How important are facts in fiction?

by limebirdvanessa

As I’ve mentioned before, I write articles for magazines. Obviously these articles are non-fiction, and I therefore feel a great sense of responsibility to get the facts right. The magazine editor doesn’t have time to check out everything I write and trusts me to get it right. I owe it to the editor, the magazine itself, and most importantly the readers to check that my facts have been obtained from reliable sources, and from more than one source if possible. This is all quite clear cut and in line with how most feature article writers probably think.

But what about fiction? How much does it matter about getting facts right in fiction? Think of a film like Titanic. It centres around a real event, and much of the film is historically accurate. We know however that the main love story between Jack and Rose that runs through the whole film is fictional. We accept and understand that, but can we clearly identify how much of the rest of the film and the characters are completely real, based on reality, or completely fictional? And do we care?

This is an issue I ponder on quite often, where does the line get drawn when it comes to using facts within fiction? If I’m reading a book and I read something like ‘Thomas walked out of Kings Cross station and turned right onto Marigold Lane’, and I happen to know that there is no Marigold Lane near Kings Cross station, then it’s going to bother me. Thomas is fictional, the story is fictional, but Kings Cross is a real station and I therefore expect the geography of it to be real too. If it said ‘Thomas walked out of Hobble Bobble station and turned right onto Marigold Lane’, then no problem, it’s all fictional so I’m quite happy.

The train station example is a fairly simple one, with a simple answer, but the merged world of fact and fiction is generally much more complex. How much truth does there have to be for something to be described as ‘Based on a true story’ for instance? I suspect very little. Is it ok to rewrite history in order to make it fit your story? Historical fiction writers must clearly do a lot of research about the period, or event, that is the backdrop to their story in order for their story to be convincing, and I’m sure they will try and keep as much of the factual information as accurate as possible, but they are nevertheless writing fiction, not a history text book, and I wonder how they decide upon which aspects are acceptable to change and which are not.

Do you have any rules for yourself about which facts can or can’t be changed when you are writing fiction? And when you are reading a novel, does it worry you when facts have been changed, or are you happy to accept any fact alterations in fiction?

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59 Responses to “How important are facts in fiction?”

  1. Hmm this is a tricky one because I think it depends really. When I’m reading fiction, I generally will assume that the writer has done their research so I don’t have to think about it. However, I’m the same as you where if there’s something in the text that I know just isn’t right, like a place or whatever, it will make me stop reading and will probably distract me. This is not something we want our readers to be doing while halfway through a book!

  2. Research for fiction, and accuracy: I think if you are using real places, people, or events, your story has to fit what is known; you can write what you like about what is unknown, as long as you don’t change the established facts. In Harry Potter, Rowling cleverly magicks up Diagon Alley and Platform 9.75 at King’s Cross – she changes nothing that we know about, simply makes space for her world within the existing London that we all know.

    There is usually plenty of wriggle room between what is known; hence the popularity and success of so many jazzed-up biographies and retellings where the author/historian has speculated about the missing bits. I think the accepted term is ‘faction’…

    It depends on the genre to some extent – fantasy and SF authors can get away with much more because they can manipulate time and space to suit themselves.

    Lots of authors invent their own worlds so they don’t have to worry about accuracy. Val McDermid created Bradfield as a home for Tony Hill in her ‘Wire in the Blood’ books; Holby is a near equivalent of Bristol on TV, but can be changed and tweaked to suit the scriptwriters. Kingsmarkham, St Mary Mead, Cabot Cove… all invented by the writers to be typical places but infinitely manoeuverable.

    Morse/Lewis, however, belong to a very real Oxford; Rebus inhabits the real Edinburgh, and there’s a big industry exploiting the locations for book and TV fans.

    In my crime fiction, I work in an accurate London but the homes and offices of the key characters are not quite there. Almost, but stretched or tweaked just a little so I’m not using someone’s actual address to house my heroes and villains. Chisenhale Road E3, for instance, has a few extra houses in it; Camden Lock was stretched and slightly rebuilt so it became Castlehaven.

