I enjoy writing fiction because I can create stories by combining my memories, observations, and experiences with the “made-up stuff” from my imagination.
But I feel as responsible to facts and figures as any nonfiction writer. I must honor the truth of the place and time I’ve chosen for my story and make sure that the details are accurate and consistent. I can’t “make stuff up” from laziness or for convenience sake.
“But it’s fiction!” you might say. “It’s not supposed to be completely real. Who cares if some small detail isn’t quite right?”
But I say that we do expect veracity and consistency in the world of a story. Readers would squawk, for example, if a character in a realistic story set in 1930’s New York suddenly picked up a cell phone. An author can’t throw in any detail he/she chooses because a novel is an exercise in “making stuff up.”
Or consider science fiction and fantasy novels, the ultimate in “made-up stuff.” Readers rely on the rules and assumptions for the worlds that the sci-fi/fantasy author has created. If characters have eighteen ears and cruise around on wheeled elephants, these wild-and-crazy details must hold throughout the story, not switching to three ears and wheel-less pachyderms unless these changes are incorporated as part of the story line.
Because I care about telling the truth in fiction, I chose to set Always Gardenia in contemporary Seattle so that it would be easier to research settings, weather, and sensory details. (And here I will offer a deep bow to those writers of excellent historical fiction for the copious research they do to accurately capture the people and places of other eras.) One warm summer afternoon I tread the sidewalks of Capitol Hill until I “found” the apartment building where Arnold Wiggens lives. I wandered around Pike Place Market, jotting notes as I imagined Gardenia on an outing with her son and his family.
Always Gardenia takes place from late March to early June; Gardenia notices and enjoys the leisurely spring of the Pacific Northwest, so I charted on a calendar when the jonquils, tulips, cherry blossoms, and rhododendrons were blooming and referred to these notes when creating scenes.
This calendar also helped me keep track of the timing of scenes and how many days and weeks were passing between different events. I redid the calendar three times as I discovered that my chronology was off. What a pain! But I couldn’t have characters remembering something that hadn’t happened yet or doing something on Thursday that was supposed to happen on a Saturday.
I was proud of my commitment to accuracy, but when my editor, Robin Cruise, read the manuscript, she found several mistakes. Among other problems, I had quoted Chaucer and Shakespeare and a Blake poem incorrectly and had referred to the tourist-desintation Starbucks in the Pike Place Market as the first-ever store — the original had, in fact, been on Western Avenue.
Here I offer a deep bow to fastidious editors!