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Facts And, Yes, Alternative Facts

Volume XII, Issue One | March 2017

Several years ago, I asked an historian to read the manuscript of True Sisters for errors. It’s my book about the 1856 Mormon Handcart tragedy. She reported back that a certain medical procedure I had written about had not been performed on any of the immigrants in the company. I was upset. While the operation was not critical to the plot, it was a nice side story with an interesting twist, and I wanted to keep it. Eliminating it meant a great deal of rewriting, too. So I called my editor and explained the dilemma. She thought a moment and said, “Nonfiction is about what happened. Fiction is about what could have happened.” I thought about accuracy recently when I reviewed a couple of books for my monthly Denver Postcolumn on books of regional interest. The column was about three “women’s westerns,” as I dubbed them. In one of the books, the heroine does a dozen impossible things. It’s a stretch, but I suppose she could have accomplished all that. I gave her a pass because it’s fiction. In another book, based on a real story, the author changes how the couple met and includes a story long discredited by historians. That goes too far.

So when can you deviate from what really happened?

You can’t change the truth. Some years ago, I read a book involving a labor confrontation in a western mining camp. The author noted that the contretemps had actually taken place a year or two after the book was set, but for plot purposes, he had moved it up. That’s a no-no. That’s like changing the starting date of World War II to 1944. So that constitutes an error.

Accuracy matters in fiction. Readers love to find little facts you get wrong. A reader emailed me once that in Tallgrass, I have a cop putting handcuffs on a man with his arms behind his back. Cops didn’t do that in the 1940s, she wrote. A man would have been cuffed with his hands in front of him. I realized she was right when I saw the old Kirk Douglas movie “The Detective Story.” In A Lost Lady, Willa Cather has a character stay in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel five years before it was built. Those are errors, not very important ones, granted, but they are inaccuracies nonetheless.

Of course, there are times when an inaccuracy is at the crux of the story. Take The Trial of George Armstrong Custer. The book’s thesis is that Custer survived the Little Bighorn and was put on trial. But you know at the beginning that the author is rewriting history.

Sometimes authors fudge accuracy. Remember “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” the TV series? Dr. Quinn was a brilliant doctor who fought sexual and racial stereotypes, stood up to men, helped minorities, and so on. She was a great role model. Was she accurate? Hardly. She was a 20th century woman in long skirts. But that’s poetic license. The series wouldn’t have lasted a season if the good doctor had been true to her Victorian era.

There is such a thing as being too accurate. You have to keep your readers in mind. When I wrote The Diary of Mattie Spenser, I used 19th century spellings—Spanyard instead of Spaniard, for instance. My agent told me that got old awfully fast. And in Buster Midnight’s Café, my narrator originally used poor grammar. She probably would have, but readers don’t like that. There are times your readers demand inaccuracy. In the 1930s, when New Mercies is set, people in the South used racial terms to refer to African Americans. Those words are so offensive today that there was no way I would use them in a book, even though they would have been accurate.

There is a place for such words, however, although you don’t use them lightly. In Alice’s Tulips, a bad character refers to an escaped slave by the N word. I think the word was appropriate because it underscored the evilness of the speaker and how he chose to degrade the black man with a objectionable term. Still, a reader told me that because I’d used that word, she’d never read my books again.

Right now, I’m working on something set in the mid-19th century. People didn’t use contractions then. I’m not sure the dialogue will sound right to modern ears if my characters keep saying “I will” instead of “I’ll” and “do not” instead of “don’t.” It takes a new mindset to write that way, too. I’ll wait until I’m finished and see if the language is too stilted when I reread the manuscript .

Incidentally, I kept the medical procedure in True Sisters. Nobody’s complained.—SD

Hardscrabble To Be Published Next Year

Sandra’s third mid-grade novel, Hardscrabble, will be published by Sleeping Bear Press. Publication date is March, 2018.