    I love the research, especially when it gets spooky – my fictional world and the real one have sometimes collided in quite eerie ways. I take it as a good omen…

  3. And when you are reading a novel, does it worry you when facts have been changed, or are you happy to accept any fact alterations in fiction?

    With fiction, it depends on whether the piece is fantasy or contemporary.

    If a book is set in London, I expect there to have been research done (the writer gets the streets correct and such).

    Yet if it is a book about vampires set in London, although I expect the streets names to be correct, I don’t mind if the author gets creative with the vampire myths and descriptions.

  4. How many people were bothered by Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross? ;p (True: it was magical and muggles wouldn’t even know it’s there. Bad example. I’ll move on now…)

    In my novel part of it is set in a real town with a small population and I rarely get the opportunity to visit. I’ve only been there once. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible but anyone familiar with it will probably notice glaring faults. I might consider blurring these a little.

    Generally I’m fairly flexible but sometimes inconsistencies bother me, other times they don’t. Weird. I can’t put my finger on it. Once example that did bother me was a novel set in Gippsland Australia that seemed to have an entire town mirrored east-west. That’s takes skill! Maybe the author had a lousy sense of direction, I don’t know.

    Talking about changing facts, try reading Stephen Kings 23.11.63. šŸ˜‰

    • I think the Harry Potter platform thing is a really good example, abbspepper mentioned it in her comment too. It shows really well how you can add a fictional element to something factual and make it work. You’re right though, it’s difficult to pinpoint why sometimes innacuracies can bother us and sometimes not, I guess it’s all down to how the author manages it.

      I haven’t read that Stephen King one, I shall make a note to do so!

      • Re King’s book title: So it is! I blame the stupid American date format (MMddYY – who’s idea was that? Seriously!) and Australia’s time zones being ahead of the USA. I can get away with that, can’t I? šŸ˜‰

        I think may be we all have our own arbitrary line between significant and insignificant differences between the author’s worlds and the real one. It’s like travelling on public transport. We should be a little more tolerant of other’s space. šŸ™‚

    • For some reason Richard, the reply I just wrote to your comment has gone into spam, I’m sure Beth will unspam it for us later!

  5. This is one of those queries where there simply isn’t a definite answer. I like fiction which actually teach me something new but if I found out later that it was bad research on the writer’s part, I would be miffed about it; except if the writer had written an explanatory note at the end and explained why they had to change something dramatically. Great post.

  6. I’m generally a stickler for facts and accuracy, and always wonder about this topic. I’m really glad you brought it up. I’m planning a novel set in The Bahamas. There is very little historical info to be found online, but I live here. I’ve dug up some old history books to help me put things together. All of the historical events don’t happen at times that work for me, so I’ll probably move them around a bit. I feel like this is okay because I’ve read several books where the author made a note (at the beginning or the end) saying that they took certain liberties. Yes, from I was child, I read books from cover to cover… Including the copyright info. See what I said about being a stickler? Hahaha.
    I’m also starting working on a novel series, and I’m having trouble deciding where to set it. I have a few options but I’m wondering whether or not I should fuse some of them together, or create my own place, stealing bits and pieces from real places. OR just pick one and stick with it. My conscious probably won’t let me use a place I’ve never visited, so a really low budget working vacation may have to happen.

    Thanks for starting this discussion, Vanessa. I’ll be looking out for other responses.

  7. I do my research where necessary, but I tend to shy away from describing places or events. For example, if I’m not using a fictional place, I try to avoid any mention of the location or setting. My stories take places in countries I’m only familiar with through the internet or television, so I can’t pretend to know everything about them even if I have a map. This gives me freedom to situate things however I want, and the reader wouldn’t have to worry about any facts.

    • Yes, that’s one way of doing it, although I think sometimes people like the familiarity of something they’ve heard of, it maybe give the story some extra credibility, although of course if it’s familiar, but wrong, then it does the opposite!

