A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein
My husband the businessman often talks about a thing called ‘duty of care’. Here’s the Wikipedia link to its usage in English law, which is generally what he’s referring to.
Loosely speaking, as the article says, ‘a duty of care arises where one individual or group undertakes an activity which could reasonably harm another, either physically, mentally, or economically.’ On the simplest level, when you drive a car you have a ‘duty of care’ not to endanger anyone with your driving.
On a more subtle and complex level, a writer also has a ‘duty of care’. Maybe the risk of physical harm isn’t there, but throwing radical ideas at people can be dangerous in a different way. Author contracts often contain a clause where the author must assure the publisher that his or her work ‘contains no recipe, formula or instruction injurious to the user.’
In writing historical fiction, I feel that I have a duty of care to present my readers with an accurate picture of the past. Any misrepresentation on my part won’t be physically harmful, it’s true, but I feel that it could be developmentally harmful. I don’t like the idea of people going around repeating inaccuracies based on something I’ve written. I want to generate my readers’ interest in the subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be considered the ultimate source or authority on those subjects.
I check almost everything, including my word usage. I flag things I’m not sure of. I work with a slang dictionary to date things; I spend hours checking up on single items. What did the Special Operations Executive use for their sabotage operations in Occupied Europe? It turns out they were pioneers in the use of plastic explosive. But did they refer to it as plastic explosive? How did they transport and detonate it? What color was it then – the same as now? Was it made out of the same stuff? Was it effective? Once I’ve found the answers to these questions, how much can I actually talk about without giving information that might count as a ‘formula or instruction injurious to the user’?
I sometimes envy fantasy writers who build their own worlds with their own internal integrity without these hurdles to narrative flow. It’s possible JK Rowling stopped writing and spent two solid days figuring out the mechanics of floo powder, but I don’t think it’s likely. Even if she did, there’s no ‘duty of care’ in getting floo powder right or wrong. Successful worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is in the author’s hands, not laid down in the annals of history and the laws of physics.
I have to confess that part of the reason I get so bogged down in fact-checking is because I really enjoy it. It probably takes me longer than it should because I get distracted finding out other things that are loosely connected to the subject I’m looking up. Reading about early aerial photography makes me want to go and research 19th century ballooning.
Probably the best thing about doing research for historical novels is that it often generates plot. Once you start digging, you run into all kinds of interesting and often exciting facts you didn’t know existed. ‘Thinking’s like archeology,’ Jamie Delano writes in the comic book series Hellblazer (volume IX). ‘You scrape; beneath your trowel, shape starts to form. Forgotten secrets come to light. ’Til finally you reveal the face of perfect beauty—the plan.’
For good tips on detail and fact checking in writing historical fiction, check out Alison Rattle’s article here: http://hotkeyblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/dont-get-lost-in-the-archives-a-bit-of-advice-for-historical-fiction-writers
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
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