You got your fact in my fiction! (I got my fiction in your fact!)

In the comments to my recent Wayward Time Traveler column on time travel stories, one of the books I recommended was criticized for “containing some of the most horrendous historical gaffes ever committed to print”. The book in question was Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear and the only gaffe sited was that “character takes a trip on a rail line that wasn’t opened for 30-odd years.” As I mentioned over there, I don’t know that I would consider this one of the most horrendous historical gaffes ever committed to print, but I can see how it might annoy or frustrate a reader.

The comments on the post about Blackout/All Clear got me thinking about the role of fact in fiction, as well as the role of fiction in “facts” within a story.

I recall reading Dan Brown’s most recent novel, The Lost Symbol and discovering the characters being chased out of the the tunnel at the King Street station in Alexandria, Viriginia:

By the time Turner Simkins dashed down to join his men, the subway platform had been entirely cleared, and his team was fanning out, taking up positions behind the support pillars that ran the length of the platform. A distant rumble echoed in the tunnel at the other end of the platform, and it is grew louder, Simkins felt the push of stale warm air bellowing around him.

The problem here is that–as anyone who lives near Alexandria knows–there is no tunnel.  You don’t go “down” into the subway. King Street station is above ground; is, in fact, an elevated metro station. When I read this in the novel, it pulled me momentarily out of the story. (Long enough at least for me to make a note of it on the Kindle version, which is why it was so easy for me to find the passage above.) It was a factual error in a piece of fiction. For someone who lives in the metropolitan Washington area, it was more than a minor gaffe, but for most readers, I imagine, it went unnoticed.

I think factual errors in fiction are probably more common than we realize, and even when we notice them, we tend to chalk them up to continuity errors that we sometimes see in movies and TV shows. (Hey, the persons shirt was blue in the previous shot and now it is red!) But I also think that the importance of facts in fiction depend on the story that is being told. I can think of a few different types of stories in which facts play important roles.

  1. Hard science fiction
  2. Historical fiction
  3. Mysteries in which the facts are important to the solution

I’m sure there are others, but let me start with these three. In hard science fiction stories, the facts as pertaining to the science of the story are paramount. If you get the science wrong, you are done. It is fine to make reasonable assumptions based on what we know the facts to be, but to postulate a perpetual motion machine, for instance, without a sound scientific basis would be deadly in a hard science fiction story.

In historical fiction, the historical facts tend to be important. While Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear is clearly science fiction (time travel) it is also a piece of historical fiction that takes place in London during the Blitz. One would expect the major historical facts to be accurate and to hold together well enough so that the reader is not pulled out of the story by something more than a minor gaffe. In mysteries, one would expect the facts and clues that are delivered to be consistent and to fit into their places. A deux ex machina in a mystery does not work very well.

But where does a reader draw the line between a minor gaffe and a “horrendous” gaffe when it comes to the fact in their fiction?

I can only speak for myself, but I can tend to overlook minor gaffes. They might pull me out of the story momentarily, but if the story is well-written and generally self-consistent, then I am willing to accept little mistakes the same way that I am willing to accept them when I am watching TV shows. (As a former long-time resident of Los Angeles, I can’t tell you how many times I will see a car chase on a TV show where in one shot, a car is racing down a street in the west San Fernando Valley, and in the next shot, it turns a corner in Hollywood.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that there are probably plenty of little gaffes that I don’t even know are gaffes. I loved Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear–indeed it was the first book that I ever voted for the Nebula–and it won! I’m sure I read about the rail line in question, but not being from the UK, and not being an expert on British rail schedules, I would never have known that the line in question was not in existence. The real question is: if I had known, how would I have reacted? I like to think I would have done what I have done in the past: sent the author a letter telling her how much I loved her book, and adding something like, “I must say, as a resident of Alexandria, I was amused to find that you changed the King Street Metro from an above ground station, to a below-ground one–a change for the better perhaps in the heart of winter…” But beyond that, I’m not sure it would bother me that much. I certainly don’t believe it is the reader’s responsibility to seek out and identify all these gaffes.

