Novels come from an author’s imagination. They are the printed (or digital) product of days and weeks and sometimes years of glorious day-dreaming, created so that readers, too, can disappear into this make-believe story for a few hours or days. But should fiction be accurate?
In the last few weeks I’ve been fortunate to receive hundreds of fantastic reviews for I Let You Go, with more coming in every day. The hashtag #ILetYouGo is an easy way to see at a glance what people are saying on social media about the book, and I love looking at their reactions (you can see what people are saying on Twitter here). I also receive lots of emails from readers wanting to discuss the book or let me know what they thought of it, and a handful of these readers have pointed out inaccuracies.
I am very grateful to anyone who points out typos, because these can be easily corrected: instantly for the digital versions, and in the next reprint for the paperback versions. Despite the number of people who work on the book (me, my agent, my editor, copy-editor and proof reader, among others) it’s impossible to catch everything, so this sort of feedback is really useful. I’m particularly glad of the eagle-eyed readers (two, to date) who pointed out the kitten who changed sex half-way down a page…
Should fiction be accurate?
There is no doubt (in my mind, at least) that spelling in a novel should be correct, but how far should accuracy extend? Should fiction be accurate in its references to bus routes; the view from a window of a known landmark; the number of levels in a multi-storey car park?
I’ve blogged before about how much I think research matters when writing a novel, and last week I wrote for the Guardian books blog about how my previous job as a police officer informs my crime writing. In both pieces I say something similar: that it’s important to know what’s right, before deciding whether you can part company with reality in the name of entertainment.
The very nature of crime and thriller fiction requires the reader to suspend disbelief. After all, if the amount and type of lawlessness found in such novels were indeed an accurate portrayal of current crime statistics the police would have one hell of a job on their hands. Crime novels are fiction. The reader enters into a contract with the author, in which the latter promises a rip-roaring tale of derring-do and bone-chilling tension, and the former promises to immerse themselves in the story. This is a very different contract to the one entered into by a reader of biographies, or recipe books, or scientific journals.
Fiction: a licence to make things up
The word ‘fiction’ gives us a licence to make things up. The key – as with so many things – is to do this in moderation, and to choose our subjects with care. Create a murderer who disposes of his bodies by dissolving them overnight in orange juice, and your readers will abandon you in droves, unable to believe in such a ludicrous villain. But you can have your perpetrator bury his bodies under the big oak tree in Hyde Park, even though it’s common knowledge that the soil there is so clay-laden* it’s impossible to dig down more than a few inches without mechanical assistance, because these sorts of facts DON’T MATTER.
You might expect me to be a stickler for police procedure, and it’s true that I’ve raised an eyebrow or two at some of the practices outlined in recent crime novels, but fiction is designed to entertain, not to inform. It may well stimulate thought and debate, but readers don’t pick up a crime novel to learn how the police force do their job. Some authors create entirely fictional forces, but far more base their fictional events within a real place, in a real force area. Their novels are tightly woven meshes of truth and fiction, where made-up shops sit next to real ones, and only half the street names mentioned exist.
Sophie Hannah, who writes brilliant psychological thrillers, informed the audience at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival last year that if it were possible for something to happen once, she considered it okay to put it in a book. In other words, something doesn’t have to be probable, just possible, or at the very least plausible.
It’s fiction. Anything can happen. I’d love to know if you agree.
*this isn’t true. I made it up.