  8. I agree with Abbspepper’s comment – depends on the genre. Being able to manipulate locations is one of the reasons all my books are laid in the future. In the 30th century, the main capital of Earth is New Washinten, which is located in what is now northwest Missouri. Another large city is Okloh (where Oklahoma City is now). If I were writing a book laid in contemporary OKC, I would probably have to go there and familiarize myself with the place, or at the very least make an intensive study of travel material, maps, etc. But obviously in a thousand years the city as it is now would be completely obliterated, particularly since a catastrophic Dark Age has intervened. I do think books laid in the contemporary world ought to be accurate; if I don’t know the place, I just accept what’s stated as accurate, but I’m sure other people wouldn’t. And I do think that in SF scientific facts – things that aren’t going to change, like the behavior of terrestrial termites – ought to be accurate. Now, methods of space travel – that’s another matter. In that case, I think complete invention of fictional physics is justified, although it shouldn’t be so improbable as to fall in the realm of magic. If it is, then it’s fantasy and a whole different standard applies (that of remaining true to the facts of the world as one created it.)

    • Wow, your stories are way in the future, and that’s a great way of not worrying about current geography. I agree that you can’t change scientific facts, unless part of the story is that a discovery has been made which disproves a previously held belief, or whatever. I’m thinking about all of these things a lot at the moment in preparation for my first NaNoWriMo in November!

      • Just FYI, in my 30th century world, London (Lunden) is still located in exactly the same spot! Heathrow has become Old Heathero space Port, the Thames is the Tems (spellings have been phoneticized), and Great Britain itself has become known as the Islands of Britain (which includes all of Ireland, the Channel Islands, and all the British coastal islands.)

  9. I think you do need to be clear for the reader, so in your Kings Cross example you do need to be accurate otherwise you look silly. I’ve used artistic license for other areas such as houses. In my crime WIP the roads I mention are real, but the houses are my creation. I don’t think someone would take too kindly for me using their home for a bloodbath šŸ˜‰

    If in doubt and you want to create a place that you can fully control then make it up.

    • Yes, things like fictitious homes are fine, people would accept that wouldn’t they, but completely fabricated geography around real geography is unlikely to work, unless there’s a good reason for it.

      • You want the story to seem believable. Putting London just outside of Glasgow suggests you don’t know anything so reduces the appeal of the story.

        Don’t mess with geography!

  10. When I wrote my picture book, a biography, I was very concerned about getting all my facts just right. The only place where I took some liberties was with dialogue. My story took place more than 150 years ago and there was no record of what was said. Since my objective was (and is) to engage readers, I allowed them to be a fly on the wall and listen to the characters speak.

    • Your book is something in between a text book and a fictional story isn’t it – it’s a factual tale, but told as a story, so it would be expected that you shoud have your facts right. I also think it is accepted that dialogue might not be accurate in those type of stories – how many people back then wrote down their conversations? These days conversations and exchanges are recorded much more than ever before, if only though online interractions.

  11. I think it’s better to add your own fictional places to real places. I read a book that was set in the Cape Ann, Massachusetts area where the author had added some imaginary places and had her characters travel to nearby real places such as Rockport and Gloucester. There was a map at the beginning of the book to specify what was real and what was not.

    Usually if you set all your action in real places and make a mistake, someone invariably points it out. Better to be accurate first time around.

  12. I also enjoy stories set in the past that bend the facts in a way that everyone understands to be “fictional” such as the work of Eric Flint or Harry Turtledove. That said, we know those stories have elements that are made up. When reading a proper historical novel, creating a setting that’s as accurate as possible becomes an expectation. As a writer, the research is also fun to do šŸ™‚

  13. A good question.

    I think a good writer will go to some pains to make sure there’s nothing a native to an area would notice as jarring. So, using the Marigold street example, if the writer wanted to avoid real addresses but still use real places he might do something like this:

    Joe walked out of King’s Cross station and after a few minutes arrived at Marigold Street.

