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Facts are important, some might say non-negotiable in your work. Get it right or make a fool out of yourself. But is getting it right in every single instance really essential? For beginning writers most would probably say, “Absolutely.” For seasoned authors, “Ehh….”
Facts are bendable, at least those that twitch about in the corner and catch the fancy in our eyes. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know your facts. Madame Du Barry escaping the French Revolution? Only if it’s speculative fiction. A gentleman in the 1780s wearing trousers instead of breeches? If he’s eccentric and fashionably progressive then why the hell not?
Checking, Rechecking, and Rechecking
As far as productivity goes, summer is the worst for my writerly mindset. It’s muggy, I can’t see my computer screen in broad daylight, and there are extra chores like yardwork. Well, yeah, pretty much yardwork.
Right now I’m knee deep in editing Round Two. It’s more painful than the first draft and by that I mean I’m questioning everything. Was the Marshalsea London’s Southwark debtors’ prison? Would a fashionable lady in the 1780s be caught dead wearing a pouf de sentiment? Can one really have a surfeit of admiration or is surfeit only used to denote negative excesses? And then there’s the real nitpicky: What month did foxglove bloom in the 1790s? Are hazelnuts more brown or gold?
Har-de-har-de-har. I can tell you already, I’ve looked up these answers several times. Like a scatterbrain, I assured myself they would glue to my memory. They didn’t. Yeah, I’m dumb with a capital D.U.M. I need to Excel spreadsheet this stuff.
So let me tell you, when I stumbled across this article Hilary Mantel on Getting Facts Right in Historical Fiction, I found the advice spot on for what I needed today. I especially loved the following:
“I heard Penelope Fitzgerald say that she did her research after a book, not before. Didn’t she get angry letters, asked a shocked member of the audience? Oh yes, she said, smiling. They tell me about the birds in the trees, she said; in no way could the hero, in such a place, in such a year, have seen or heard a collared dove! She had a certain way of smiling, which suggested a mind above ornithology, an imagination licensed for its own flights.”
Research after writing a book? I recently read about a bestselling author who does this. Maybe getting the words down first is the pivotal part of the process?
An imagination licensed for its own flights? Oh, God, I love this.
(p.s. – In case you’re wondering, factsy is not an acknowledged word in the dictionary. Yet.)