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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Getting Fiction Right

I'm reading a lot this week and have already unearthed a glitch in one of the books I'm reading. I tend to do this, even in mainstream fiction by writers whose books have won awards and so are selling a lot better than mine. But a mistake is a mistake. And it seemed like a good subject for a post.

I won't name any of the books or authors, some of whom are personal friends or at least acquaintances, and I will mention that at least one of them took my advice and rewrote for the next edition. (If you think you know the books and authors concerned, please don't mention them in a comment!Not even if you ARE one of the authors!)

There are some genres where it seems obvious you need to get it right. Hard science fiction, for example. Get your physics wrong and there will be people to let you know about it. What they can get away with in a TV series won't be tolerated in a book or short story. Well, mostly it won't, anyway.

Even fantasy needs to be right. Yes, I've read a Twitter conversation between fantasy writers in which one of them declared it was her universe and she could do what she wanted within it. Not so, since fantasy is usually based on real world societies and if you're going to write about horses and swords and mediaeval ships and such, you need to understand what they can and can't do. I've posted about that here. But most people understand this and take the trouble to get it right. Heck, I've been careful in my own writing, creating a world with three moons and, not wanting to go against the laws of physics even in my own world, I checked it out.

If you get crime fiction wrong - say, a gun that does what a real gun of that type can't, or make mistakes in the medical treatment of a victim, there are going to be people jeering at you for it. So, mostly, crime writers make sure they get it right. I've read earnest, worried questions on the fabulous Jordyn Redwood's medical blog and a forensics blog I discovered on a search. "Can I do this or that to my victim?"

So why is there not the same degree of care with mainstream fiction, I wonder? Is it because it's the world you live in and you know how it runs, or think you do?

I remember a novel by a well-known Australian writer who is living off his writing, more than can be said for me, in which the children of the story are living with an aunt who has been cashing the Family Allowance cheques of their mother, who has disappeared, and she doesn't want to lose this income, so is keeping it secret. As it happened, I'd been working for what was then the Department of Social Security (a later Liberal Government changed the name to Centrelink). I knew about Family Allowance. In fact, the aunt was entitled to the payment as the children were in her care. I can remember times when a relative who had the kids overnight rang us, demanding the approximately $2.00 given for one night - and got it, despite the time it took us to process it and even their phone call cost about 50c. It wouldn't have taken much rewriting to get that right and might even have made the story more interesting. You might say, "Oh, well, you're a person who worked there, most people  wouldn't have noticed," but anyone who was in the situation of a broken relationship with children would have noticed, though clearly the author and his editor weren't in that situation, so didn't know and didn't check.

Then there are school stories. Anyone who lives in Victoria, anyway, and has had children at school, might know the rules. Kids certainly do. "You can't touch me! I'll sue!" Only recently a student I hadn't  touched was loudly claiming I'd slapped him, and I remember a nasty little Year 8 girl in my first year of teaching who rubbed her neck trying to produce a bruise so she could claim I'd hit her and, when that didn't work, told her father I'd threatened her with a chair.  Fortunately, he knew me and asked what was going on rather than accepting her lie, or I could have been suspended till the story was checked out and my reputation would have been gone while she might, at worst, have been given a couple of days' suspension and a grounding at home. They don't want to discourage genuine cases from coming forward. And this was many years ago, in the 1970s. Oh, yes, they know their rights and if they do, why don't the authors of so many YA novels?

I can tell you about a short story in which the victim and the class bully get detention and the teacher walks out of the room to attend a meeting, leaving a potential for tragedy. Sorry, I told the author, a friend of mine. It wouldn't happen today. Duty of care. Schools can have the pants sued off them for neglecting it. If you must have the teacher leave the room, make it an emergency. The school would still be sued - and I've heard of a primary school being sued for not having a teacher in a particular part of the yard when a branch fell from a tree and injured a child -  but at least it would be a situation over which the teacher had no control. "But it happened at my school!" he protested, meaning the teacher leaving the room for a meeting, not the tragedy. I pointed out that it was a very long time ago and that  expensive private schools like the one he attended  might have had different rules from the State system  back then. Not now, and he was trying to sell a new edition. He took it on board and rewrote.

Here are the rules, in Victoria at least(and the main offending novels I've read have been by Victorian writers) : you must have a teacher to supervise students, so no allowing students to run their own event outside school hours with no teachers there.  You can't have a detention after school on the same day it's earned; parents must be given notice. You certainly can't publicly humiliate students, even as a punishment. Not without facing the legal wrath of parents. What you can and can't do for punishment is strictly limited.

Yet I've come across CBCA shortlisted books by Melbourne writers that have done most of these things and some that weren't shortlisted but were by well-known local writers that did the last-mentioned. And somehow they made even otherwise-wonderful novels just that much less wonderful for me.

I've read a novel written in the era of the Internet that had two kids exchanging emails and one of them doing physical research for something that was easily available on Google, even then. (I know, I googled it).

It's not so hard to check before submitting your manuscript. The Internet is a wonderful resource, or you can call someone who knows.

Writers, you must do your research, even for mainstream fiction, even if you think you remember what things were like when you were in your teens.

And guess what? They probably weren't quite as you remember them.


Cherie Reich said...

Great post! It is important to get facts right, especially for your time and place. What happened back then and what happens now can be two very different things.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Welcome to my blog, Cherie and glad you liked the post. I see from your profile that you're a writer yourself, so I am sure you do your research. It's so easy these days!

Lan said...

I have to admit if there's one thing I can't stand about being a writer it's the research part. Even if the topic is something I'm really interested in research just turns it into homework. As a reader unless something is glaringly obvious and the knowledge is pretty mainstream I don't know enough about a topic to be able to catch a writer out.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Lan! I'm afraid if you want to be taken seriously as a writer research is one of the things you have to do. I researched the history for my novel even though it was set in my own universe, because my universe was mediaeval and there are only so many ways you can live in the Middle Ages, wherever they happen. I looked up a lot more than I ever used and that was fine, because next time I wrote something mediaeval I'd have material I could use. I get a lot of review requests I turn down because the blurb tells me immediately the author hasn't bothered to check his or her facts. One had about three anachronisms in one paragraph of blurb! You've put so much work into your book, surely you want t to be the best it can? :-)