    There still might not be a Marigold Street, but (for me at least) by not being as specific I’m not mentally following a map. I’m just going, “OK, Marigold is kinda near King’s Cross.” Similarly, if a book takes place in DC (I’m in a ‘burb of it), somebody might “hop the metro to Riverside.” Riverside doesn’t exist, but I’m not giving it an exact place – so maybe it’s just a place I’m not familiar with. Either way, it doesn’t stop me if there’s a blur-line between the fact and fiction.

    I think also, that since place names CAN change, if you don’t give specific directions, people can kinda go “well, the name is new, maybe that means something,” and move on.

  14. Vanessa this is a great post! For myself, whenever I do a story, I take care to do my research. Unless I’m going to use the road later, I don’t say what what road my house is on. Then I can place it in the middle of New York City and describe them going to Grand Central Station or taking a taxi to the Empire State Building if I want. If I place the story in south Georgia for example, I mention the sharp saw palmetto fronds when I send my character out for a walk, or the pine trees. If I have them in New England I might have them think that the red maple leaves in the fall are the same color as candied apples. Someone living there who is reading my book will instantly know that color and be more comfortable with me. I find it exciting when an author accurately describes something from home, it’s like they’ve been there too and we’re sharing that thing.

    When I read something, the little details draw it in and make it real to me, just as much as the broader stuff. I will research the plant life local to an area so that I can describe. Maybe the general fall climate somewhere else so I can have my character see something that places them in the scene.

    I’ve noticed my favorite books (this is just me personally) tend to describe the local area quite well, placing the reader there in a unique way. Little details about the time period and the type of sideboard the china is kept it, or the rocks peeking up through the garden that you only get in areas that freeze hard in the winter. A little sentence here or there with these accurate details keep the reader in the scene and help them to forgive other things that might draw them out of the story, like is that street actually near the train depot or not. Sorry to take so long.

    • Thanks Neeks. I really like what you’re saying here about describing some of the detail of the area – I commented on your 100 word story last week about you paint a picture with your writing, and this very much fits in with that. It’s very effective and in this case can draw attention away from exact map accuracy on the geography!

  15. Oh and Happy Birthday last week!

  16. Most novelists will include a statement about their deviations from truth in factual elements. As a reader, I’m cool with that… they thought enough to tell us. It comes down to ‘I changed this for the sake of this story’.

    I’ve read Herman Wouks’ The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, somewhere over 2000 pages of novels. The historical context is right on and insightful.

    With my own work, there are things that need to be right, some that don’t. Things related to how a given country’s political system works is essential to the story, and I took much care with this element. With geography in this state, some of it exists and some is fictional. (And actually one common element across wholly different novels will be the same fictional town and college.)

    • Maybe it can become instictive to know which things you can change and which you can’t, depending on the story and the context. When people get the balance wrong it really stands out though doesn’t it, it’s something I worry about with my own writing!

  17. Lots of great answers here, so I’ll just add what I’m doing. When I use a real place, I keep it as accurate as possible. So I’m not going to take liberties with Washington, DC, in novels that are set in our universe and time. But I create fictional suburbs, for example, where other events can take more license.

    Of course, when events are taking place in an alternate universe, I’m free to blend familiar elements from ours with different settings. šŸ™‚

  18. I think when the story is fiction then it probably doesn’t really matter. I take the point that a geographical error (or similar) might be irritating or a piece of technology that wasn’t invented until after the period of the fiction piece might jar, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t affect the story it probably shouldn’t matter. It may be a little sloppy, but if the author doesn’t think it’s important enough to get right, then perhaps it doesn’t have to be.

    I think, rather than being bothered by turning right into Marigold Lane, I would feel comfortable with turning right into Euston road, as I can imagine what this is like. Because Marigold Lane is not accurate, perhaps it would need to be described more?

    • I suppose like anything, some people mind and some people don’t. I think for me, if I’m reading, and I know they have been innacurate about something for apparently no good reason, then it can give me the impression that the author hasn’t put much effort in, they just haven’t bothered to try and get things right, and that might make me feel like maybe I can’t be bothered to read it! As you say, maybe it doesn’t really matter in fiction, but I still think it’s worth the effort to be factually accurate as much as possible.

