Errors, bloopers and creative license…the facts about fiction

A blooper can make brown eyes blue

Ask readers to define the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and most probably would say nonfiction is true or factual while fiction is not true or make-believe.

But no matter imaginative a work of fiction appears to be, a whole lot of truth and fact goes into crafting the story. I’ve learned a lot of “facts” from reading fiction. I first heard of a BlackBerry, kudzu and eating beans on toast in novels.

I once created a heroine who drove a red Mazda Miata. I’d seen the small sports car on the road and liked the looks. But when my heroine and hero went on a picnic in the heroine’s car, it raised questions. Where would they put the picnic basket? The Miata is a two-seater. Would the basket fit in the trunk? Did the Miata HAVE a trunk?  (I couldn’t remember). I had to do some research to find out. I’m continually checking small facts like that.

Even writing in paranormal, fantasy or science fiction genres requires authors to deal with accepted lore. You couldn’t write about a vampire unaffected by sunlight, garlic, holy water and crosses without explaining why.

While fiction writers sit at their computers and make stuff up, we still have to guard against running afoul of the facts.

Fiction authors slip up in three ways:

  • Technical errors – These are actual errors of fact. Real east-west roads in real towns change direction in an author’s novel and become north-south. A certain gun model is identified by the wrong caliber. The blue U.S. Passport is mistakenly given a new color. Ignorance or negligence cause technical errors. Either the author didn’t know he or she was wrong or he or she failed to verify the facts. Some readers won’t notice technical errors, but people-in-the-know will.
  • Bloopers – These mistakes are accidents. In the beginning of the book, the character has brown eyes. By the middle, his eyes are green. A woman walks into a restaurant wearing a skirt and walks out wearing jeans. One my favorite personal bloopers (which I caught, thank goodness!) occurred when I said a character’s parents were dead. Later in the story, I had the parents babysitting! Bloopers occur because the author forgot what he or she said or because the author decided to change something in the manuscript and didn’t catch all the references.
  • Creative license – This occurs when an author deliberately stretches the truth to create a “better” story. The diehard hero is beaten, knifed, shot, dragged behind a vehicle and still manages to fling insults at his tormentors, save the free world and get the girl. The cop/FBI agent/Navy SEAL tells his superiors to f-off and goes rogue to protect the heroine. Whether creative license works depends on the genre, the author’s skill, and the reader’s ability and willingness to suspend disbelief.

Authors should know that errors annoy readers. My own husband allows only two technical errors per book. When he finds a third mistake, he abandons the novel in disgust. (He used to tear them in half, until I told him to stop doing that and donate the book to charity instead!). Some readers are bothered by one kind of error, but not another.

Readers should know that authors cringe and engage in much gnashing of teeth and/or consumption of alcohol if they find an error in their published story. It’s an occupational hazard we try to avoid.

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9 Responses to Errors, bloopers and creative license…the facts about fiction

  1. I spend a lot of time tracking down factoids like your Miata boot, too, but I still live in fear that someday I’ll be read by somebody like your husband, and found lacking. Also, having done a bit of editing, I know that there are usually a couple lines of defense to keep the most egregious errors from showing up in print. Unfortunately, even the combined superpowers of writers and editors can’t fix everything up perfect. Great post here; it certainly reflects a lot of my personal worries!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Thanks, Vivien for commenting. Here’s another thought: You build a house, it’s not perfect. The walls aren’t plumb, you find little defects that the contractor has to come back and fix. You buy a new car and you have take it in to fix little things. You buy a major appliances, and sometimes they don’t work right and have to be repaired. You build something from a kit and you can’t always put it together exactly the way the instructions say. Yet, people expect a book to be perfect.

  2. I usually avoid books, even if they are rated 5 stars and every person who has read it is salivating about its greatness, if it has anything to do with something I am too familiar with. Cop books are the number one avoidance simply because we are a cop family. It isn’t because I don’t like the author or think the book isn’t worthy. It is because I have a certain expectation in a book about cops that I want to see met and sometimes that line is going to be blurred simply because the author might love cops, gone on a ride-along and then went home and wrote a story that really isn’t probable. If I pick up a book with a cop hero, I have to put aside the knit-picker and say, this is like watching CSI or Southland, some stuff is going to be so way off base for the entertainment angle, so just have fun reading about the hot dudes. The other trope I avoid like the plague are books based on Hollywood. We are a Tinsel-Town family and most people don’t have a clue what it is like to actually live in this world. So, when I read fictional romances with those themes, which is really rare, I go into it ready to roll my eyes. Then, I hope the romance will take me past the world, so I can enjoy it like all the other readers.
    Great post Cara. Hope you don’t mind my little vent session, lol. Time for more coffee.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Christa, avoiding certain books is probably a good idea! I think that cops, doctors, prosecutors, etc. must gnash their teeth when they watch TV.

  3. Blak Rayne says:

    I keep a separate notebook for each novel I write, so I can jot down all the finer details – all my characters descriptions, ages, birth dates, relatives etc. That way if I get confused or believe I may have made a mistake I’ve got a reference to fall back on. It’s been a life safer! Technical errors, bloopers and creative license can be bad, yes, but I find what really drives me up the wall is spelling and grammatical errors. You’re going to have a few because nothing and no one is perfect, but when a novel is overrun with them it’s cause for concern. This forces me to question the editor’s abilities and the quality of novels the publisher is releasing. Great post, Cara! Thanks!

  4. To enjoy a book, I have to ‘get into it’ and really believe in what I am reading. If one of the characters turns out to be a bullet proof superhero, I lose interest because who could believe in that? Or Ludlumesque hitmen who wonder from country to country without visas, and have immediate access to high-powered pistols (and use them ALL THE TIME!). Or nymphomaniacs, or normal women who go off and give threesome sex a try (when did any of your friends ever do that?)

    Fantasy is OK. I can believe in witches, as long as they behave rationally. I can’t believe in Charmed, or Buffy because each time they open a closet, a demon pops out. I want fantasy with its feet on the ground.

  5. Mary Quast says:

    I love the research part of writing. I even wrote on location many times. In some cases I had to rework my idea.

    Once, I presented a questionable sex scene to my writers group. The Erotic writer in the group sat back, shook his head and said it wasn’t possible. Then several older women in the group became very vocal stating that it was most definately possible. I was afraid to question them how they knew out fear that I’d have to go to therapy afterwards.

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