Fact (and feasibility) checking
by Catriona Tippin
Polar bears with penguins? Dinosaurs with prehistoric people?
Unless a plot explicitly allows, these are a couple of the impossibilities that have cropped up in children’s books. Check your facts…
The internet is awash with inaccuracies, half truths, misinterpretations and egregious falsehoods!
Writing non-fiction –check for accuracy
If you’re writing non-fiction you’ll know the importance of fact checking. You have to consult original documents, and collect accurate information, at the research stage. This may sound blindingly obvious, but the internet is awash with inaccuracies, half truths, misinterpretations and egregious falsehoods!
Wikipedia is useful but has its limitations, with every definition at the mercy of its voluntary editors.
Here are two examples of the sort of mischief presented there as fact: a journalist on the Telegraph recently claimed he inserted some nonsense about an eponymous rose in the Muhammad Ali entry which lasted for years, and my Aberdeen secondary school alumni at one time included the artist currently known as Prince (nah, I’d have noticed). What Wikipedia can be useful for is the list of footnotes linking to original sources, that’s where you’ll actually get your fact checking done. For contemporary facts the BBC Journalism style guide, and all the broadsheet newspaper style guides, are dependable.
Writing fiction – check for plausibility
Researching your scene setting, whether for a medieval castle or the International Space Station, is an absorbing (and tax deductible) task. You may find you have subsequently stuffed your story with every fact you’ve uncovered. Descriptive excess is sometimes a hazard of enthusiastic fact checking, try it out on your crit group.
I think this illustrates the tightrope which fantasy fiction writers walk. The reader must suspend disbelief, and the writer must not threaten that with anything implausible. Young readers can be surprisingly perceptive on what works and what doesn’t. If your readers are comfortable with the genre/world/trope you’re working with, you owe them consistency. So check your tropes!
Obviously, you can create whatever you like in a fictional world, but a crit group and/or a reader or two to test on are useful. Conventions exist for an assortment of sub-genres: vampires, steampunk, dystopian, whatever. Your writing can play with these, but remember to keep the reader on board. If you’re challenging a trope, are you surprising your reader, or your
Hand wave / heads up / lampshade hanging
Sir Toby Belch: Is it possible?
Fabian: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. —
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene IV
Lampshade hanging has been indulged in by the best of them. Perfectly illustrated above, this is the foible/trick/shortcut of calling attention to any threat to the reader/audience’s suspension of disbelief, and then moving on.
Here’s a quote from the (useful) website www.tvtropes.org:
“The reason for this counter-intuitive strategy is two-fold. First, it assures the audience that the author is aware of the implausible plot development that just happened, and that they aren't trying to slip something past the audience. Second, it assures the audience that the world of the story is like Real Life: what's implausible for you or me is just as implausible for these characters, and just as likely to provoke an incredulous response”.
Ah, yes, time travel. If your plot includes this then you’ll have to do some time travel trope logic checking rather than fact checking. For research purposes, you could sit down with a pile of movies on the theme, how about Back to the Future, Twelve Monkeys , Primer, Idiocracy and Looper. Not all suitable for family viewing, but good for a selection of time travel tropes. And there’s always Doctor Who’s description, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff" to take care of any hiccups in your plot.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.