Wednesday, April 13, 2016
No author ever sets out to make a mistake, and no author ever writes a perfect book. That’s the case with fiction and nonfiction books, both of which I’ve written. A book is simply too big a project to be bug-free.
In a work of nonfiction, many mistakes are indisputable. The author spells someone’s name wrong or gets a date wrong. The author’s interpretations of the facts can also be wrong, but these are subject to endless debate and need not concern us at the moment.
The question of accuracy in fiction similarly involves considerable ambiguity and openness to interpretation. The author wants to get details right, obviously, but if she has a certain type of pistol ejecting its shell casings when that type of pistol in fact doesn’t, how important is the mistake? I’d argue (and some would argue otherwise) that as long as she’s not writing a forensic-investigation novel and plays fair with the reader about the clue of the shell casings, it’s a pretty minor error.
The Intentional ‘Mistake’
Fiction being fiction, authors are free to imagine things that don’t exist. Suppose a mystery writer was setting a story in a clearly identified national park, using many of its real elements as part of the tale. Then suppose said author gave said park a fictitious old lodge that the real park doesn’t have, in order to provide a place for suspects, victims and more ambiguous characters to mingle. Would that be a mistake?
Of course not. It’s fiction, and as long as the author acknowledges that it was done intentionally for the sake of the story, where’s the harm? The important thing in a piece of fiction is that the imaginary world is true to itself and in the larger sense reflective of the real world in some way.
I got to thinking along these lines last week, as I was working on my fourth mystery novel. I’ve gotten into the habit of showing the new book to Linda piece by piece as I write it. She often catches typos and raises points about characters and facts. It’s very helpful, really.
The Mistake That Wasn’t
Looking over a recent passage, she came to a scene where I had one of the characters driving a certain type of Subaru station wagon and promptly told me Subaru didn’t make such a wagon. Trying to get it right, I had looked that up on Wikipedia beforehand and found that they did make such a wagon in the early to mid 1990s, and that since the story was set in 1997, the character could indeed have quite plausibly been driving one.
And then I got to thinking. Suppose I hadn’t looked it up, had been wrong about the model, and the mistake had made it into the book. If someone had pointed out the mistake to me, I would have been annoyed at having made it and made a note to myself to be more careful the next time.
If, on the other hand, someone had made the criticism that the character in question didn’t seem to be the sort of person who would drive a Subaru, I’d have been gobsmacked because I would stand accused of not being true within my fictional world.
I raised the point with Linda a couple of days later, and she got what I was saying. She also reassured me on the point I considered important, saying of the character in my book, “She’s definitely the sort of person who’d be driving a Subaru.”