The Thin Line Between Fiction & Reality

I’m working – hard – on my book for 2015. It’s a Gothic historical, and as I am the nit-picky research-loving librarian that I am, I refuse to leave any stone unturned. The other day someone needed to call the cops in this book, and I didn’t finish the sentence because I first had to go find out what cops were called in 1890’s Boston. Are they policeman? Coppers? Constables? Fifteen minutes of research went into finding the right word to end that one sentence with. I also got distracted by the origin of the word “cops” – policeman’s badges were originally made out of copper, so they were reffered to as “Coppers” which became shortened to cops. Now you know. I do too, and I just lost another ten minutes where I should’ve been writing.

I bought a map of the real town where my novel is set ($25.00 gone) from the right time period so that I could look at street names, locations of shops vs. residential areas, the locations where bridges crossed the river, etc.

Then I came to a line of dialogue where my main character and her partner in fighting crime are bemoaning the size of the population and their inability to catch a killer within such a large group. So I checked the 1900 census data for this city so that my line of dialogue was completely accurate… and hit a huge roadblock.

The city was much smaller than I had expected, population wise. In fact, it was so small that finding a killer within it would actually be a fairly easy proposition, given that his method of operation definitely points to a man of a certain occupation. I was wretched. Truly wretched. I’d built my entire plot around this city, researched for a year before even starting the book and literally have a map of it in my head so that when I visited a few weekends ago I could guide the boyfriend as he drove.

And now it was too damn small during the time period my book is set.

I seriously felt like puking. I shut the laptop, stomped downstairs and the boyfriend takes one look at me and says, “What’s wrong?”

I tell my horrible story. All the wasted work and knowledge that now means nothing, the restructuring of the plot that’s going to have to happen if I switch to a more metropolitan area. And the boyfriend leans back on the counter, looking horribly confused and says, “Well, this is fiction right? Just make the city bigger in 1900.”

And this tiny fact that should have in no way been a revelation pretty much turned me on my head. I was ridiculously happy to realize, that yes, if I wanted to inflate the population of a city in the 1900’s to serve my purposes I can, in fact, do that, because it’s fiction.

Sometimes writers need to realize that while the research and dedication that goes into our writing is admirable, we can’t let it dictate to us the parameters of our world – because it is, in fact, a fictional one. My 2015 release is my first historical novel, and I’ve been doing my damndest to keep it as accurate as possible. But the truth is that even with years of research poured into this thing, I’m going to have to tilt the mirror a little to make the picture fit the plot, and I’m also going to get some things flat wrong that I thought were right. And, of course, there are probably going to be points that I know I’m right about that people will think are wrong.

And that’s okay – because it’s fiction.

6 thoughts on “The Thin Line Between Fiction & Reality

  1. An excellent blog – The Representative gave me headaches, being forced to readjust its story context, again over and over.

    I got there in the end (and produced what's arguably the most definitive of all story contexts).

  2. I loved this post! I love when authors really try to stick with facts so that their story feels real to me, but I agree that sometimes you just have to let it go and make the story the best it can be, even if that means tweaking something here and there. But this is probably why I like fantasy worlds, where I can make everything up. =)

  3. And this is why I write historicals: I LOVE this stuff. I spent a very happy afternoon trying to find a train timetable and fares for England in 1866 (and I found it–thank God for the Internet). And I have had that funny “ah ha” moment too, where it suddenly occurs you to you that you can bend the truth a little to make your story work. But be prepared–some reader somewhere is going to call you on it!

  4. Great post! It's true- that one moment of research can turn into 20 of curiosity before you know it. Good luck with the historical-ness!

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