Lately I’ve noticed a number of threads at various forum message boards about balancing facts in fiction or how much fact should be in fiction writing, especially historical fiction.
My general thoughts on the matter are that like any other element in a story it’s all about balance. Moreover I think certain stories probably require a little more attention to factual detail than others. On the other hand, if the facts get in the way of telling the story then the writer needs to do or probably should have done something else. It’s all subjective though I suppose.
As for my own writing, I tend to do a lot of research in order to get details right and to give myself background flavour and insight into what I’m writing about. This research can be both a plus and a bit of a bane. Sooner or later, one has to stop researching and just get on with the writing.
One of the questions that a few people have asked about my debut novel, The Jolly Lobster, is whether or not the speakeasy (of the same name) actually existed. The answer is no. Water Street, the street it resided on exists and the area it is located in was home to a great many speakeasies. Water and Barrington Streets were quite busy places in the booze trade back in the day...Speaking of which, if you’re familiar with Halifax you’ll know that Alexander Keith's Brewery is located on Lower Water Street, mere steps as it turns out from my fictional speakeasy.
How Keith’s brewery fared during prohibition is a question I actually asked them during my research phase. Unfortunately they didn’t have an answer for me. We are talking about a period of history where some of the facts are buried, lost or forgotten – in some cases conveniently so, in other cases not; it’s just the passage of time. In the case of Alexander Keith’s Brewery, Oland Brewery and any other specific Canadian distilleries and breweries, I decided to not mention them as I felt it would be too distracting to the story. The story isn’t about them really.
As for The Jolly Lobster itself, it’s based on a number of bars, hotels, dives, houses and other buildings I’ve been in over the years, both structurally and atmospherically.
As a former Army reservist one of the things that I can’t help being aware of in novels and movies are weapons. More specifically, I’m painfully aware of errors when it comes to weapons handling and types of weapons used. I almost ran into this problem myself – well sort of. After I had finished writing my first draft I was going through my handwritten manuscript looking for errors. I think I went over it twice before I twigged to what was bothering me about the story. I had this nagging sense that there was a glaring error. The error in question was my choice of weapons; the original draft had a number of guys toting Thompson Submachine Guns, better known as “Tommy Guns”, aka “Trench Sweeper” and “Chicago Typewriter” and even “Chicago Piano”.
The Tommy Gun is probably the symbol of the gangster era. And my story has gangsters and speakeasies – it’s a great fit. Except that the initial production of the M1921 was in 1920 and amounted to 15,000 guns. So I felt it wasn’t likely that at that point in time the Thompson would have been as common a weapon for criminals as it was when the M1928 rolled out – especially in Canada. Rats! So yeah, I had some rewriting to do.
Sometimes I wish that I could just ignore “little details” like this but then I remember that if I was the reader and came across something like that I’d be inclined to dismiss the book as not being accurate or at the very least not plausible.
There’s other little nuggets of factual items in my novel but I think I would prefer for my readers to discover them for themselves. And on that note, if you haven’t already read The Jolly Lobster, please do -- It’s currently available as a Kindle eBook at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.