Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Lately I’ve overheard people making offhand comments to the effect that “It was fiction, so [something like whether wyrms have two legs or four, or cyanide really tastes like bitter almonds, or why the sea is boiling hot, or whether pigs have wings] is just made up.” It’s the idea that because the events of the story never happened, or the people in it don’t exist, the things around them — descriptions of their surroundings, perhaps, if it’s historical fiction, or the tools they’re using, aren’t to be trusted as accurate depictions of reality.

First of all, there is no good reason to think this. Suppose someone in the future wrote something about, say, how Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. And suppose a small scene or piece of description had to do with some small detail (unrelated to the election) that’s familiar to us now, but won’t even be in the history books written in a hundred years. Suppose the authour did a lot of careful research to make sure that part would be accurate, knowing the impression that good or slovenly research can make on an educated audience. Suppose they actually got it right. And then suppose that this future audience, reading the book, assumed that as Event A did not happen, Thing B did not exist. Why? I don’t know, but that’s what readers often do. There’s no real logical connection.

People don’t realize the amount of research writers do, even on seemingly insignificant things that only appear briefly. We want to create an air of reality. We want the atmosphere to be consistent. And because publishers and informed readers want stories to be as realistic as possible, we have to. (Only real life often doesn’t follow the same rules, but as it’s real life it’s hard to argue with it. Some people try to do so, and they usually end up insane.)

But there’s no point getting very angry, even as a writer who does a lot of research even when it isn’t historical fiction I’m working on, and would like people to notice that and not assume that because it’s in a (fictional) story it’s not true. Many of the same people who assume that everything written in a piece of fiction is itself fiction also read the newspaper, or listen to the news on the radio, or read things online, and swallow them whole. Authours do get a sort of poetic justice in the end.

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About Nolie Alcarturiel

Christian, student of Philosophy, writer, SCAdian. Crazy cat lady who likes to keep cats and birds at the same time, and who's too young to be called an old cat lady. Medievalist. Creative Writing major, Philosophy minor.
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30 Responses to Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

  1. Hope Ann says:

    This is so true. My fantasy stories are fantasy, but I still try to keep everything realistic… How fast could a horse really travel? How long would it take such wounds to heal? Etc. Some things, like traditions, I can make up. But when things connect to what we know, such as the human body or such, I try to be as accuate as I can be.

    Like

    • thegermangolux says:

      Such as when you are researching nanotechnology and tracking devices, for example. Good for you.

      Purely out of curiosity, do you write science fiction at all?

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        Oh, that doesn’t look creepy at all.

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      • thegermangolux says:

        As noted by the host of this blog, that came out really creepy. It sounded great in that part of my mind that enjoys hypothetical scenarios, but said (or written) out loud – it looks at home in the comment section of the blog of a writer.

        Because writers are creepy by nature, right? I’m a poet, which according to traditional depiction, makes me less creepy, and more hopelessly romantic, absent-minded, and vague of speech. Knowing that I fit this description, I assume that my estimation of the creepiness of writers is also correct, and trust that the creepiness of my comment will be accepted and forgiven.

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        Considering that I just spend 500 words in the mind of an antagonist, I’m not really one to talk about writers being creepy. From what I know of Hope, I think she’ll understand.

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      • Hope Ann says:

        Yes, some. Well, it is a mix of dystopian (without the world being destroyed) and science fiction (without space travel). I like to call it futuristic fiction. 😉 And I’ve read books on topics from how the brain works to how the internet works to hacking as ‘research’. (Well, that and I just tend to read a random assortment of books…)

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        By the way, Hope, the Golux is Isaiah, so he didn’t gain his knowledge by hacking.

        “Do you always start conversations this way?”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hope Ann says:

        Ah, that explains it. I wondered if he was on Kingdom Pen or something. 🙂

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      • thegermangolux says:

        I’d never heard of Kingdom Pen until you mentioned it. Looks interesting.

        No, I’m Isaiah, and nothing else. Much like the Golux, I am the only one of my kind, for better or worse. My mind travels in similar realms and patterns to that of the Golux, wavering between creativity and forgetfulness.

