Adding Truth to Fiction Might Cause Hair Loss

demotivational posters - THE DIFFERENCE

Truly. How many times have you woven in cool tidbits from your research only to be slammed by your beta readers or agents/editors that it doesn’t sound believable?

And you splutter, “But… but… that really happened!”

We’ve all heard that truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s, well, that’s true. The problem is when you want to weave in those bits you’ve picked up, or even base your whole plot around a real life incident.

For instance, if you read about Victorian women dueling with swords while topless in a novel, would you scoff? Read on…

(How’s that for a teaser?)

But first, let’s back up a bit. Monday, author Amy Corwin wrote a post called Truth is Too Far-fetched for Fiction. In it she talks about how she got the inspiration for her book, The Bricklayer’s Daughter, from a real figure in history, Catherine Wilson, who chose to dress as a man. When she wanted to have her character marry, her editor drew the line and said it wouldn’t be believable. The irony was that Miss Wilson actually did marry to keep her identity secret.

Her post dovetailed with a draft I’ve had sitting in my blog dashboard on just this topic, so I decided to flesh it out for today’s post. Last month, I participated in a hashtag chat on writing historical fiction, and historical romance writer Isobel Carr brought up an interesting fact that would be hard to make believable in fiction, topless Victorian women dueling. But it really happened. I circled back with Isobel for this post and she said, “I do think that real history that doesn’t fit modern ‘beliefs’ about the past can be hard to pull off in books… Of course, I can’t help trying anyway…”

I’ve run into this issue too. Critique partners or beta readers marked parts of my WIP as not being plausible or flat out unbelievable. And nine times out of ten, it’s an actual historical fact. A lot of times it’s because readers improperly assign the sensibilities of the Victorian era to the Georgian era. I was able to get around this sometimes because I’m writing about a modern woman going back in time, so she acts as a surrogate for the modern reader. So when I got flack from critiquers about her riding alone in a carriage in 1834 with a man, I had her wonder the same and then remember that Jane Austen had a character do just that, etc. and have her reflect several times that things wouldn’t start getting prudish until later.

I’ve also heard people think everyone was short or that people didn’t live on average past 30 or something. They’ll see a statement like this in their textbooks in school:  life expectancy at birth in Medieval Britain was 30, and jump to the conclusion that people died on average around the age of 30. The problem with the last assumption is that it’s based on statistical averages from time of birth. Why is that significant? Because infant mortality rates were much higher back in the day and if you factored in all those deaths, yes, it brought the average life expectancy waaaay down. But if you lived past five, you had a decent shot of living into your 60s or 70s.  Now that infant mortality rates have dropped in some parts of the world, and sweeping epidemics like the Black Plague aren’t wiping out huge swaths of adults, the statistical average has risen.  I don’t want to turn this post into a rant on this specific topic, so I’ll cut this short. The point is, what you think you may know about history might not be true.

Another anecdote: I have a cousin who published a literary novel set in the past. It was well received, but the one bad review I remember well because the reviewer was hung up on the fact that some of the events described were just too unbelievable to swallow. The book was based in the South, the reviewer was a Northerner, and the things he objected to were actual incidents in our family. We’re wacky down here like that…

As a writer of historical fiction, it’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out, or bang your head against a wall until it bleeds. Especially if you get ripped by a reviewer who doesn’t know better. While you can have a dialog with your critiquers and tell them it’s true, you don’t have that luxury with a reader/reviewer. But yet you want to do your part to weave in some historical facts.

So, what to do? I don’t really have the magic answer as I’m not experienced enough of a writer. I’m going to share some ideas and then leave the floor to commenters…

1. Work extra hard with motivations.

One thing I did read from a writing book though has stuck with me: that when you weave in real life events (whether they’re incidents from your own life or historical tidbits) you have to work extra hard to setup the motivations of the characters in order to make the reader believe it.

Why is this? It seems to run counter to logic. But what happens is that in your mind, you know it’s true, so you inadvertently skip the steps you’d normally take in your writing of setting up the motivations for your characters. You don’t set it up as diligently as you would something you imagined, because after all, it really happened. I am so guilty of this. Right now I’m still having readers find it hard to believe that Ada Lovelace as a child never saw a portrait of her famous father Lord Byron. According to my sources, it was covered by a large swatch of cloth, so I added that little bit. However, beta readers and critiquers are marking it, saying this didn’t sound believable– wouldn’t she have tried to peek? Apparently she didn’t in real life. However, I need to come up with some kind of explanation for this to make this believable.

