Saturday, 29 June 2013

How far should accuracy go in literature?

When writing a book a certain degree of research is necessary. When writing a book in the genre of historical fiction an awful lot of research is necessary. The question is; how accurate should you be in your depiction of the facts that?

I have mentioned preciously that the author Bernard Cornwell once said that a writer should not let the facts get in the way of a good story. I have also mentioned that I agree with this statement. The point is that when you are writing story that is what you are writing; a piece of fiction. Not an academic study, not a treatise on a particular incident; you are writing fiction!

Of course if you want the readers of a particular genre to like what you write then there has to be a degree of accuracy in the facts as you present them. The actual percentage of accuracy is not written down anywhere, it is something that you have to figure out for yourself.

Does it really matter?

Let’s look briefly at two case studies. First Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’, a very popular book based on the exploits of a British Royal Navy captain’s adventures during the Napoleonic Wars.
O’Brian’s knowledge of the nautical culture of 19th century ships was impressive and every page is full of technical references to ‘sheet’ and ‘yards’ and ‘beams’ etc. My knowledge is actually pretty limited, so when I came to read this book I quickly found myself thumbing to the back in the expectation of finding a lexicon of naval terms – only there wasn’t one. I found myself trying to figure out what each term meant; which slowed my reading down and ultimately left me feeling frustrated when I got to the end of the book.

It was okay having all this wonderful detail but the author had failed to consider that one or more of his readers might not have the knowledge that would have made it plain sailing. In this instance I found that the facts got in the way of the story.

Second; Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. A very popular technological thriller exploring the very original idea of cloning dinosaurs from preserved DNA.

Michael Crichton studied medicine and had a good background in science but his most famous book suffers from poor research. The Velociraptors that he wanted to use were actually too small to play the part but there was another dinosaur that fitted the role much better but it was called Deinonychus; Chricton simply used swapped them over but kept the name Velociraptor.

Another famous, or should that be ‘infamous’, oversight concerned the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which in novel is stated as having eye sight that responded to movement. Crichton had seen a paper from a young palaeontologist who had rushed his research into print claiming just this fact but it was later refuted by senior scientists. The idea suited Crichton’s story, however, so he left it in.

In contrast to Patrick O’Brian’s novel anyone without much prior knowledge of dinosaurs could read and enjoy Jurassic Park without any trouble whatsoever; the same cannot be said for anyone who did, however.
I think this illustrates what I mean about accuracy being a balancing act.

As a writer I think that there is an ethical obligation to get the core facts of your story right. Essentially, whatever you are writing about, almost irrespective of genre, should be accurate to the degree that the reader can have confidence in you knowing your stuff. That is not to say that every single reference, every statement by every character, every line you write, has to be dripping with authenticity, because that would turn your story into an academic tome. It would also mean that you would have to find some way of explaining to the uninitiated reader each and every esoteric term, which would slow the story down immensely. Also, I think the reader also has an obligation when commencing a book to be able to suspend their factual belief to a certain degree as well. A novel is not wrong just because it presents an event in a slightly different fashion to how historians present it, for example, it is just offering an alternative interpretation of the events in, hopefully, an interesting way. As long as they key facts remain unchanged, such as in my work on 1066 where none of the major events change in anyway but where the agents of certain actions, whether fictional or historical personages, might differ from those recorded.

In other words, what I am saying is that there is a need to respect those facts that are germane to your subject matter and there is an option to gently alter others so as to make your story all the more exciting, all the more readable, and all the more believable to your reader.

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