  19. Couple of things to add:
    Richard Leonard mentioned setting a book in a real town but not knowing it like a local; my commercial head suggests that the real inhabitants might be your best customers – people love books set in their locale, but hate it when it’s not pin-sharp accurate. So it might be worth a research visit (unless it’s the other side of the world) to encourage the local bookbuyers…

    The other thing is that research into subjects you know nothing about can lead you to subplots, twists, characters and sequels you never knew were possible. It’s fascinating following a thread of research and seeing where it takes you… It teaches you emphatically that life is so much weirder than fiction.

  20. I think I look at things the same way Beth does, I always assume that the write has done their research, but then like you if I happen to come across something that I know is wrong then that’ll irritate me.

    Personally, if I’m writing in a real place, say London, I tend to not mention street names & invent pubs as landmarks instead because otherwise I’d just spend all my time pouring over an A to Z! I wouldn’t be able to write in a street name that I knew was wrong though, I’d much rather just say that they turned left and not mention the road name! I do think it’s important to be as accurate as you can though, it would be a shame to ruin a story just because you missed a bit of ready before you started!

    Weirdly, last night I spent about 3 hours trying to work out how fast we would need to travel if we lived in a different solar system & wanted to get back to Earth. All because I had a vague idea that I might want to write a story set in space and I needed to know how we got there. After I’d typed all the sums into the calculator I had to ask someone for help because the number was so big I couldn’t read it! Even though I’m never going to use that fact in the story, I needed it in my own head otherwise I’d just be guessing the whole time and that would annoy me as a writer so I’m sure it would annoy a reader too! But them I’m a little bit obsessive about continuity, I can’t watch TV shows where things change in different episodes, it does my head in!

    • Yes, a lot of the research might not actually be used as such, but it helps the writing process for you to know these things.

      On the film Con Air, near the end when they crash down along the Las Vegas strip, it’s all wrong, they pass one casino and then pass another one which in reality is behind the first one, not in front of it, things like that – I lived in Las Vegas at the time and it ruined it for me when I could see that was all wrong! Unless you were very familiar with the layout of that area, you would never know anything was wrong, but I think film-makers, like writers, should start from the point of assuming that the readers/watchers are familiar with the area, or subject, being tackled.

  21. Accurate facts are vital to fiction, particularly when the real world is the setting, because they help sustain the suspension of disbelief. Look at the way Dan Brown has been ridiculed for his curious errors in Paris, Rome etc. Just kills the story. The kinds of facts needed are different from non-fiction, in that what’s required is the necessary nitty-gritty to tell an authentic story. Whereas non-fiction requires the facts needed to support whatever argument or topic is being presented – may be quite different from a story.

    In terms of artistic license, my take is that it’s probably necessary when the story intrudes over the real world in a way that requires it – for instance, where an author might otherwise be exposed to potential defamation for mis-representing a real person or company. The art to it is choosing the balance point between this kind of necessary creativity, and ending up with actual, or apparently egregious – mis-facts that kill the sense of reality for readers. One technique for that is to have strength of story, drawing the reader along.

    • Yes, I agree. Clearly different people have different opinions on how important factual accuracy is within fiction, but you’re right about that balance, and how it can kill the story when things are innacurate. Especially if there is no good reason for them to be innacurate but it is just because the author couldn’t be bothered to try and get it right. I don’t think there is a definitive answer though, it’s in the skill of the author to handle it sensitively and convincingly.

  22. A recent book about bestselling fiction (Hit Lit, by James W. Hall) found that facts are one of the things people look for in their fiction–that all of the bestsellers he examined (and many more besides) incorporated learning about a real topic of interest alongside a fictional storyline.