Another temptation for skipping motivation is because in real life it happened randomly so as a writer, you have it happen that way too. But in fiction, everything has a purpose and a reason to be there, and so it has to tie into that. It needs to be grounded in your plot and be a realistic action on the part of the character. Remember your motivation reaction units (MRUs) and ensure that this new event has a firm basis in motivation.

2. Perhaps take some world-building tips from paranormal and fantasy writers?

By definition, these folks are asking readers to believe in things that are fantastical. How do they do it? Recently, paranormal author Jami Gold explored how to make readers believe and she touched upon how romance novels are perceived as unrealistic. She countered with:

The romance novels I’ve found to be the least believable were those where the author didn’t do enough with motivations and/or actions to show why the hero and heroine were perfect for each other.

This corresponds with the advice I’d read about weaving in real life events. She lists some other solutions to help keep a reader believing and I think this can apply to historical oddities you’d like to include. A great discussion followed in the comments as well.

3. Make your character believe

One point I brought up in Jami’s comments was making your character believe. I used this tactic when I had early readers say it was too unbelievable to have two female mathematicians in that time period, but both of the characters were real historical figures (Ada Byron Lovelace and Mary Somerville). So I had my main character express her own surprise and acceptance, etc. We’ll see if that works…

What about you? What are some historical assumptions that drive you crazy as a writer? How do you weave them in/make them believable?

12 Replies to “Adding Truth to Fiction Might Cause Hair Loss”

  1. Great post! I think you’re spot on with the issues and solutions you talk about. I’ve used that “have a character express surprise” technique before too. In that way, the character is acting as a stand-in for the reader’s disbelief and it’s a method for addressing their questions.

    And thanks for the link! 🙂

  2. I’ve often been a victim of this in regard to the Regency. The sad thing is the people I’ve had the most trouble with have often been people who claim to really know the period well.

      1. The thing is, the examples from my work aren’t like the examples you mentioned above. It’s not like I was doing topless dueling or something that would really trip the, “WTH?” meter.

        It was mostly people (this was in an open critique group setting, not general readership) nit-picking details but being wrong. A person, for example, insisted that no Regency woman ever played cards after I had an off-hand mention of whist. Even without hitting the primary source material, if one just looks to Georgian-era fiction like Pride and Prejudice (an entire chapter with respectable people playing whist), one would realize that’s wrong. Her basis for this opinion was that she’d hadn’t “seen it in the novels she’s read.”

        There’s plenty of stuff that’s unusual in my material that I take pains to justify (my heroine has an unusual interest in scholarly matters), but making a special effort to justify basic background details is a bit silly. I found though, when I specialized my beta readers a bit more (rather than just doing an open thing) that issue mostly disappeared, though there was one person i had to, at a certain point, insist that she just go and read some on the period before making further comments on the social norms because she just kept getting them wrong. Things like the whist. I honestly don’t know where some of these impressions came from other than some people are reading a very narrow scope of period fiction and filling in the blanks the wrong way.

        BTW, I had that exact discussion about life span a few weeks back with someone. 🙂

        1. Wow, someone who didn’t think they played cards? Obviously they don’t read much fiction from that time, or even, for god’s sake, any of the historical period dramas on BBC or something. I think at some point we’ll have to just accept that some people will be misinformed and think we’re wrong if it’s small things like this and just go with it anyway. As you say, setting up motivation for playing cards in the Regency would be silly, but it would also be grossly unfair to portraying the time period to leave it out if you have any scene taking place in a parlor after dinner. Sigh.

          I have some critiquers who don’t read historical romances, so I don’t pay any mind when they say they aren’t familiar with the term ‘ton’. I know that the target audience will be familiar with it and so I leave it.

  3. Love this post Angela. My spy novel writing partner, Holmes, and I run into this. He has some amazing stories that are beyond anything Hollywood or New York could come up with. We have to tone it down for fiction. Thanks for your thoughtful blog.

  4. I don’t have the problem. I write YA novels set in contemporary times. The issue I’m usually face with is the occasional beta reader who thinks like an adult instead of a teen. Teens don’t have the same world experiences that adults have, so their actions won’t be the same.

    Great post, Angela. 😀

    1. I think it would be challenging to write from a teen POV. I think your issue relates to ours in the sense that we both have Betas that believe one thing, and speak as if from authority, when in fact they’re wrong.

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