First, let me offer honors to those who died and suffered on September 11. You know which one. I arrived at work that day with no knowledge of what was happening, but my secretary had a TV and was watching the news. I’ll say no more than that it was heart wrenching, and if you want there are many, many fine blogs focusing on that event today. I’m going to talk about something different here.
Most, if not all, jobs require some learning on the job, but some types of work require more than others. Teaching is a prime example. I lament at times that the field of psychology continues to change at an incredible rate. It would be nice once in a while to teach the same facts in the same class for two years running. Of course, not every fact changes from year to year, but enough new and revised information is introduced every year to keep me hopping. Even though I’m simply unable to keep up with all the new information, I like the fact that my field is not static. It’s dynamic and exciting to discover new things, and to anticipate the discovery of more.
Unfortunately (sometimes), my second job is worse than my first. Writing fiction as a field dwarfs the learning requirement for psychology, and I’ll bet for most academic disciplines. Yesterday, because of writing projects I’m currently engaged in, I had to learn about wombats, badgers, and digging animals of all kinds, about river cane, bamboo, and sugar cane, about moonlight and werewolf mythology, and about child development, childhood aggression, child soldiers, and symbolic intelligence. My brain was pretty tired by the time all that was done.
To write convincingly, even if you’re writing fantasy, there is a tremendous amount of information and detail that you need to know. But correct details are not always enough. I’ve found readers to fall into three general categories where story details are concerned. First, we have the largest group, who merely want the facts of the story to sound plausible! These folks read for the story and as long as you don’t have any glaring errors you can get away with little twists on detail.
For example, take my question the other day about the age at which a boy might successfully sneak a dagger out of an unsuspecting enemy’s sheath and stab that enemy. I got a variety of answers, ranging from 5 all the way up to about 12. This told me a couple of things. First, the actual age at which a boy might carry out such an act is undetermined. Second, whatever age I choose, I have to make it sound plausible that “my” youthful character could do it. If I achieve plausibility, then probably 90 percent of the readers aren’t going to care about whether I’m absolutely correct or not.
The other two groups of readers are much smaller. One group actually ‘knows’ the absolute details. They are experts or well educated in that particular field. For example, if I get a gun caliber wrong in a story, most readers won’t care, but this second group will care a great deal and will be irritated with me for the mistake. This group can only be responded to by making your story facts as true to real life as can be. And I think that is a good thing. Although most novelists will occasionally take “liberties” with true events or facts in order to craft a compelling story, we certainly need to know the facts before we manipulate them.
The third group of readers, also small, is the hardest to please. These folks believe themselves to be experts but, in fact don’t know the true details. However, and I think many historical novelists will agree, this group can be very vocal in pointing out what they see as wrong. (Even if it’s correct.) I’ve been lucky that I’ve only had this happen to me a couple of times. It can be frustrating, however. I work hard to get the reality straight in my stories, but I have made mistakes and, although I feel chagrined, I don’t get upset when someone corrects my mistake. It’s the non-mistakes that are called mistakes that get to me.
So what kind of reader are you? Do small inaccuracies bother you? Is story more important to you than 100 percent factual accuracy? Do errors in some fields bother you more than in other fields? Just curious.