Monday, August 23, 2010

Taking Liberties

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 If I screw up an historical reference, I lose that trust.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?


  1. Great post--I advise not watching historical movies with me because I'll nitpick, especially American Revolution stuff. We had a field day with The Patriot.

    I try very hard not to make anything up aside from just-for-fun details--like the author creating a restaurant on a certain intersection. But I also try to use real places that I find while researching--if nothing else, it's a fun inside joke for anyone who also knows that Joy's was a real soda fountain in 1940s Chicago or that the Trianon ballroom was real.

  2. Rowenna,

    One interesting thing that's happened is that I've had "experts" correct me on particular matters. Then I point them to my source, and they discover something new. (I have to admit that I love to incorporate arcane bits of information--though sometimes they're so weird that you can't use it because no one will believe it. Medieval poisons were amazing--they had books of poisons.)

  3. The truth can really hobble me. It can throw me into a tailspin quicker than most other problems in writing. I'm terrified of being told something is bogus by "experts". Dumb, I know. Doesn't seem to have slowed down the film industry. And I'm pretty put out that The Patriot was riddled w/ "nits".
    That aside, I've learned not to get too bogged down w/ the truth of the facts in the first draft but to concentrate on the truth of the story. Since I have a real problem getting totally absorbed in research (lost would be a better word--medieval poisons? I wouldn't come up for air for weeks)I have to save much of that for before the actual draft writing or for after in the subsequent edits. But I'm horribly insecure about whether I've "missed" on something. I think they call that paranoia...
    Anyway, great post!

  4. Funny, I thought a lot of this when I wrote my historical fiction. I wanted to get all the details right, and yet part of me was like, "THIS IS FICTION! It doesn't have to be perfect!"
    I still struggle with this.

  5. Well, Los Angeles is so big it would be virtually impossible to prove that a particular restaurant didn't exist.

  6. Every fictional book is pretty much an alternate/parallel universe. Unless you are in one of those "Stranger than fiction" situations.

    I get bothered with accuracy a lot, mostly in movies...

  7. I suppose it does bother me when in Star Trek one character will say something like "Is it possible to construct matter from nothing? That would be convenient." To which another character will ponder a bit and then say "... In theory, yes."

    Hey! You can not change the laws of Physics!