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Words to the Wise

Is It Important to Get It Right in Fiction?

Fiction is about imagination and invention. As readers and writers, we marvel at the creativity of a Tolkien, an Atwood and a Clancy, writers who take us places we might never imagine on our own, delve deep into characters we might never otherwise meet, portray situations we have long been curious about but might never be a part of. Their talent for pure storytelling draws us in and keeps us there even when the soup is boiling over on the stove.

But what about those things in a story that don't ring true, those details we know something about but the writer—apparently—doesn't. Suddenly, and to our disappointment, we step out of the story and back into the kitchen, and our enjoyment of the place we have just been is interrupted.

I recently edited an early draft of a novel set in the 1950s, a dark and gritty page-turner, with complex characters and heart-wrenching events. When I got to the courtroom scene, I was surprised to find the accused rapist giving evidence for the prosecution, effectively convicting himself. I wondered: Does the writer not know how a criminal charge is proven in our legal system? Is she not aware of the basic rights of an accused person?

In addition, there were pivotal events—a divorce and remarriage, an adoption—that could not have happened in the way they were portrayed, and a critical 9-1-1 call made at a time and place before the 9-1-1 system had been implemented.

When I pointed these out to the writer, she said, "Do most people know this? I have a Ph.D. and I didn't." What she was really asking me was, does it matter?

Yes, it does.

In the tributes to novelist Tom Clancy, who died last week, a recurring theme was the depth and care of his research into the military scenes he created. According to the New York Times, the novel that brought him to fame, The Hunt for Red October, was so accurate that high-ranking members of the military thought he had inside knowledge and asked him, "Who the hell cleared it?" Clancy himself said, "I hang my hat on getting as many things right as I can."

Now, I'm not saying that accuracy is everything. If Clancy's stories were boring or badly written, we wouldn't know his name. But combine red-hot storytelling with deep research into interesting things and you have a winner—and Clancy won, to the tune of tens of millions of devotees over a thirty-year writing career and a net worth of $300 million.

Accuracy matters. You want your readers to stay with you, immersed deep in your stories—even while the soup burns.

Julie Bosman, "Tom Clancy, Best-Selling Master of Military Thrillers, Dies at 66," New York Times, October 2, 2013.

And take a look at this article and the comments following it:

James Scott Bell, "How Important Is Research and Authenticity in Fiction?" Kill Zone: Insider Perspectives from Today’s Hottest Thriller and Mystery Writers, June 9, 2013.

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