Friday, August 5, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 1 of 8)

Background is important, especially in fiction. It gives the sense of readers being there. But we need to be careful.

My friend Julie Garmon, who writes for Guideposts, said the editors hate stories that begin with a weather report. I'd go so far as to say that most readers don't want a weather report anywhere in the article or book unless it pertains to what's happening.

Here's lesson number one: Don't fake the background. I read a novel in which a man took a direct flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis. One of my friends informed him, "You can't get a direct flight."

Minor detail? Perhaps, but there are always readers who know. By contrast, an editor wrote my agent, "I've never been to Africa, but Murphey makes the setting real." (He didn't offer a contract, but I appreciated his comment.)

I read a bio in which a man, in 1934, chewed Bazooka Bubble Gum. Bazooka was a World War II weapon and the gum came out of that era. The author meant Fleers. It was a minor detail but it caused me to distrust the writer's integrity on important facts.

If readers can't trust us on minor things,
how can they know we're correct on important things?


  1. Great point, Cec! That's why I research and research, and I still shake in fear and tredidation at what my readers may find that is not "up to snuff."

  2. I’ve received two emails so far about inaccuracies in books. It is disgusting, isn’t it, to read something and know it’s wrong. I assume it’s either laziness or the writers “think” they know.

    Years ago in my early fiction, I centered a story around a young woman who worked for a weekly newspaper. I was certain I knew the correct information, but to be sure, I called a reporter on a weekly paper. She read two chapters that took place in the newspaper office. I was wrong on several little things. Little things—not the big ones. She corrected me and I was grateful.

    Twice I’ve had people correct me and they were wrong. My novel, Everybody Wanted Room 623, was set in DeKalb County, GA (just outside Atlanta) and I have one police officer in a patrol car. One woman wrote and told me that they “always have two officers together.” (I think she got her information from TV.) I live 1.2 miles from the police station and see their vehicles daily. I’ve never seen a second officer in the patrol car.

  3. Thanks for making the point about accuracy in fiction. I though I was the only one who found mistakes of fact, in fiction, disconcerting. I've read stories where authors have made mistakes in how one obtains a driver licence in California; had the wrong species of birds in an area, and had the protagonist drive across L.A. on the wrong freeway.


What are your thoughts?