Fact and fiction

One of the few benefits of waking up in the middle of the night is that, if you put the radio on in our house, you get the BBC World Service. And as you drift in and out of sleep, you can pick up the most remarkable things. I think they are perhaps even more noteworthy for being mixed up in a brain that doesn’t know if it’s awake or asleep and is still trying to process everything from the previous day. And if you are in the middle of writing a novel, you can really get a screwed up brain because what you’re writing can be as real as what you’ve actually experienced.

If there were more hours in the day, I would try to spend some of the extra ones listening to Radio 4 or the World Service. Where else do you have some of the best minds out there coming together for a discussion about topics you didn’t even know someone was thinking about. Just this morning, I picked up part of a programme while driving back home again. Something to do with Shakespeare, Cromwell, historicity, writing and theatre productions. And there was a couple of minutes of a discussion about facts and fiction.

This is one of the things I’ve been mulling over. I’m writing about people who lived in a certain time in a certain setting, decades ago. I was not there. I don’t remember what life was like in those years and even if I had, it would  have been from a very different perspective. The internet is wonderful for filling in some of those gaps. Pictures, videos, articles, all made available by some altruistic souls (thank you!). But… I have a picture in my head of what it looked like, and it’s never going to be the same as reality. And it turns out there are internet sites devoted to telling you what was ‘wrong’ in books, TV shows, theatre productions. I know this now because I get some of this from the girls on the drive in to school in the mornings, all the details which someone else has got wrong. Do I care about whether the dragon in Harry Potter started off being able to shoot fire out for thirty feet and then later could only manage a small puff (apparently)? No. Some writers (Sarah Waters springs to mind) research and then describe the details meticulously. Will it be perfect? Probably not. And it doesn’t matter to me as a reader . I smiled when Jodi Picoult referred in one of her books to the ‘Scottish National Trust’ instead of the ‘National Trust for Scotland.’ Did it make any difference to either my enjoyment of the book or what I got from it? Not at all.

One of the panel on the radio programme was talking about this problem (his potential issue is worse than mine because he has to create a production in which the audience sees all the detail as he portrays it, I can choose to omit detail that doesn’t add anything to the story). I liked his approach, which is to ask the question ‘is it misleading?’  That works for me. His example was getting the wallpaper pattern right versus turning what was an amicable discussion in (historical) fact into a heated fight. The wallpaper isn’t misleading as to the characters or the essence of what happened in history. The conversation (if treated incorrectly) would be.

So I’m still not going to look at the websites on what isn’t strictly right. Instead, I’m going to focus on trying to create something which feels emotionally real. Last week, I found myself crying for the first time while writing one scene. Of course it was fiction. But it felt real. That’s one scene I intend keeping in. The description of the back seat of a Trabant car probably isn’t going to make the cut.

But while I’m on the subject of getting inconsequential things wrong, I received this in the post this week.


My reaction to the first question was ‘I’d like to work for an employer that knows the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s”. But really, I’m not that bothered. I got the point. Still not interested in the job, but not because of a silly mistake that just made me smile.

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