Just the Facts, Ma’am

Twenty years or so ago, back around the turn of the century, I had a dandy idea for a murder mystery set in ancient Rome. (It’s called While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and it’s now available on Amazon, but that’s not what this post is about.) At the time I was living in Menlo Park, so it was an easy drive up the hill to Stanford to browse in the on-campus bookstore. I acquired quite a good library of academically oriented books about Roman culture. I read great swaths of the books. I underlined salient passages.

I viewed this as an essential part of the creative process. I didn’t want to make dumb mistakes by projecting modern assumptions onto the Romans. I wanted to get it right. I’m sure there are still a few highly debatable bits in the book, but I didn’t want to be slipshod.

There are several ingredients that are part of writing a decent novel. First, you have to tell a good story — a story that engages your readers and keeps them turning the page. That’s really the only thing that’s absolutely essential. With the other bits, you can play fast and loose if so inclined.

You need good characters. This is optional, however, not required. Some best sellers have shallow stock characters. You need to write well, but the standards here are somewhat lax. Lackluster prose will serve if the story is good.

And then it’s nice, as an added bonus, if you get your facts straight. This is, I’m sorry to say, not a requirement at all. I’ve read science fiction novels that clobbered the whole business of interstellar travel, computer science, or genetics, books that bludgeoned the science to death. You can win a Hugo or a Nebula with this sort of book. It’s been done.

But I don’t know how to do that. The idea of riding roughshod over the facts because I’m too lazy to do the research makes my skin crawl. And if the facts undercut the story, so much the worse for the story. I won’t cheat. I will occasionally let a loose end slip past me, but I always regret it afterward. And the main structure has to be solid.

This is why I may never write another novel. It’s just too darn much work. I have an idea for a science fiction story set in Los Angeles in 1933. I’ve done some preliminary research. But the amount of available information on LA totally fucking dwarfs the amount available on ancient Rome. There are photographs. There are maps. There are archives scattered in libraries across the Los Angeles landscape. All of which, were I to roll up my sleeves and start working on this story, I would have to dig into.

The technology of 1933 included elevators, typewriters, telephone switchboards bristling with cables, Model T Fords that had to be started by hand-cranking, cameras (had the flashbulb been invented in 1933?), and airplanes. Any of which, if it appears in the story, would have to be fact-checked. Trolley car routes and the amount of money required for carfare. Legal frameworks: Prohibition wasn’t repealed until the very end of 1933, so during the summer there would still have been speakeasies. Offshore gambling ships were a big deal in LA in 1933. J. Edgar Hoover was already a top dog in Washington, D.C., but his agency had not yet been renamed the FBI.

Sure, the research would be fun, up to a point, but it’s really endless. And at the end of the day, readers wouldn’t care. If anything, a lot of readers would be put off by this level of detail.

One of my plot ideas was to have a young African-American man offer to drive my young lady lead character (who is white) to an important rendezvous. Race relations would be a very interesting sub-topic for a book set in 1933, and I rather like this bit. It occurred to me that the young man might be injured, so she would have to drive his Model T, perhaps to take him to a doctor or to scout around on her own in places where a streetcar wouldn’t take her. But, nope. She would not have known how to start a Model T, much less shift gears. Driving a car was nowhere near as simple a matter as modern readers (and writers) would imagine. If you want to learn about the Model T, head on over to YouTube. That’s where I picked up these bits.

Possibly the complexity of all this will explain why at the moment I’m putting most of my time into composing music. The lovely thing about music is, there’s no logic to it. If you like the sound of a particular chord, use that chord! Nobody can tell you it’s wrong. The more you know about music theory, the more sophisticated options you’ll have, but ultimately the only arbiter of “correctness” is your own taste.

Don’t try to use this justification if you screw up the details about a telephone switchboard or the gearshift on a Model T.

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