rule as part of the story conflict is going to make the story much more interesting.
Judy Winchester says
One more vote for historical accuracy. I am well aware of the fact that married women were not allowed to work in most areas, not just teaching.
Kim Miller says
I support the historical accuracy argument here, but something comes to mind for me on this one.
Alaska in the 1920s was probably not the easiest place to find teachers. That’s my take from over here in Australia as someone who has teacher friends (a married couple) who spent a few years in the town of Old Crow in the Yukon (within yelling distance of Alaska). That was in the 1970s.
I can quite easily imagine a local school which pays lip service to the rule, yet bands together to keep their teachers in practice.
Change has to start somewhere. So why not here?
Change starts with people. Why not these people?
Confronting things head on is always a place of conflict, and is often a ‘romantic’ course of action, in the sense that adventure is romantic.
Hiding the marriage might not work for the author/story/character. But it does not necessarily have to be hidden, that’s my point.
Lois Hudson says
I was thinking most of the same thoughts before even reading the responses, so simply say “Amen” to the fascinating possibilities whichever way Micky chooses to go.