Facts in Fiction

Why fiction authors should get the facts straight in their writing.

The vast majority of people who want to be writers want to write fiction. While I don’t have the statistical sources to back up that claim, I don’t think anyone can deny it. There’s something about writing fiction that really appeals to people who want to write — including me. The only reason I don’t write fiction for publication is that I found that I could make a good living writing non-fiction. Making a living as a writer is more important to me than writing fiction.

With all that said, what many fiction writers don’t understand is the importance of getting their facts straight in what they write.

How Deep is Your Fictional World?

When you write fiction, you build a fictional world. The depth of your world — how similar it is to the real world — can vary.

Suppose, for example, that you’re writing a science fiction adventure that takes place on a distant planet that isn’t even very Earth-like. You’re making up the setting and all that goes with it. Is the sky on your planet pink? Are there four suns? Do the people have eyes where our mouths are and four arms instead of two? You’re making everything up. Your world may have nothing in common with the real world. You have license to make everything up as you go along.

Now suppose you’re writing a thriller that takes place in a Wall Street banking firm (if any are left). Wall Street is a real place in a real city. You’re not making any of that up. You might make up the firm and its customers. You’ll probably make up the characters and plot. But you’re still constrained by what’s real in your world. In New York, taxis are yellow and police cars are blue and white. (At least they were the last time I was there.) Wall Street is in Lower Manhattan and it’s crossed by Broadway. If you change any of these facts — or don’t get them straight — you’re making an error. (Of course, you could cheat by setting the plot in the distant future, thus adding a SciFi element to it. But do you really want to do that if it’s not part of the story?)

In many cases, you can ensure the accuracy of the facts in a piece of fiction by a lot of Googling or perhaps even a visit to Wikipedia. Other times, you need better resources — possibly even an “expert.”

I bring this up for two reasons:

  • I was recently asked a question by a writer about how a helicopter works. He wanted to get his facts straight.
  • I am repeatedly distracted by errors in facts in novels by authors who really should have the resources to get their facts straight.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Question from a Writer

The other day, someone posted the following comment on my post titled “How Helicopters Fly“:

I am writing a novel in which a helicopter goes out of control and starts spinning. How would a pilot pull out of a spin? Gyrating.

This is a good question — kind of. It’s good because the person who asks does not understand the technical aspects of what he wants to include as a plot point. He realizes that he lacks this knowledge and he’s actively trying to get it. Great!

Unfortunately, it’s not a question that can be easily answered — even by someone who knows what the answer might be. (And I’m really not sure why he included the single word “Gyrating” at the end of his comment. What does he mean by that?) My response to him tries to get this point across:

It really depends on how the helicopter got into that spin. Normally, the rotor pedals will stop a spin, but if the tail rotor’s gone bad (or chopped off), the pedals probably won’t help. Sometimes flying straight at a high speed can keep you from spinning with a non-functioning tail rotor.

It’s not at all like an airplane. You don’t “pull out of a spin.” You prevent yourself from getting into one; if you start to spin, you use your pedals to stop it before it gets out of control.

A better way for him to approach this problem would be to sit down with a helicopter pilot or instructor and ask him/her what might cause a helicopter to start spinning and how a pilot might recover from each cause. He can then fit one of those causes into his plot and have the pilot stop the spin.

But he shouldn’t stop there. After writing the passage concerning the spin and recovery, he should pass over those manuscript pages to a pilot and let him read them. Does it ring true? Is it feasible? Are the correct terms used? Doing this will ensure that the passage is error-free.

Errors in Best-Selling Fiction

As a writer and a helicopter pilot, I’m especially sensitive to helicopter-related errors in popular fiction. A while back, I read a Lee Child book that included scenes with a helicopter. It was full of errors. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The helicopter was in a fuel-critical situation. The author stated that it was better to be lower than higher if the helicopter ran out of fuel. (The exact opposite is true; you want to be higher if your engine quits so you have more options for autorotative landing.)
  • The helicopter pilot is killed by a character breaking his neck. The author has the helicopter pilot land on dirt before he kills him so it looks like he broke his neck when the helicopter crashed-landed when it ran out of fuel. (But the helicopter didn’t crash. It landed upright on its skids. If it had been a “crash landing” — even on its skids — the skids would have been spread and the helicopter would have had other signs of a hard landing.)

These are absolutely glaring errors to a helicopter pilot. They ruined the book for me. How could I slip into the author’s world when its connections to the real world are so screwed up? If he got this stuff so wrong, what else did he get wrong?

I found more errors like this — although admittedly not as bad — in the latest Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol. I’ll go through them in some detail in another post.

These Are Just Examples from My Real World

These are examples from my world, which includes helicopters. Maybe your world includes flying an airliner or managing an office building or designing computer security systems. Or anything that’s a lot more complex than it seems on the surface. When you read a piece of fiction and the author includes “facts” from your world as plot points — and gets them wrong — how do you feel? Doesn’t it bug you? Perhaps ruin the book for you?

The most commonly repeated advice to writers is to “Write what you know.” Although I agree with this and believe writers should start with what they know, there are often times when they have to stretch the boundaries and write a bit about what they don’t know. I believe they should make an extra effort to get the facts straight whenever they do this. And then go the final extra step in having an “expert” review the final written passages as a fact check before the book is published.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Facts in Fiction

  1. I saw an interesting one on TV. I’m no helicopter pilot (solo in sailplane gives me some background I suppose), so I could be wrong.

    Here’s how it went down:

    World blacks out (chopper pilot included). Everyone’s out for 2+ minutes. Everyone wakes up. Helicopter flies into building in level flight.

    It felt wrong to me because I didn’t think a typical helicopter would fly straight and level if left uncontrolled for 2 minutes.

    Thoughts on that one? If that outcome is feasible, then I’ll have new respect for the writers. Otherwise, it’s a hole that they were too lazy to sanity-check.

  2. I just finished a sci-fi that I enjoyed, but my enduring memory of the book is a glaring error of fact.

    The story is about humans in the future and on other worlds. At one point the ‘Highlanders’ arrive, in their kilts. They are fierce warriors. Clearly these are proud Scots. Yet the author repeatedly refers to them as the ‘English’.

    I simply cannot imagine a future where any Scot would countenance being called ‘English’.

    Mind you, the book was also marred by sloppy editing, with spelling errors and confused words, but the Scots / English thing is what I’ll take away for ever.

  3. ABC: No, I don’t think it’s possible — unless the helicopter was equiped with autopilot and it was enabled. Also, if you plan to comment again on this blog, please use your real name (or something that resembles one). Future comments from “ABC” will be deleted as spam.

    Miraz: Multiple errors in any piece of fiction really annoy me. But editing errors only make matters worse. Too bad these errors are what really sticks in your mind about this book.

What do you think?