When I was a kid, airplane crash movies were popular. We didn’t watch too many. Not because my dad was a commercial pilot and we were afraid of what could happen to him. No. We didn’t watch them because of the monologue that would occur: “That’s a DC-10, the plane they showed earlier was an L-1011, and before that it was a MD-(whatever).” As the movie went on, we’d learn about how planes actually behave and why the movie company should have hired an aviation consultant. (I must’ve learned a lot because my dad wasn’t around when I watched Tom Hanks’s Castaway and I knew that the movie was an aviation disaster, and not because the plane crashed.)
A few weeks ago we were watching Proof (a rom-com, math-nerd movie), and the main character mentioned a formula for finding prime numbers. Ariel said, “That’s not true” and went on to give us multiple examples of why the formula was bogus.
I got to thinking about authorial liberties. A writing friend once asked me how I decide what to “make up” and what I refuse to make up. I try to nail historical details, which is a tremendous amount of work. I even change the plot if I can’t find out the detail I need. I suppose I could argue that since my book’s about time travel I can make up other things too. But I can’t. In order for the book to work, I have to get the reader to suspend disbelief. The reader must trust the writer—verisimilitude is the way to do it. If I screw up an historical reference, I lose that trust. In fact, a few months ago I discovered a source that proved a small, but critical, detail in my novel was wrong so I rewrote the entire section.
However, some things I’ll make up completely. In one of my books, I gave a minor character a job assessing rattlesnake populations for the forestry department. Did I look up that job? No. I made it up. I did research the forestry department and rattlesnake populations, and I figured that someone must have a job doing that. Why not my character?
A while back, I read an author who was asked about the liberties he took in his novels. I believe he was known for his closely detailed settings of Los Angeles. He said that he tries to nail all the details perfectly. But if he needs a restaurant on a particular corner, he puts it there—but it better be exactly the kind of restaurant you’d find at that particular intersection.
What about you? What kinds of liberties do you take as a writer? What kind of liberties do you allow as a reader before you put the book down?