Putting Facts in Your Fiction
You hear a version of these comments a thousand times from writers: A reader sent me an e-mail saying I got the name of the cross street wrong in their town. Or maybe it’s: A fan said people didn’t have that type of phone in the Eighties when my story takes place. Or how about: A chef wouldn’t make an omelet that way. Or: Cops don’t work that way.
Here’s a Fact of Life: Nitpickers are out there.
Here’s a way to deal with them: DON’T Ignore them…But don’t let them get you down, either.
The 21st Century has given us many great tools to use to avoid the nitpickers in our lives. MapQuest and Google Maps will show you the streets in towns you are writing about. The satellite version will show you what the place actually looks like.
When I was writing one of the stories in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series, I was describing a hotel along South Beach in Miami. I made up the name of the hotel, but I wanted that location. I assumed (big mistake) there would be hotels or shops on both sides of the street. When I looked at MapQuest and actually “got down on the street” in their Street View Mode, I looked to the left and saw the hotel I was using and then to my right. Instead of other shops or restaurants or more hotels, I saw the beach and the ocean. Very glad I looked.
I did the same thing when Johnny went to Mexico and even Marrakech, Morocco. They didn’t have Google or MapQuest for Marrakech, but some wonderful guy had his cell phone video of his bus trip through the city posted on a travel site. I got to “ride along” with him and see the sights without buying an airline ticket or getting all those shots.
I know several writers who make up their towns. I did that for Logjam, California, the place where Johnny Casino starts out in my three-book series. I drew a detailed map. I know where his house is, and the restaurant he frequents is, and where the Mafia lodge is. It’s no longer just in my imagination. I have a map.
As for using the right phone or anything else in a period piece, whether it be ten years ago or a hundred, do some research. Something I do is watch a movie either made during that era or one that covers that era. The studio set designers are often very good at their job.
If you are writing a cooking mystery or literary fiction that requires your character to make an omelet, for goodness sake, learn how to make an omelet. You don’t want to cheat your audience. Most craft-related mysteries are written by writers who actually know their crafts. And often the techniques or even recipes are half the reason people read those types of books. If you don’t know that information, ask somebody who does or watch a cooking or craft show.
Now police procedures and jargon is something else. Some “police procedural” books are way too technical to be interesting, just like mysteries that feature a lot of legal lingo or medical techniques. Unless the information sets the scene for the story you’re telling like Dick Francis does in his novels, pare down the information.
In my latest books, The SPYGAME Trilogy, I use a lot of history to tell the stories. The books take place during World War II, the Vietnam era, and the Hollywood Left trials. Since these are practically ancient history to people younger than forty, I added a good deal of facts just to set the stage, plus I introduced real people into the stories. I have my main character, Robert Mackenzie, work with not only “Wild Bill” Donovan, the first head of the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, but also Ian Fleming who really did work with Donovan.
During the Hollywood years depicted in my books, I have a few real movie stars make a guest appearance as well as the ones I made up. But I did my homework. In Star Power, I learned what kind of movies were being made, both anti-war and those wanting America to join the fight. As fate would have it, those movies were showing up on television while I was writing the books. That’s research I love doing.
But there was another element I added to these stories; something that I have included in a few other of my novels: FACTS FROM MY OWN LIFE. My father was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew the Owen Stanley Hump in Papua, New Guinea, during the WWII. I relocated the character I based on him, Ralph Barton, for a portion of the story and had him fly a mission over Hamburg. That’s the fiction part.
I have used a few people I know in my books, but most of the time I changed their names slightly, just to keep it fictional. Most of the actual names of real historical people like Bill Donovan or even Ian Fleming are used strictly because I admired them. Since there is nothing libelous in the story about them, I don’t worry about anybody getting upset. And people I don’t like never appear in my books. Why give them any ink when I wouldn’t give them the time of day in real life. (Rhetorical question) And my fictional bad guys get their comeuppance; something that doesn’t necessarily happen in the real world.
I thought it was fun to work within a time frame of actual historical events as I wrote the spy novels. The only deviation was when I mentioned one of my characters, Elaine Barton, a writer, taking acting lessons from Rudy Solari and Guy Stockwell to learn how to write dialogue for her screenplays. I took those lessons myself, but in a different year than the story relates.
I actually worked as a private detective for a while and use bits and pieces of that life in both the spy novels and my Gin Caulfield P.I. Series: Media Justice, Hedge Bet, and Damning Evidence.
There is just something about mixing fact with fiction that makes me feel like I am creating an alternative universe. I guess I have gotten to know these characters so well, I see them as one big, happy family. In fact (or fiction), Gin Caulfield taught Johnny Casino the private detective trade and her uncle is Robert Mackenzie, the master spymaker. My world indeed.
