Furlough Friday: On the grading curve for fiction research

Sculpture of mermaid
Mermaids like this were all over Norfolk.

Not going anywhere today.  It’s been a record-breaking heat week — heat combined with humidity.  Last night when I walked out of the critique group at 9:30 p.m., it was 93, and the air felt like a hot, wet blanket.  This morning at 6:30, the heat and humidity are already moving in for a stay.  Today is supposed to be the worst day of the week heat-wise.

So I’m doing online research for a potential story, and it’s got me thinking about the research and accuracy of it in regards to fiction.  I’ve generally not enjoyed research, and some of that is because it often gets treated as if we were all still in school and worried about getting a bad grade.  Writers will research every single detail, right down to the precise size of a grate to avoid having a reader pick up on the obscure fact and say, “YOU GOT IT WRONG!”

I’ve heard some say that having inaccuracies instantly ruins the credibility of the story.  I’ve certainly run into those, but they’ve usually been bigger.  I read a romantic thriller about a woman who was Vice President of the United States.  That was probably the selling point to the publisher, but the character needed to be in her 20s.  I had a lot of trouble with that because anyone who’s been to school in U.S. knows the minimum age is 35 (from the DC perspective, the women who get that high up are in their 50s; not a popular age for romance novels).

Yet, the TV series NCIS also gets DC wrong a lot and that doesn’t bother me, other than a laugh at some of the stuff.  You cannot drive to Norfolk from the Washington Naval Yard in 30 minutes.  I went there last year for a conference, and it was 4 hours.  But the show also does something that other shows set in DC like Covert Affairs, Criminal Minds, and Bones don’t even bother to do: They get the big picture details right.  We get the names of the cities and places here: Arlington, Arlington Cemetery, Annandale, Norfolk.  If I was still living in California, I would think this feels like Washington, DC and have no idea that they got the distances wrong.

And the truth is that if they tried to accurate for accuracy’s sake, it would not make a good story.  There’s nothing interesting about saying that the character’s got stuck in traffic (or at least more than once), even though that’s a daily part of DC life.  It’s not interesting saying it took 4 hours to get to Norfolk.  It’s about the story.

So what’s your take on research for fiction?  Does it have to be 100% accurate?  Or are some kinds of details better to be accurate on others?

2 thoughts on “Furlough Friday: On the grading curve for fiction research

  1. Anthony Dobranski July 19, 2013 / 11:08 am

    No fiction is about facts; it’s about people and emotion, even in a police procedural (where the emotional payoff is that someone we root for solves the case). So I think the answer is largely based on the audience’s expectation. No one would fault George Saunders for liberties, much less Stan Lee, but they would fault David Balducci — because he’s got a rep as someone who is teasing fiction out of the real. After that, it’s about not violating the mood of the scene. In the movie No Way Out I could forgive Kevin Costner taking a metro out of Georgetown, because the important thing was for him to escape; but I doubt I would have forgiven a Pentagon spy room painted in pastel colors with bright clean windows, because that would have destroyed the claustrophobic mood that kept us rooting for him.


    • Linda Adams July 20, 2013 / 2:04 pm

      I think a lot of writers forget that sometimes, Anthony. It may even keep the story from needing to be what it is.


Comments are closed.