        I also have some background in electronics, which is why I got excited about trackers and nanotechnology and stuff. I know nothing of hacking, though, so rest assured. Your bank account and secret high-tech vigilante cave are safe from me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hope Ann says:

        Good. Because if anyone broke into my secret cave and discovered my true identity under all the writerly weirdness, I might have to kill them. Or at least wipe their memory. And I hear the side effects of the latter can be most unpleasant, including symptoms such as headaches, nauseousness, and forgetfulness. You have been warned.

        Futuristic technology of all kinds is fun. Especially the tracking and hacking. Except it is a pain when my characters are super smart scientists or hackers, doing things we aren’t able to do today, and I don’t know the first thing about their subject matter. One of the many problems of a writer: creating characters more clever than yourself.

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      • thegermangolux says:

        That’s where you either make your characters smart in a way that no one can criticize them, right? In which case, you’re either making them so futuristic that no one can relate to their knowledge, or so vague that no one can draw any conclusions about what they know. Neither of which is desirable, I suppose.

        That, or research the bejeebers out of your characters, and pick up a couple Ph.D’s while you’re at it. I guess I don’t have character dilemmas when I write poetry, so I can’t relate exactly to your predicament. But I have used words in poems that didn’t mean what I thought they did, which ruined the poem. So, with some small degree of, “I know how you feel,” I say, Good luck! Should you ever publish the tracker story, I’ll be first in line at the bookstore.

        As to wiping my memory, don’t bother. If I find your secret cave, I’ll have forgotten all about it in a day or two. My memory is a wonder to behold, but not in a good way.

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        Hope would know what the side affects of wiping somebody’s memory are.

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      • thegermangolux says:

        Through first-hand experience, second-hand accounts, or research on the matter?

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        I don’t remember?

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      • Hope Ann says:

        A pity I don’t have time for a Ph. D in say…hacking. Can you even get something like that? I guess it would be disguised under the name of computer code or some such, wouldn’t it.

        Perhaps if I use a mixture of rational explanations, plus terms that even the MC can’t understand, I call pull off sounding futuristic yet relateable…

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      • thegermangolux says:

        I’ll take it. If I should ever read one of your stories (which I would love to do, by the way) I will go into it expecting to be confused but satisfied.

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        She has some published already, on Amazon. They’re novellas, so they’re short, but they’re also pretty inexpensive. You could also look at her website — she has stuff there too.

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      • Hope Ann says:

        I know about memory wiping though second hand experience…conversing with a character who has gone through it and all. 😉 But that book (my futuristic one) won’t be in a readable state for a few months yet. I am hoping for some feedback on it at that point, but I’m not sure who will get to read it yet… 😀

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      • Hope Ann says:

        Also, nothing creepy about it… Just writerly. 😉

        Like

  2. I would not want to put this to the test. but Does cyanide really taste like bitter almonds?

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    • noliealcarturiel says:

      So I’ve read in detective stories. I wouldn’t want to test the hypothesis myself; I wonder how anybody who had first-hand experience lived long enough to write a report.

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      • thegermangolux says:

        You can take small doses of cyanide, and gradually build up an immunity to it. I cite ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Princess Bride’ as examples (which is uniquely appropriate to this comment chain, since I’m now using fiction to support a real-life idea).

        If you ever write a story in which a character accidentally eats petroleum grease, such as is used for greasing the moving parts of machinery, contact me. I’ve experienced that, anyway. But I’m cyanide free, happy to say.

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        How exactly could you accidentally eat petroleum grease? I find it hard to imagine doing that without noticing. Petroleum jelly is supposedly edible.

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      • thegermangolux says:

        I was greasing a semi-truck from the underside, and a loose glob fell into my mouth.

        It tastes nasty.

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      • noliealcarturiel says:

        The practical advice would be to keep your mouth closed while greasing the bellies of trucks.

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  3. Well, if I was poisoned with cyanide, I don’t think my last words would be “it tasted like bitter almonds”.

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  4. E.W. Neilan says:

    I find myself looking up the strangest things for my fantasy novel in order to work out the background details. I’ve spent at least half an hour looking up who invented the refrigerator in order to make a single line about an ice wagon coming up the street. This ice wagon had no significance whatever; it just gave the world a feel for the period aesthetic I’m going for.

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    • noliealcarturiel says:

      Often it’s those little, obscure details that have the most importance. Without them, even if everything else is just right, something’s missing that keeps that other world from being fully real to us. That kind of research is definitely worth the work and time it takes.

      Like

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