Friday, November 1, 2013

Getting Technical Facts Right in Fiction Writing

While enjoying a fairly new mystery thriller set more or less in the present, I read about military guards being armed with M1 carbines. This was something of a jolt for me, because I know that the early Vietnam years were the latest that U.S. armed forces regularly used this weapon. In many other novels, some by highly popular authors, I often discover similar anachronisms, such as placing in WW2 fiction weapons not then developed. I’ve seen some authors use the words revolver to describe all pistols. I have found many other questionable technical details in popular fiction. For some reason, this really bothers me, especially because the right information is so readily available today on the Internet.

I believe an author has a responsibility to make his fiction as plausible as possible. Getting the details right is essential to complete plausibility. For knowledgeable readers, and there are hoards of them out there, hitting an obviously wrong detail interrupts the flow of the prose and may cause irritation. This isn’t a good reaction for the author.

Before penning both of my novels, a spent many hours in exhaustive research. When I first began writing, this required lots of time in libraries. I treat research as a puzzle, digging for the answer I want until I discover it. Only when I’m convinced that I’m on firm ground do I plunge ahead with the writing.

The dogfights in my new novel, Hold Back the Sun provide an example. My Dutch protagonist, Captain Garret Laterveer, is flying an obsolescent Brewster Buffalo against modern Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy (IJN) fighters. I read everything I could find both in print and on the Internet about the actual experience of Dutch pilots early in the Pacific War. Surprisingly, some of them had success, especially against the Army Nakajima fighters in Malaya. The IJN Zeros were another matter. At the time, this aircraft was probably the best fighter in the world. Yet some Dutch pilots did shoot them down. In my research, I found that the Brewster aircraft had a number of the same strengths and weaknesses of the P-40 fighters used successfully against Zeros by the Flying Tigers. Applying artistic license, I allowed the Dutch to use Flying Tiger tactics.

I know the old saw, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and I have used it myself to alter history to make the plot go the way I want it. However, I do not believe this justifies incomplete research. Our readers deserve our best efforts.


  1. Great article Mr. Bell! I like doing a lot of research before writing. Mor ewriters need to do the same

    1. Thanks very muvh for your comment. I really appreciate it!