14 thoughts on “Fact vs. Fiction with G.B. Pool”
Hooray – finally a reasoned discussion on a subject that affects so many writers. In writing an historical fiction series set in early 20th century Bohemia, I must always balance the history with the fiction. I’ve found little (in English) in my research, so I interpret or fictionalize a great deal of information. I’m sure others have had similar experiences. Some nitpickers will find fault, but I feel as long as writers avoid any glaring inaccuracies or anachronisms, the story will be plausible. I’m not looking to write history, but weave fact, fiction, and personal experience into a compelling read.
I thought of your journey with Luska while I was writing this piece. I do find mixing fact with fiction brings the writing to life because there is always that thought by the reader: How much of this is true? And it does allow us writers to put pieces of ourselves into the story. Books really are part of who we are.
Great information and suggestions, Gayle. And you do it so well in your own books and stories. I love how you use Google Earth! And who would have thought of going to a travel site to find a home-made personal video of a ride through a foreign town?
I personally like fictional towns and enjoy drawing the maps to go with them. It's what I did for my children's mystery Molly Duncan and the Missing Kitten, and the other serialized stories. And if you draw enough places, you can revisit the town with many stories to follow.
I enjoy reading police and legal mysteries, but as you said… you'd better know your stuff or it will come off phony. Michael Connelly does both well, with his Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series.
Thanks! You are a good teacher.
Drawing a map of a fictional town makes sense. It would prevent a lot of continuity errors. I will try that.
Jackie, I remember your Molly Duncan stories and you did paint a pretty good picture of that small town. Kate Thornton does the same thing with her Cookie Sullivan stories and the outer space locales she describes. I could walk some of those fictional streets.
A map of one's fictional or even factual locale really does help the writer know where the characters are. And if you can see the place in your head, you can more easily get that down on paper.
An alternative universe–I love that term! And I like your map a lot, too.
As an occasional nitpicker, I have to say I have NEVER found an inaccuracy in your books, so if there are any, the writing overshadowed them. However, I noticed in an award-winning book of literary fiction that the author got the geography wrong when describing a trip to Forest Lawn; she put Mt. Sinai before Forest Lawn when approaching from the west. I know from experience it's the other way around. That error pulled me right out of the story.
My current work in progress begins in 1968, and even though I lived through that time, my memory has faded so that I had to do a ton of research: what year did the Chevy Bel Air come out? What movies were in vogue then? Thank goodness for the internet, the library, and the L.A. Times archives.
However, you have given me an even better tool: watch movies set in the time period I'm writing about. I never thought of that (duh!) Combining research and pleasure–genius idea, GB. Great post, and thanks for all the tips.
It is amazing what research tools we have now with the Internet and old movies. Funny that old movies are now from the 60s as well as the 40s. But there is information everywhere. I got info on the B24 from a guy in Australia by going to a B24 website. You won't believe how much good information is out there in the ether.
“The HISTORIAN will tell you what happened. The NOVELIST will tell you what it felt like.” ~~~ E.L.Doctorow, in Time Magazine.
I just saw this and thought it was germane to this blog post!
Excellent quote. And timely.
Love Jackie Houchin's quote. It's absolutely perfect!
Great post, Gayle, thoughtful, FACT based, and everything you said is so right on, and will help me with my FICTION.(smile) My way of saying I really liked it. All your fictional characters are so real, I forget they are fictional. My favorite is Johnny Casino. Love your alternate universe…
The best writing classes will tell you that if you the writer know your character, so will your reader. Write a biography of him or her. Know who your character is, where he came from and what he likes or hates. Even if you use bits of real people, make sure those bits stay true to the character you are building. Writing that bio really helps.
Late to the party again….As Maddie wrote – How very true Jackie's comment is. I like that clarification about the Historian and the Novelist.
A great blog, Gayle. Your stories are always so rich with authenticity – and I know what a stickler you are for the truth. It pays off. I can see it in your Old Hollywood background for Jonnie Casino and your War Time epics, The SPYGAME Trilogy – both of which I loved. It's a good mix to have real characters, fictional ones – and some of your own experiences thrown in. This brings it to life – so the characters become real people to readers.
I find research so absorbing. The idea for my Lottie Topaz novels came while I was researching Hollywood Then and Now. I came across a hand-written police ledger, the entries therein set my writer brain spinning. Lottie was the result.
And I'm afraid I do 'nit-pick' when it comes to Hollywood history. I find it tough to believe what follows, after glaring mistakes.
Gayle – another thought-provoking post. Thank you.
Rosemary, I find that I like actually learning something when I read a novel. Dick Francis always had a protagonist with an interesting trade or job and I learned a bit from each book. I don't want a 4-year college course, but I do like it when the author sets the stage for the era in which he or she is writing. Your Lottie Topaz stories paint a great picture of the 20s and Hollywood. Miriam tells us about old Russia. Kate describes outposts in outer space. Even if it's fiction, it all rings true. And I appreciate the author's efforts to paint that picture with words.