Large factual errors can be problematic and spoil a story, but I am hard-pressed to think of a story that I have ever read where the facts where do distorted that I could not finish the story. The kind of things that bother me are of a different nature, and even then the story-telling can often negate any issues with the facts of the piece. For example, I was reading Clifford Simak’s “Sunspot Purge” in the November 1940 Astounding the other day. It is a time-travel story where a newspaperman takes a time machine 500 years into the future. The time machine happens to be in an airplane and I was a little bothered by the fact that the newspaperman just happened to know how to fly an airplane. But it was only a minor annoyance, and perhaps I am overly sensitive to it because I used to be a private pilot.

The bottom line here is that we are talking about fiction. The story is made up. Beyond that, Connie Willis’ novel is a time travel story in which the historians are stuck in the past, and some of the events don’t seem to be happening the way the history books are recorded. In that case, who’s to say that the rail line in question isn’t one of the changes made because of the nature of time travel. (I doubt Willis had this in mind, but still…) A story whose setting is in London during the Blitz should be reasonably consistent with the historical facts. This consistency helps the story to feel real. But little things don’t bother me, especially when I didn’t realize they were errors to begin with.

As a writer, I believe it is important to do your best to make the facts accurate and self-consistent in the story. My friend and fellow science fiction writer Michael A. Burstein has written about this. Connie Willis spent something like 7 years researching her novel. There are bound to be little mistakes, but the vast majority of the story felt–to me at least–very authentic. I felt like I lived through the Blitz. In my own fiction, I am careful to try and vet the facts in the story. After I sold my most recent story to Analog, I remember Bud Sparhawk talking on a panel at Capclave about how one small error in an Analog story will generate a ton of mail. Well, since my story has appeared, the only mail that I’ve gotten has been positive, although one reviewer found a problem with my characters roaming around the surface of Mercury–a factual issue that I probably didn’t clarify enough.

But again, this is fiction. Stephen King is a master of developing rich, believable settings, many of which are in Maine, none of which are real. Is he to be derided for being factually inaccurate? Not at all. It’s part of the game we play as fiction writers and readers. And it is a game. We are suspending our disbelief in order to be entertained. It is the writer’s job to make it as easy as possible for us to suspend our disbelief, but for me as a reader, not every fact has to be perfect so long as the story itself is self-consistent and well-told.

When you see a factual error in your fiction, how do you handle it? How much does it bother you?

10 thoughts on “You got your fact in my fiction! (I got my fiction in your fact!)

  1. Interesting that you mentioned Stephen King. Many years ago I received a brief response from him when I wrote pointing out a minor anachronism in one of his books.

  2. The answer, as always, it depends.

    I think it depends on how invested I am in the fact that is wrong.

    Let me give you an example: The movie Night at the Museum annoys me no end because the layout of the AMNH is wrong, wrong, wrong. There are a couple of rooms from “real life” and everything else is imaginary. I know the layout intimately, and the wrongness bugs me.

    If I am less invested in the wrong fact, or if its not egregious, then I will take note of the mistake but not be so irrationally upset. the Universe of a book, movie, or other media is not our universe.

  3. Reasonably gracious. He said thanks and that I was the umpteenth person to point out the error. (He had mentioned a song on the radio that hadn’t come out until after the year of the novel.)

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a factual error that put me off reading a book. I’ll notice issues if I know enough about the subject, but if everything else is well-done it doesn’t really bother me.

  5. Golden Eagle, I think we are of the same mind. I might get touchy about something (like the King Street metro) but it typically doesn’t diminish the story for me if it is well-done.

  6. The novel was _Christine_, which was published in 1983 but set in 1977. I don’t remember for sure, but I think the song was Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” which came out in 1978.

    In this case, the error was minor enough that it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. Your example of the King Street Station, however, probably would nag at me.

  7. A good point, Jamie. A fictional world can’t hold up if it isn’t based on facts ( or consistent lies). I was writing about some secret passages in my local library for a novel. I went back to get some other details and the staff let me take some research photos of the secret passage…. I realized it’s in a completely different part of the building than I remember. Sometimes as a writer it’s easy to make mistakes even about facts you think you know.

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