This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
By Anna Bell
By definition a novel is fiction. Made up. Not real. I’m pretty sure that most readers accept this, yet there seem to be blurred lines when it comes to what’s acceptable between fact or fiction? I’m talking about little details that authors get wrong.
This week I got one of those emails that, as an author, you kind of dread. It was from a reader and it was pointing out an error. Not an error of the typo/bad grammar variety (phew), but a factual inaccuracy. You see, in the novel my protagonist's fiancé had gone to Scotland to shoot pheasant on a stag do in May. Only, the writer of the email pointed out that May is far from the season to shoot pheasant. Now, I should have picked that up having stayed on a pheasant farm in May myself, where the only thing to shoot at was clay pigeons. My editors (editors plural from both when it was self-published and published traditionally) could have picked it up – it’s the kind of detail they usually do, but they missed it too.
This isn’t the first of these emails I’ve received. Last year I had one, which told me I’d written ‘Italian Chablais’ when Chablais is a French region and, like champagne, only wine made in that area can be given the name. About the same time it was picked up by a copyeditor while the novel was going through the traditional publishing process. This year when I went on a holiday near Chablais, I had a little chuckle to myself in embarrassment.Those kind of slips are embarrassing as an author, but I know how irritating they can be as a reader. I remember reading a book about a museum curator who wore plastic gloves on an occasion when she was handling textiles and probably should have opted for cotton gloves. I also tutted at Dan Brown when reading Inferno recently at his use of American nursery rhyme lyrics, when he should have used the British lyrics for that particular character. Trivial detail, but it stays with you long after you’ve read the book.
But really, why does it matter if these little details are wrong? Does it change your enjoyment of a book? By virtue of the fact we’re reading a novel, we’re accepting that we’re suspending an element of disbelief as it is fiction, so why do these inaccuracies bother us so much?
Ideally in my future books, I won’t get such emails as I now fact check the most random of things. I caught a potential howler recently when I’d written about a French wedding. I was talking about a ceremony at a hotel when I remembered that, in France, you have to have a legal marriage at the local town hall before a ceremony elsewhere.
Where these lines really start to blur is with places. I set my Don’t Tell series in Farnborough, a real town in North Hampshire, yet I make up a number of locations around the area, the museum where Penny has her wedding reception is fictional, as are the hotels she visits trying to track down her AWOL groom. I’ve also changed the name of the local paper. Do local people of Farnborough mind, or is that sort of thing more acceptable to make up?
What are the rules for fact within fiction? Have you got cross at a book when an author got something really wrong? Does it spoil your overall enjoyment of the book?