Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Facts & Fiction

At first glance, it may seem silly for fiction writers to do research for their stories--unless, perhaps, one is writing historical fiction. After all, most people don’t read novels expecting to be educated. (Does anyone really care if laptops were around in 1995 when my young heroine in THE TRAZ acquired one?)

Actually, I've discover that many people do care, and the more obvious the factual error the higher percentage of readers notice and care. Why? Because it interferes with the images the written words are creating in the minds of readers. If readers can’t imagine the action happening, rather than focusing on the characters and plot, they’ll try to adjust the scene they are reading to fit the reality they know.  This spoils their enjoyment of the story.

Although laptops were around in 1995, if my story had taken place in 1955 and I threw in a laptop, I think you can imagine how distracting that would be. As a reader, you’d be poised to experience this tale in the world of 1955 and then suddenly, you’d be jolted away from the story by the incongruity.

Very skillful writers can make anachronisms meld smoothly into the plot so the reader doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, but alas, most of us are not close to being that talented.

As I often incorporate little known facts into my stories, even though my research is impeccable it remains a challenge to smoothly convince readers that the story is credible.  For example, in THE TRAZ, Katrina, my 13 year-old heroine, opens a bank account in her name only and deposits a large sum of money that her grandfather gifted her.  Her guardian has no control over the account.*  Alas, fiction writers can’t use little asterisks and footnotes to cite sources but must find other ways to promote their credibility.

Some authors use a plethora of details to lend authenticity. One mystery I read had four paragraphs on what contact lenses were like in 1965—I found that quite distracting, especially since contact lenses had nothing to do with the murder.

Other writers will use the back covers of their novels (Author, Eileen Schuh, who bought her first laptop in 1995, ....  Or ‘thank you’ pages (Eileen wishes to thank Sarah Butland for providing valuable banking info…) or sometimes their blogs and/or websites to shout to the world that they know of what they speak!

Oh….wait a minute….

*This scenario complies with Canada's banking laws and policies.

If you have a helpful hint on how fiction writers can increase their credibility, please leave a comment below.

For more research hints visit my blog at

Eileen Schuh, Author
Schrödinger’s Cat


Anonymous said...

You make an intriguing point! While the plethora of details about contact lenses in the example you mentioned is a very bad idea (can we say boring???), many people might read about a 13-year-old opening a bank account and say: "Wait! Is that legal?"

I say this is where show, don't tell comes into play. In your specific case, perhaps your character can call the bank to ask if they'll let her open an account? Or maybe she can get a brochure from her local branch that indicate age restrictions, if any? Little things like that can be helpful in authenticating your facts without being a distraction to your readers. Anyway, just an idea - hope it helps, and best of luck to you!

Renita said...

I agree with your other poster.

I think this is where your skill as an author will really get to shine. The quickest, or the most interesting way if it can't be quick, you can authenticate your little known fact the better the story can become. Good luck mom!

Eileen Schuh: said...

Thank you, Lea and Renita, for visiting and for taking the time to offer some wonderful suggestions.

Jan Markley said...

I end up doing a lot of research for my novels for young readers. Right now I'm researching the disappearing bee syndrome and ancient egyptian artifacts for the third in my Megabyte Mystery series Dead Bee in the Sarcophagus. Google is a big help.