During the years when I was teaching physiology at the university level and conducting blood vessel research it went without saying that I had to lecture and write with scrupulous accuracy. Facts had to be referenced, nothing could be made up, speculation had to be so stated. My textbook, Neurophysiology, took five years to write and had to stand review by professional peers for its accuracy.
So when I started writing fiction, I thought, okay, I’m free from all that now and I can just make it up. What could be easier? Boy, was I wrong. Of course, had I thought it through, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d read enough novels to recognize the importance of facts in fiction. I knew that stories take place against the backdrop of places and times that I knew to be true. Readers recognize the importance of facts in fiction and become more deeply involved in the story because of them. It’s a mistake for the author to assume that errors in these background facts don’t matter.
The facts a fiction writer generally has to concern himself with are those related to time, place, and established history. If, for example, you’re reading an account of a fictitious WWII American army patrol operating in the North African desert during Operation Torch, the author better not put them there before November 8, 1942, the actual date of the American Invasion. If you’re knowledgeable of this period of history you’ll immediately be put off by this lack of accuracy. Or, if a mystery novel takes place in Spain and the author describes Madrid as being located just south of Granada, he’s making a big mistake and many readers will catch it.
So even though the storyline and characters are fiction, there are parts of the narrative that have to be true. Readers will demand it. Authors can make up their characters and adventures, but whenever the actions of those characters come up against known places or historical events the author has to be mindful of the importance of facts in fiction and be careful to get them right.
Good fiction writers are able to draw us in so we’re totally immersed in the time and place of the story by accurately describing the setting and giving it a feeling of reality. Without this kind of description the story has a superficial feel to it and lacks depth. Michael Connelly’s character Harry Bosch is brought to life against the gritty but accurately described background of Los Angeles? And Robert B. Parker’s character, Spenser, operates in a Boston familiar to those who live there. The more accurate and vivid the setting, the more likely we are to become engrossed in the story and care about the characters.
So fiction writers are constantly in mind of the importance of facts in fiction and the need to get them right. But here’s the upside. They get the benefit of bringing their story to life as well as learning things they didn’t know before. I knew very little about particle physics before writing my mystery novel, Unholy fire. I also knew little about the international funeral business before writing my latest mystery novel, Final Care. Every story I write is an adventure in learning. My imagination frees me to write the story but the facts bring it to life by grounding it in reality.