Friday, September 16, 2011

Fact or Fiction?

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Authors sometimes get confused about our insistence on “factual accuracy” in our stories, while we are also agreeing with them that this is fiction. Are these conflicting requirements, are editors talking out of both sides of their mouths? No. There are two primary parts or elements of a romance story, and they have different expectations and requirements.

The relationship—romantic/sexual/emotional—is the FICTION part. People read romance and erotic romance for jolts of emotion and sexual titillation. Readers know that what is depicted in this element of the story is not in any way a match for real-life relationships. Uh, a guy who can get it up five times a night, every night? Men who instinctively know what a woman is thinking and exactly the right thing to say or do to meet her emotional needs? People who recognize their mate within minutes and are irrevocably in love, talking about commitment for life? Now, c’mon. In reality, you’d give that relationship/marriage about a zilch chance of lasting. And those uber-alpha heroes that we swoon over in books? We all know if we met a real guy like that, we’d probably kill him within days—or have him arrested for stalking, abuse, kidnapping… But in a romance story, we happily buy into the relationship and HEA that would be unbelievable in real life. We know that it is fiction, but it satisfies an emotional need for us, so we are willing to play along.

But then there is the story itself—the setting, background, plot actions, historical and geographical details, the science/legal/medical/law enforcement information. That is the FACT in the story, that is what must be real and accurate and true-to-life. (Assuming the story isn't fantasy or alternate reality, of course.) Otherwise, readers think very negatively of the author (and by extension, the publishing company), and are likely to speak up about it. You can’t have zippers in ancient Egyptian clothing, trains or the Underground in Regency London, sites on a hunting rifle in the 18th century, turkey and corn at a meal in medieval Europe. You can’t cross over the border from Canada to Mexico. If your hero suffers a serious gunshot wound, it’s going to take months of recovery and rehabilitation. Tests based on crime-scene evidence or DNA takes weeks to months to process, not a few hours. If you have cops, lawyers, or medical personnel in your story, you had better either be in that profession yourself or have researched the hell out of it and have every detail and character action right and justifiable. Beyond facts, people’s actions and reactions have to make sense, they have to be what could “really happen”, not something that any reader would say “No one would ever do that!” And don’t think readers won’t recognize the errors. Lots of them are in the professions or places you depict. And everyone else has seen it on TV. Yes, CSI is all wrong, it’s fiction, don’t copy from that for your story. But other court, crime and history shows have taught people how things really work and they will spot the “I can’t suspend disbelief enough” inaccuracies in your story.

So yes, we—as both editors and readers—expect that you as author will stick to the facts when writing fiction.

So, what unfactual “facts” have driven you crazy in a romance novel? All those examples I gave above are things I’ve actually seen in submissions or published books.


Renee Silvana said...

As a scientifically-minded person, it frustrates me beyond belief when an author gets something incorrect but uses that "fact" as a major part of the story line. Even more than that, I can't stand when something is presented as scientific in a paranormal story but it's written off as being "too complicated" or "just a mystery." It makes me feel like either the writer doesn't understand it enough to describe it (just making it sound very convenient), or they think I'm too dumb to understand it.

Barbara Elsborg said...

I read a book where the murder-mystery all revolved round a mobile phone text. It was set at a time when mobiles were in their infancy and the size of bricks, but the author had teenagers using them - and impoverished ones at that. At the end of the book, she'd put in a comment saying - she knew mobiles weren't in wide use at the time but for the purposes of making the book more up to date, she'd included them.
Since the story involved one of the characters spending years and years in prison with the story starting after he came out - I think it was cheating to do what she did and I'd never read another book by her. I did wonder if after it had been published, someone had pointed the fact out and that caveat had been added later. She's a well known author but that was a step too far.

Anonymous said...

My pet peeve is when a fictional character writes a book (which only seems to take a couple of weeks) and that book gets published and becomes a bestseller within weeks. Just to up the peeve factor the book is then turned into a film, and just a few weeks after the book is published - the film is out!

You would think authors would really know better!

Tahlia Newland said...

It wasn't a romance, but it was a novel. The author had written about paddy fields in Tibet. Dah! It's too cold up there for rice, they grow barley as their staple.

Maybe most people reading the book wouldn't know, but it blew something for me.I then wondered whether the descriptions of the other places were true or not too. It would have been a simple matter for the author to have checked.

Aerinah said...

Sadly, I found a terrible mistake in a book by one of my favorite erotic fiction authors. The story relies a bit on genetics and the science of artificial insemination, and in one passage the author describes a process of sorting "sperm with double X chromosomes" from "sperm with both X and Y chromosomes". I was absolutely horrified to see this - 5 minutes on Google will show anybody that each sperm contributes only one X OR Y to a baby, while the other X comes from the mother. It didn't completely ruin the book for me - luckily, this author is otherwise amazing - but I was surprised, annoyed, and disappointed that no one caught this before publication.