Friday, August 12, 2011

Accuracy in Art: Detail in Fiction

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” -Picasso

I just spent two hours trying to find the right one-way street in downtown L.A. for the swing dancing club my characters discover. It needed to be busy with lots of big buildings around, a convenience store or gas station around the corner, and... well, I really wanted the building to have a mustard yellow door.

LOL. Why did I want to find a real place like this when I could have just made one up?

I have no idea. Actually, I do. It has something to do with Forks.

I came to the conclusion at about 3 o' clock this morning that it doesn't matter as much as I thought it did at 1:00am. Sure, some degree of realism is cool because it makes the reader feel like they could really be there. Like the cranky train guy in Harry Potter when Harry's like, "Where's platform nine and three quarters?" You gotta have a cranky train guy.

I think sleep deprivation may have had something to do with my decision to spend so much time on something so trivial, but it's also that I'm hearing all the time that we should make things as real as possible, when, really, it's probably safer for everyone involved if we make more things up.

After all, authors have been sued for making a real place of business the scene of a fictional murder. And who knows if whatever dance club I eventually might have found (in another five hours of research) even wanted to host my underage characters for a night of raucous swing-dancing and spirit-whisperering. (It's complicated.)

So maybe realism is a bit overrated. Monet was pretty popular. Some people even like Picasso. And awesome writers like Dan Brown and Vince Flynn always lose me when they start giving me a Google-esque lesson on stealth plane engine components or White House floor plans. Just saying.

What details do you think an author really should verify in a fictional tale? And what things are we better off just dreaming?

(random bold-type brought to you by 3 in the morning)


  1. I think anything that is critical to the plot line and resolution needs to be researched and 100% accurate. For example, a small detail in my book has to do with Crows. Crows and Ravens both have a tie in mythology that is similar as astral beings. However, crows are more neutral, and ravens are a bit darker of a myth. I needed to use something that was more neutral and less evil, so I went with crows in my book. And because their nesting habits play a big part in the book (sounds boring, doesn't it, lol? It isn't, I promise!), I need to work the setting around their nesting times and locations. If I got this wrong, the whole book's resolution would fall apart.

    So, a small detail, but one I had to make everything else fit into for accuracy's sake.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    (edited to add: my word verification is 'nests'! how ironic!)

  2. LOL I've done that before also. And I agree with both you and Angela. I think we are okay making up more than we think we can but at the same time, like a street where a scene takes place maybe. But there are some things that should be as accurate as possible. Being a reader (and writer) of historical fiction, I always try to get my historical facts as accurate as possible.

    If I were reading a book set in the early 1800s and the MC threw up into a toilet bowl, I'd be all up in arms (because indoor toilets weren't in use then and yes, I've spent a lot of time researching toilets LOL)

    But yes, there are some "facts" that we can fudge and it's taken me a while to grasp that ...I still have trouble sometimes :D

  3. I think events and technology that are part of history should be accurate, as well as anything medical which might give a reader bad advice. But as far as locations, I want that to be vague. I want description so I can visualize it without hearing a name that might be associated with a bad impression and ruin the moment for me. Yeah, I'm a little weird. I prefer people make up a town name rather than use an existing one.

  4. I thought you meant Forks, Washington at first. It's a small town in a big book.

    Anyway, I don't think this is crazy at all. I mean I know it's kind of a small detail, but researching things gives you authority, and that's important in storytelling.

  5. Matt, Bingo! Forks, Washington. That was the first time it was brought to my attention that a book I read was based in a real town with real counterpart places.

    It's totally ruined me. See above about two wasted hours. :)

  6. Lol yeah, I know how this is. I was searching everywhere for the setting for my epic fantasy. I wanted to be at least partially historically accurate, but I was creating an entire Kingdom. I researched for days and days and finally settled on a set of islands just north of Scotland called the Orkney Islands. They are gorgeous, and oddly enough a lot of their folklore lines up directly with the magic in my book. It's like my book actually did happen there. But am I ever saying "these are now called the Orkney Islands"? No.

    The other nice thing about them is that there's not a whole lot of early documented history. My story takes place around 300 AD, but the Romans didn't get as far as the islands. Still, if you read carefully enough, you'll see that the Mainland Kingdoms are concerned about the Southern invaders. So I threw in a bit of historical accuracy ;)

  7. Wow. I feel inadequate: I do NO research for anything I'm writing and just make it up. Except for when I'm writing about my life on my blogs. But the fiction stuff I do is pure imagination. I suppose it'd be different if the realism mattered, but I honestly don't care if people think "Hey, those two casinos in Las Vegas aren't right next to each other."

  8. Tiff, it's awesome when things like up like that! Briane, can I borrow your attitude until I finish this WIP? Totally need a dose of "doesn't matter."

    Angela, I love that you did so much research to make your mystic symbolism more genuine. That's actually one of things I admire about JK Rowling. Sirius, part of Canus Major, a big black dog. Awesome. I think what I love about that kind of research in writing is that it doesn't have to be explained. People can look it up if they want that extra layer.

    Michelle, I absolutely LOVE that you know so much about toilets! And I'll remember that tidbit in case I ever write something set in the 1800s.

    Christi, such a great point about real places having stigma attached to them. Fictional towns have no such problem.

    I'm learning a lot! Thanks, guys!

  9. I agree what the comments about the need for accuracy. I'm writing a YA fantasy book with a medieval-ish setting. Although I'm writing about a made-up place, I still need to research horses, bridles, blacksmiths, trees, woodcutting, etc. I need to know how far a horse can physically go in one day before fatigue sets in. Why? Because astute readers will comment on these things. They know when you don't do your homework. Even if I don't use some of the facts I've culled through research (and I'm trying not to info dump), I at least need to know them.

    BTW: Katrina, Tiffany, and Angela, your WIPs sound really interesting. Also, Michelle, I had to laugh about your toilet research, since I did a bit of that myself (not throwing up in toilets per se, but reading about them).

  10. I've definitely researched some detail only to realize fake would be better. But I think that anything that needs to follow the laws of reality should be researched, while places, in general, can be fudged a bit. But yeah, I can't see a hard fast rule, you have to go with your gut, I guess.


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