How real is fiction? How far can/should the writer go to make fiction SEEM real? More importantly, what does it matter?
If I, the writer, tell you there is a full moon in the sky, do you question that? As a reader, do you wonder if I got it right? After all, if I give you a date – say, May 18, 2005 – somewhere in my text, doesn’t it make the events I’m about to recount seem more real? Even when I’ve clearly labeled the writing ‘fiction,’ written ‘A novel’ under the title, and put in a disclaimer as to how all the characters and places are figments of my imagination?
We want to believe fiction is true – that the story happened as it is told. There is a reality there – a truth – that is different from factual truth (see, I’m already twisting your understanding of reality) but is just as true. The brain will tolerate any number of dissonances to get a good story: we are wired that way.
So the writer tries NOT to put things down which will knock the reader OUT of the fictive dream.
It’s a balancing act: telling lies to dissect eternal truths. Life is never clean. Problems are never small and solvable. They are interconnected messes. When I tell you a story, I try to remove all the junk, leave only the small problem at the center, and then solve it as you might want to solve it is it were that small and clean and complete. If I tell you about a single mother rearing a child, you only want to hear the relevant parts, not the details of all the mother’s grocery shopping trips – just the one that made a difference. You don’t want to hear about all the child’s problems in school, but only the ones that determined if the child would grow up straight – or not.
Writers select details to make miniature universes. Then we keep you locked in our tiny perfect universes until we finish telling our tale – and you decide if you agree with us or not on how we solved the problem. I’ve gotten a bit off track here to set up all the conditions for my question: do you, as a reader, want me to get the details right?
The answer is: of course. The contract with the reader includes a promise NOT to change reality – unless it’s necessary FOR THE STORY. The reader grants the writer a certain amount of ‘suspension of disbelief.’ But the writer should know that the amount is limited: when it is used up, when the reader has had enough of the writer’s lies, the book gets thrown against the wall. So the writer shouldn’t waste this trust, and one way not to waste it is to get the details right. The internet makes this kind of research both easy and time-consuming.
Moonrise and moonset: an example of detailing for veracity.
In Pride’s Children there’s a scene where Andrew rides a motorcycle late at night over New Hampshire county roads to Kary’s isolated house. I asked myself: Is there a moon visible as Andrew rides toward Kary’s?
I found the website timeanddate.com. I located entries for Concord, the state capital, which is close enough for such global events as the location of the moon. I had already picked May 18, 2005 as the night for this ride, so I extracted the appropriate sections of the table.
I read the descriptions of the contents, and figured out that the moon set at 2:51am, and rose again at 2:29pm. It is highest in the sky (passes the meridian?) at 8:55pm 48.6° above the horizon, and is 75.1% illuminated – three-quarters full – during Andrew’s ride (some time between 9pm and midnight).
I wasn’t sure what ‘meridian passing’ meant, but the site explained it:
“Meridian Passing” shows four columns calculated at the time the Moon passes the meridian of (or same longitude as) the observer. These columns consist of the local time and the altitude, distance, and fraction of the Moon illuminated at the meridian passing.
“Time” shows the local time of the moment when the Moon’s position will be above the horizon either directly north or directly south (except for Polar Regions, where the Moon might be down all day during the winter). For locations near the equator, the Moon can be right over one’s head, at the point nearest the zenith position (altitude 90 degrees).
“Altitude” shows the altitude of the Moon’s center above the ideal horizon at the passing time. Typically this is the highest position it reaches in the sky that day (except near the South and North Poles, where the altitude often increases or decreases all day and night). The altitude takes into account typical refraction in the Earth’s atmosphere. If the Moon is below the horizon all day, the altitude will be labeled “below.”
“Distance” is the distance from the Earth’s center to the Moon’s center in kilometers. To compare, the Earth has an equatorial diameter of 12,756 km and the Moon an equatorial diameter of 3,476 km.
If the Moon does not pass through the meridian on a given date, the columns are empty. This occurs once every Moon cycle.’
So I have my answer: Andrew can see the moon above the horizon, almost full, a little after the meridian passing time, and a little below the highest point for the day above the horizon – but there should be plenty of light (out in the wilds), and plenty of shadows.
And suddenly I’m there, and the shadows made by the moon among the trees are real, the gravel shoulders on the county roads are real and dangerous, and Andrew focuses his attention tightly on his cycle and the ride – and all kinds of adventures open up. The main benefit is for myself: it makes the ride real, so I can write it.
The other benefit, that I won’t have to answer the email from a reader pointing out that ‘btw, that night there was a new moon and it would have been pitch black except for the headlight,’ and feel like an idiot, is an extra.
I can show you how I solved this one – only you, as a reader or writer, can decide if it is worth it to you. I’ve already had my fun – and plan to consult the moonrise and moonset tables for all relevant scenes – because I liked how knowing the answer helped me write.
I’ve done the same kind of research when I’m putting in what seems like trivial details, such as weather, etc. For example, in my current WIP they’re having a horrible storm, and its early in the season. I verified that, even though I think only the most nitpicky readers will have actually looked it up and will insist on it matching reality completely. We have a right, as authors, to change that if we want to, I think…but getting it right means it will be more lock-tight.
I remember reading a book about New Orleans once (a town I’ve never lived in but I adore, and most of my writing is set there so I know all the streets, where they intersect, etc), where they had a character take the streetcar on a road it doesn’t run on, and the character took a left turn off a street that runs parallel, not perpendicular, to the street they turned on to. It would have been so easy to consult a map to get these things right. Those are bigger details than moon phases, but it was this book specifically that impressed on me the importance of not being lazy as a writer. It changed not only how I viewed that book specifically, but the writer in general, and I never read another book from them. If the writer doesn’t care about accuracy and getting things right, then suspension of disbelief is impossible.
If you’re going to change something real you’re using in fiction – fine. Do it deliberately, and in full understanding of what you’re doing. After all, you’re telling a story, not writing an article.
But laziness – in this day and age where you could go walk that street corner on Google Earth – is an indication that you don’t care.
Especially when you can create a fictitious place, or add a street that doesn’t actually exist and make it SEEM real, because a plot needs a street where there isn’t one.
I think one mistake, or a few, are forgivable. Creativity is fine. But a pattern of getting things askew, when not necessary for the book, is breaking the contract with the reader: I will lie to you, but only to tell you a better story.
I figure I’m going to be telling my reader(s) enough lies already.