There I was happily immersed in a Lynda La Plante thriller when DCI Jane Tennison drove down Chancery Lane and turned left onto Fleet Street. I was so distracted I had to stop reading. What was the problem? Well, I have worked on Fleet Street for 20 years and Chancery Lane was, and still is, a one-way street, but going the other way. This minor inaccuracy, which some would say doesn’t matter in the slightest and most of the population wouldn’t even have spotted, grated on me and diverted from the narrative. It got me thinking about the importance of accuracy and research, even in fiction.
True, the wrong direction one-way street incident was irrelevant to the plot of the novel. But as readers, the writer asks us to suspend disbelief and buy totally into their characters, plot and narrative. It needs to be as ‘real’ as possible (unless, of course, it’s sci-fi, a genre which I know next to nothing about as a writer or a reader and which has its own rules). As a proofreader accuracy and consistency are king and I am obsessive about both.
A recent chick lit novel had a character complaining that her new cottage didn’t have a dishwasher, while two chapters later she was banging crockery into the dishwasher angrily The same woman left the house at 3am and then, after spending two hours chasing a lost dog, commented that the time was coming up to 3am. (This was a top ten bestseller from a famous publishing house, by the way!) Another novel by one of my favourite authors saw a judge in the High Court banging a gavel. During my 20 years in the legal profession I have never seen a gavel used in the High Court. I think TV judge Robert Rinder might use one for the cameras.
So does carelessness, lazy editing or artistic licence matter in fiction? Yes, I think so. Careful research adds depth and richness to a story and is never wasted. Consistency in names and times will be spotted by an eagle-eyed reader. If your heroine’s mum is called Kathy in chapter two and Karen in chapter ten it will sidetrack from your story as much as a Victorian protagonist named Chardonnay. Characters should ideally have every detail of their lives and back story plotted in the planning stage, everything from birthday to phobias, to add credibility to them as real people.
TV and movie inaccuracies are often gleefully pounced on by viewers and have had whole programmes devoted to them. Many production companies hire continuity people to pick up on every last little detail and check it ties in, ie no digital watches in a Regency drama. Coronation Street gets a tremendous amount of correspondence pointing out that the Rovers Return loos are actually in the Barlow’s house. (Yes, I missed that one but now every time I watch it amuses me – and annoys me a little bit too!)
So what about the equivalent in writing? At worst, inaccuracies could get you sued, particularly in non-fiction. At best, you might alienate your reader. So edit, re-edit, check and then check some more. Then get a second pair of eyes to cross-check. The devil really is in the detail. And if anyone does see a judge using a gavel in the High Court, please let me know.