PONDERING: “It’s only fiction”

Thursday, October 6, 2011 13:00
Posted in category Ponderings

Don't mentionMore and more I’m seeing authors who are confronted with readers saying “this is wrong,” reply, “it’s only fiction,” which they seem to think means they can make up anything they want to.

Of course, the most egregious offenders are some historical romance writers, who can’t even get titles right. “The Viscount Smith” or addressing a duke as “my lord” or an earl who decides where his title goes. Of course, the writer is creating her own vision of history, but that doesn’t mean she can ignore the facts of the period.

Jane over at Dear Author has written a column about why she avoids lawyers in fiction. That’s why I’m starting to avoid historical romances. They hurt. They are an insult to the people who actually lived. And it’s why I’d love to see a new genre of historical fantasy. I’m not stuck on the name, call it what you like, but the idea of people who live in an alternative Regency where dukes become spies and titles are gifted by the holder rather than inherited has some merit. It means historians like me know what to expect, and it means that authors who bother to do research and write as near as they can to the truth can get their druthers. Like the Highland romance which usually has very little resemblance to the real thing, the alternative could be amusing and a good read.

Conversely, there are stories that are meticulous in their research. So much so that you can almost hear the author thinking, “I’ve got to shove it down because I researched it, and if it doesn’t go into the book, that’s a waste of time.” So not true. The stuff that doesn’t go in is in the author’s head and informs her. So she knows her heroine uses a chamber pot not a flush toilet, and that’s how her heroine thinks and behaves. It helps to create a richer, fuller picture, rather than a prom queen in a vague pre-computer era story.

Contemporary-set romances have many of the same problems that historical romances do – stories set in London where the streets don’t meet where they should or where a car runs along a street that is actually pedestrianized, cars that run both ways up or down Madison Avenue, professional sports teams that only have one uniform to wear in a match, doctors who have affairs with their patients without consequences.

It’s even more important when the plot hinges on something that can’t actually happen. For instance, when a book depends on a lawsuit that isn’t valid, like those romances that say that the property can’t be inherited unless Joy marries Dirk, once the reader realizes that the will can be set aside as it’s invalid, the whole plot, and therefore the whole story, falls apart. The “oh we can marry and then get an annulment” plot in historical romance is another one. No, they couldn’t. So none of the story could have happened. It’s infuriating when a story falls apart like that.

It can be argued that a reader’s expectations come into play. Georgette Heyer set up a lot of conventions that weren’t actually real. Not facts, she was meticulous in her facts, but expectations, like everyone was in London for the Season and in the country the rest of the time. Or that ladies had dance cards in the Regency. These have since been shown not to be the case, but it can be difficult for a writer to face these rules down, especially against avid readers who expect those conventions.

Forbidden relationships of an employer/employee nature or a doctor/patient, lawyer/client, teacher/pupil can be delicious, but they can also be horrendous. If the story doesn’t deal with all the problems of that kind of relationship, then it can fall flat. The whole point of writing about such a relationship is the forbidden aspect, so ramp it up and deal with it, even if it means the employer, doctor or whatever loses his or her job in the process. Without the discussion, the story can be icky, (sorry to get so technical there, folks!) and downright abusive.

These days, with the bigger publishers taking less interest in content and more in marketability, as if a book is the same as a magazine or even a can of beans it’s more important, not less, that an author takes responsibility for the content of the book.

The argument “it’s only fiction” shows several things. It shows that the author doesn’t understand what fiction is. It doesn’t mean “you can make everything up, it doesn’t have to reflect reality.” It doesn’t mean “it’s not important because the reader doesn’t care.” We do care. Very much.

It also means that the author is losing a big chunk of her readership. Sports fans who would normally be a sitting audience for a football book will turn away in droves if the author gets her basic facts wrong. Historians who would love a well-written romance about the period they specialize in are forced away because it isn’t the period they know and love, just a vague recollection of it. Lawyers who might enjoy a story about lawyers working on rival cases who fall in love but can’t believe the way events turn out. They’re gone, and they won’t come back, because it hurts too much to read about something they love and maybe earn their living doing travestied beyond indulgent laughter.

“Just fiction” means the author can insert characters into a situation that already exists, not that everything has to be made up that doesn’t fit into what the author wants to happen. And eventually it leads to “same old, same old” romances that read like rehashes of the last book. So the author could write herself out of a career.

Doing the research in whatever field it happens to be leads to rich, believable and original situations and characters, books a reader will keep on the keeper shelf and return to time after time. I’ve recently been enjoying Victoria Dahl’s books set in a micro-brewery. Now what I know about that business is strictly from the customer side of the bar, but the details are so good that they add to the texture and the richness of the stories. I don’t have to know about micro-breweries to know that Dahl did a fair bit of research, to add a nicely detailed background that adds fun and believability to her romance.

When books are written that are clearly parodies of the setting rather than well researched recreations of it, it gives more fuel to the knockers, the people who love to denigrate the whole genre on the basis of a few books. When standards are low, that is what the reader will get.

As an author, I’ve always tried to remember the motto, “I do the research so you don’t have to,” and I’ve always tried hard to keep to that. If I say that some people keep private speedboats in private docks on the Thames, then you can be sure that I’ve done the necessary work to make sure that’s possible. I’ve made mistakes, but not for want of trying to get it right.

It’s not up to the reader to do the research for you.

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