Accuracy in Writing

A few months ago, I stumbled across an article questioning a historical fiction author’s responsibility to write stories that are factually accurate. (I give no opinion on this particular issue, other than to note that, when I was 12, virtually all of my knowledge of the Civil War came from historical romance. In high school, I discovered that most of what I “knew” was untrue.) But what about taking liberties with the world around us?

I’m not talking about fantasy or science fiction, or even magical realism. All of those genres take liberties with the world around us, but you still typically need to be consistent within the world that you’ve created (unless you’re Battlestar Galactica, the spaceship mysteriously stocked with a never-ending supply of Marlboro cigarettes). But when writing fiction, do you make efforts to be accurate?

When I was in college, I worked nights while going to school for a crime. My lunch break typically fell during primetime television. After a few weeks, the other employees politely asked that I take lunch elsewhere when certain cop shows were on television, because I couldn’t refrain from pointing out the inaccuracies. Loudly. Over and over.

But now that I’ve written a few manuscripts, my perspective is changing. My current WIP happens to have a couple of courtroom scenes. These scenes more or less comply with basic American jurisprudence. I am not writing “Civil Procedure: The Novel.” Thus, a lawyer reading my book may notice a few inaccuracies in the way evidence is produced to the judge or jury. I know that these things are inaccurate. So why am I doing it?

Because it would be really, really boring otherwise. A 3,000 word chapter could easily become 7,000 words. And the vast majority of my readers wouldn’t care. Nothing that occurs is so far beyond standard procedure to send a lawyer throwing a book against the wall (I hope). Heck, standard procedure is different in every state anyway, so even if I went to great lengths to make it 100% accurate based on what I know, the scene would still probably be wrong somewhere. But more importantly, no one wants to read ten pages of lawyers arguing over the admissibility of a piece of evidence, or three pages of a character explaining how they know that a phone bill really is, in fact, a phone bill (Yes, in court, that stuff really needs to be established sometimes.)

Personally, I think it’s OK to make certain adjustments in the interests of having a faster paced, more interesting book. Sometimes, people will ask me a question about the law and preface it with “I’m writing a novel…” Then they’ll proceed to ask a zillion detailed questions about every little thing that could ever happen inside a courtroom. I’m happy to give an overview, but there’s often a point where I’m tempted to say, “Just make it up. It’ll be far more interesting.”

What about you? Do you strive to make your work as accurate as possible? Or do you take artistic license?

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