To tell the truth, the whole truth…or not

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I recently spoke to a group of seventh graders and their families at St. Raphael’s Catholic School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They’re working together on a Build-a-Book project and I was asked to talk to them about writing and being a writer. One of the things I told them, and one of the things I’ve always firmly believed, is that no matter how fictionalized your story is, it has to be realistic. It needs to have truth. Even in fantasy, things need to ring true to the reader or they won’t feel a connection, and subsequently will have a hard time following your story.
There are examples of this out there now. Take the Star Trek series. There’s a reason we now have real life items that look and perform similar to the futuristic counterparts from the stories. They were based on real science.
When Harry Potter waves his magic wand, the spells are based on mostly Latin terminology. Since many of our words today come from Latin, the spells have a familiarity to them. We can pretty much figure out that “Wingardium Leviosa” will make something float. Many of the creatures are based on mythology that we’re already familiar with. The setting is an accurate portrayal of life growing up in a boarding school albeit with some magic thrown in. These pieces of truth ground the reader in that fantasy world.
More so, if your space alien lands on the streets of New York, you need to have the details of the city accurate. If your ghost haunts a location people might be familiar with, you will lose them if describe that location incorrectly.
This has been a constant for me as I work on my upcoming novel. My main character does some time traveling. Not only does she go to many different eras, but she ends up involved with several historic events. This meant a lot of research on my part. For those of you who might not realize it, research is a big part of writing, no matter how long or short your piece is. Take for instance one of the chapters I did in “Where Do I Begin – One Woman’s Story.”
My outline was simply to describe how the two main characters spent time together on a cruise ship. First I had to take her date of birth and the age she was supposed to be and figure out what year it was when she was on this cruise. Turned out to be in the 1970’s. Then I needed to find out what activities were available on cruise ships during that time. If I had ignored that step and had them climbing a rock wall, or surfing the wave pool, it would have been inaccurate. Although cruise ships of today have those things, cruise ships back then didn’t. I have no doubt that some of my readers have been on those cruise ships and would have been frustrated with my inaccuracy.
So as you can imagine, when writing a historic fiction/time travel novel, the accuracy is imperative. It’s been a daunting task to get the myriad of details correct. Unfortunately it turns out the truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction. In one scene I have one character who’s deathly ill. I actually had to make sure that during that time in history the process to lower a fever was to cool the person down. You might laugh, but you can’t assume anything. While doing my research I found out that the common treatment for a burn was to hold the burned area over a flame! They believed it was better to get the burn to blister and for the blister to burst. Ouch! So I learned not to assume anything.
I recently read a part of my novel to my classmates in my writing class. Two questions came up after I read the dialog between two women in 1903, in which one of them, at age 35 is considering trying to conceive another child after losing her two daughters. The first question raised was her age, wasn’t she a bit too old to be having babies, weren’t women back then getting married young and having families young? My answer was no. My research showed that because of poor nutrition at that time, women didn’t even start their menstrual cycles until they were in their twenties. They may have married younger, but children came much later. The second question raised was whether or not birth control, or the idea of “trying” for a child was even a concept back then. Imagine my surprise when I researched the history of birth control. Not only was it a concept, it was widely accepted and used. The condom had been around since the 1600’s, the contraceptive sponge since the 1840’s, not to mention lectures and pamphlets circulated about the rhythm method as well as other methods to avoid pregnancy. It turns out that the idea of birth control and family planning was so prevalent that the Comstock Act of 1873 made any kind of family planning illegal. The law was quite routinely ignored. Believe it or not you could buy contraceptive devices from the Sears Roebuck Catalog in 1930!
So now I find myself faced with a conundrum, do I tell the truth and keep the facts accurate? Or do I lean toward the commonly held misconceptions? Will I do what I was trying to avoid in the first place and possibly have readers doubt the realism I’m trying to instill in my story by telling it accurately?
It was something to think about. In the end I’ve decided I have to tell the truth. It feels wrong not to. Not only do I feel strongly about being accurate in my details, but I also feel strongly in never underestimating the intelligence of my readers. I have to trust that if my readers get stuck on some detail, they will take the time to look it up.
So I have to stand with what I told those seventh grade students. Keep it real. Tell the truth. As a reader I’d rather learn something new, even if it means doing some research myself, than to know that facts the author presented are incorrect. Even in fiction, I want non-fiction.
The reader needs the truth, the whole truth, no matter how unbelievable.

5 thoughts on “To tell the truth, the whole truth…or not

  1. Dody, you might look at the research a little more closely for birth control in the early 1900s. In my research, I've found that at this particular time birth control was something only prostitutes did. Societal thinking did change drastically after WWI, but in the very early part of the 1900s, society still believed that a wife submitted herself to her husband and his wishes, unless the couple had an "enlightened" relationship, which some did, especially in the more progressive parts of society, but in quiet society most did not. It was still ok for men to have relationships with prostitutes before marriage, and even during marriage to relieve their urges. Many of these men infected their wives with stds and wondered why their children became blind soon after birth. Some even divorced their wives because they couldn't produce children–their wives had become ill or sterile bcs they were infected with stds from their husbands. I understand how difficult it is to research different time periods. I have found many helpful sources in Google books. I have found books, stories, and magazines (Good Housekeeping for one) that were published in the 1900s. It helps me understand how people spoke in that time period and how they interepreted the world around them in their own words, not in the words of a historian with a current perspective.Good luck! Linda Raether (from Ch. 1 Writer's group)


  2. Thanks Linda! It is fascinating to do the research, something I didn't think I'd enjoy. My research did show that the idea of birth control methods (although not all were not reliable), were widespread because of the many health issues associated with both childbirth and of the children themselves. Because it was so widespread, the Comstock Act of 1873 was enacted making any literature or contraceptive item illegal. I have dates and names of public lectures and medical and public health literature and pamphlets dating back to 1830's and statistics that indicate that as many as 11 out of 45 women were using the rhythm method in the 1840's. In 1830 a medical pamphlet was circulated quoted "Now it is her privilege and duty to preserve her health and to pass through confinement only as such intervals as is advantageous to her health, circumstances, and family." Despite the Comstock Act people routinely ignored the law resulting in many arrests, convictions, and fines; including many upper class, influential people. The end result is that the average number of births for white women dropped from 7.04 children in 1800 to 3.56 in 1900. It was during WWI that the public outcry led by people like Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman started to challenge the law (Both were arrested under the Comstock Act). The law against birth control was overturned in 1938.I'm glad you questioned my research. It made me go back over my facts and find additional information. I found a whole list of lectures and literature relating to women's health complete with authors and publication dates. Reading this stuff is amazing and enlightening!


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