Years ago, I was reading a western romance that took place in New Mexico, somewhere in the l880s. It was a good read, but the first thing that jolted me out of that fantasy place I like to go when I read was the use of a simple thing called electricity. While the author had done her homework in that electricity was clearly around at that time, where she missed was that it wasn’t in homes yet, and it certainly wasn’t being used in desert land in New Mexico. But I forgave her that sin. Suspended my disbelief.
Then she went on to have electric lights on the Christmas tree. This is where the book went into my trash can. Why? I collect antique Christmas lights, have written about them extensively in various antiques publications, and the author clearly stomped all over an area of my expertise. Without going into the whole history of Christmas lights, let’s just say that she missed in a big way. Couldn’t suspend my disbelief that far.
There have been other incidents over the years where I’ve read something that just doesn’t gel, and most of the time I can let it go. Then this past weekend I went to see The Lone Ranger. Love Johnny Depp big time. But my gripe isn’t with him, as he’s only the actor. My gripe comes with…well, I’m not sure, since there were a few flubs. Like the setting. It was supposed to take place in Texas, and I was able to suspend my disbelief when the backgrounds of the movie were clearly Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and even Colorado. Yes, I recognized the scenery, as I’m sure many of the viewers did as well. But hey, the background they called Texas, even though it was everywhere but Texas, worked for the plot, so that little bit of “fact” was changed to fit the story. I’m OK with that.
But… (and let me warn you, here comes my biggest gripe) at one place in the story, a little town band was playing the wonderfully stirring song called Stars and Stripes Forever (John Phillips Sousa.) We all love that song, don’t we? I’m sure the people in the Texas circa 1869 town portrayed in the movie loved it, too. Or shall I say, would have loved it if it had been written then. Fact of the matter is, it wasn’t written until 1896, and wasn’t published until 1897. Oops, another misrepresentation or error? First, the Texas town that was really Utah/New Mexico/Arizona/Colorado? Then the song that was being played 27 years before it was written?
OK, maybe I’m being too picky here, but these are the kinds of things that completely remove me from the story. They’re called verifiable facts. As a writer I try hard to get my facts correct. Why? Because that’s what my readers deserve. Once, a few years ago, I was reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Robin Cook. The man is methodical with his facts, and I found something that I didn’t quite believe. Thought maybe I’d caught him in a mistake. So I called the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to run this particular fact by one of the experts I often used in my nonfiction work, and was told that Cook was dead on and that what’s more, they received hundreds of calls a month from people like me checking out something they’d read in a book or magazine article. Imagine that? Readers are sophisticated enough to know and care.
Which brings me back to The Lone Ranger. What was going on with that? Did the people who inserted the music under-estimate the viewers? Did the person who set it in Texas but definitely shot it in very well-known other locations not think we’d recognize the difference. For those instances, forget about suspending the disbelief. I was miffed, mostly because either nobody cared that verifiable facts were not checked, or nobody thought the viewers were sophisticated enough to know or care. As a writer, this offends me. As a viewer it makes me downright angry.
So, as a writer, how do I handle the whole issue of facts? It’s quite simple. I try to make the factual aspects of my writing as accurate as possible. I spent two hours of research just last week tracking down one fact that totaled two sentences of writing. Why? Because I owe that to the people who read my books. And yes, I do distort things, such as in my upcoming book A CHILD TO HEAL THEIR HEARTS – (Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical) 9/2013. It takes place in Tennessee, and the entire backdrop is Tennessee, even though the town and area itself is fictitious. In my story, you’re not going to see something that doesn’t belong in Tennessee, like a desert. Or when I write a story based in Costa Rica or Peru, I may invent the actual village but I sure don’t invent the area where I set that village.
In one of my book that took place in Argentina, I was describing a howler monkey. It’s the loudest animal in the world. I wanted to put one of these little critters in a tree outside my heroine’s window, but the place where her hospital was located was a little farther north than where these howlers typically hang out. I did read that they will occasionally migrate north, so I latched onto that and used it. But I did worry that I was stretching the point a bit. In fact, I changed that scene a few times before I decided my howler would stay. Makes me wonder if the person who put Stars and Stripes Forever in 1869 Texas worried half as much about his song placement as I did about the howler.
As fiction writers we have to get our facts right. You can’t have electricity existing in a time and place where it didn’t and think you’ll get away with it. You can’t call famous Arizona scenery Texas and hope no one will notice. Readers notice, and they go away over the little things. As a reader, I do, because I want the author I’m reading to have some respect for my intelligence (or my ability to look up a fact.) The thing is I love to suspend my disbelief and get carried away. But it only goes so far, and if I get jolted back by something as stupid as the playing of a song that wasn’t written yet, I’m not likely to invest any more of my fantasy time there, nor am I likely to spend the money to read the author again. Maybe I’m irrationally grump over something that doesn’t matter, but to me getting the facts right still matters. It’s part of what I am as a writer.