    Not sure I have much to add to the ideas above. My particular London is 14th century, so while it’s closely researched, it also gives me a fair amount of wiggle room. I’m relying on archaeological data as much as the current understanding of things, and some areas have not been subject to complete analysis. Sometimes, there are rumors or documents to support my fictional content, although the city has changed enough that we simply can’t know for sure what and who was where.

    I have threatened to add footnotes to the book, but will settle for putting my bibliography up on the website.

    The tricky bit, I find, is when your facts, as completely valid as they are, are, in fact, less convincing than the fiction. Nothing worse than having a beta reader call you on something that is true, but not believable. And simply saying “That really happened!” is not a good enough excuse. You have to blend your fact and fiction smoothly so that the one enhances the other.

  23. Great post, Vanessa!
    I love doing research, personally, but that’s likely just the English major in me: I love immersing myself in a culture (even if it’s one I sort of create), language, aspects of life of my characters. I also believe in getting the facts straight no matter what you’re writing, though fantasy fiction probably has the most leeway. It’s distracting when something is obviously wrong. And in this Internet age, there’s really no excuse for anyone not doing at least a little bit of research.
    For example, I once read a story that talked about Long Island being in “upstate New York”! Long Island is about as downstate as you can get!
    Other facts – like architecture – really should not be avoided, either. I don’t think an author needs to dwell on details unnecessary to the plot or characterizations, but he or she should know you take off your shoes when you enter a Japanese home, or how to use the London underground, or that you can’t surf when winds are onshore…again, unless it’s important to the story or characters.

  24. abbspepper “fantasy and SF authors can get away with much more because they can manipulate time and space to suit themselves.”

    As an SF writer myself I can accept that some things need to be completely made up. However, as in the comments above, things still have to be logical. For example, we do not (yet) have faster than light travel, but I still felt the need to look at all of the latest research and run with it (ended up with an Alcubierre Drive but had to make up a power source). Today I finished a short story set in Victorian London, for that I had to find the names of a number of streets, plus what army presence there would be on the Isle of Wight in 1796 for the back story.

    In another story I wanted my time traveller to meet two men on a train travelling to Cape Town in the 1930’s. I had documentary evidence that they were on the train, but, as one was black and one white, I wasn’t sure they could travel together. I found a scanned copy of a research paper on South African railways from the 1980s, from that I got the name of the Professor, that led to me registering on Linked-in so I could get his email, and then he confirmed that the rules were often bent in those days. I could have just assumed it, but it would be bugging me forever!

    Another thing that I like is to use actual quotations if possible: for example, in the past, I have reworded Adolph Hitler as an A.I., Josiah Gumede (on the train) and today Karl Marx. I couldn’t believe how well the Marx quotes fit!

    “capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.ā€

    and

    “The very cannibalism of the system will convince the nations that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.ā€ Although I substituted the word “counterrevolution” with “system” to meet the needs of the story.

    I can write without research but afterwards it can feel like I’m poking a cavity in a tooth with my tongue!

    • It sound like you’re very thorough with your research Dennis, and I’m sure you’re writing is all the better for it.

      I feel bad here because people are leaving extensive comments, and I don’t have much to say in return! Ah well…

  25. Great post. I love doing research, and often I go overboard and put too much in my early drafts. Revisions ultimately have me weeding through and discarding more than half of the factual info I put in. I have found that most people these days don’t want to be bogged down by heavy facts in the kind of book I’m writing (mainstream fiction). So, I end up keeping only the most visual and important of facts.

    My novel is set in New Hampshire–a real place–but the town where my protags live is fictional. Yet, I describe the setting (a coastal town) with details that one would find in any real life coastal town in New Hampshire. I kept the seasons accurate as well as the landscape and the culture. But that’s where I stopped with facts.

    I wanted readers to be able to generally pinpoint themselves with the overall place (New England as opposed to the Deep South), but I did not want to box myself in with a real town because I like the flexibility of arranging my town how I need it for the story.

    • Thanks Kate. I can imagine the temptation to include too much factual information in a novel after doing a lot of research. It’s all about balance. I like how you tackle a fictitious place within a real place and incorporate things that are typical to the area.

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