How Factual Do You Want Your Fiction?

On some level, I always associate suicides with Superman.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Wasn’t that the opening of the old Superman series, the one in black and white? My brother and I used to watch the reruns on TV when we were children. We’d lie flat out on our bellies, propped up on our elbows, dead to the world until the end of the episode. By then the loops of my grandmother’s cheap red-orange carpet would have carved deep grooves in our arm and elbow skin that tingled as they plumped and came back to life.

It was our grandmother who told us once (or more likely, several times) that the actor who played Superman had killed himself. She was a reliable source for any sort of Hollywood scandal from the last fifty years. According to Gran, the actor lost touch with reality, began to believe that he truly was Superman. He jumped off a building—a skyscraper, no less—thinking he could fly away, and died when he found that he couldn’t. I don’t know if he was wearing his super suit at the time.

Chapter One, Back to Lazarus

Some of you may recognize this as the opening of the first Sydney Brennan book.

But here’s the thing: the real actor who played Superman in our real world did not die by jumping from a building. So why is it in Sydney’s story?

The actor actually died from a gunshot wound to the head in 1959. His death was ruled a suicide, but controversy has surrounded that determination ever since. His false but dramatic suicide by jumping was one of those urban myths that persisted through the years, even without the aid of the internet.

In fact, in a case of mining personal experiences for fiction (see my first Magpie Moment), my own grandmother told me that story when I was a child. I considered cutting it from my manuscript because it wasn’t factually true, but in the end, I felt it helped set the stage for Back to Lazarus.

Parent holds the hand of a little child green background, soft focus High resolution image gallery.

The Superman suicide that Sydney hears from her grandmother—an untrue story—parallels the many untrue stories passed along within families as oral history (whether intentionally or inadvertently), including the stories Sydney’s client Noel is told about her father’s conduct during life and his death by suicide.

I was careful not to use the actor’s name (writers use fake presidents in books all the time, so why not fake actors?).

I’d intended to hint with the way Sydney relates the story that, although it has stuck with her all of these years, even she is skeptical of its accuracy.

Looking back, about ten years and several books after I wrote those words, I’d probably write it differently now, I hope with more clarity. (If not, why am I still writing?)

I bring this up because telling the Superman story got a strike against me with at least one reader—someone who knew it was false—from the opening paragraph. It’s hard to recover when you’ve alienated a reader from the first paragraph. And I can’t blame her. In fact, as a reader, I’ve done the same thing.

I imagine we all have. Start with the premise that we each have our own reading tastes (my five-star favorite might be a one-star I-couldn’t-finish-it to you.) But on top of that, we each have our own buttons that, when pushed, jerk us out of a story so violently it’s difficult to get back in, even if we are enjoying it.

That’s why my Scrivener files are jammed with research folders that range from gun laws to ten-year-old sunrise/sunset calendars and everything in between. And things still slip by me (not to mention the items I willfully decide to ignore).

I was listening to an interesting podcast recently (“Discipline And Practice In Writing And Swordfighting With Guy Windsor” on The Creative Penn) where an expert swordsman admitted to looking away from the screen during Game of Thrones fight scenes. Otherwise they’d ruin the show for him.

Windsor suggested that’s true for anyone with “specialty” knowledge (say a hacker watching an episode of Leverage), and I’d have to agree. That’s one of the reasons I generally avoid legal thrillers (although I did go through a John Grisham phase in law school).

A few months ago I picked up a series mystery by someone with over twenty traditionally published books to his name. It was in first person, and the voice was fine, sometimes even quite funny. (Don’t get me started on the dangers of turning off readers with your first person voice.)

The character was supposed to be a lawyer, but he didn’t really like working, so he didn’t do many trials. That’s fine with me (see, avoiding legal thrillers). But then he stepped into the courtroom and, for me, it got ugly. Some of the things the attorney (and the judge) did seemed utterly ridiculous. (Why would you work so hard to alienate the jury?)

Invariably, I shared the worst offenses with my husband, until he threatened to take the book away from me. I finally put it down without finishing it.

Let me be clear—there is nothing wrong with the book, and for a lot of readers, it will be perfectly enjoyable. I’m just not one of them.

I’m usually more forgiving of TV shows, but if I’m in a bad mood, woe to the medical examiner who not only personally performs every single forensic test on the victim and the physical evidence, but also does it in less than twenty-four hours. (I’m looking at you, Castle!)

Of course, it doesn’t have to be specialty knowledge, either.

I had a similar experience reading another book recently. I stopped several times to say, “I don’t think that’s true” and “I still don’t think that’s true” about a particular fact. I finally reached for my smartphone and assumed the I-live-in-the-boonies-and-have-no-cell-reception yoga position required to access Google. Ultimately, it ended up being true, but by then I’d fallen down some other internet rabbit hole. (Have you seen the sheep that lost half its weight during an emergency shearing? Wow!)

So what’s an author to do? Write in a different genre?

Readers have an expectation of fiction sticking closer to fact in writing a mystery than in, say, epic fantasy. But I’m sure epic fantasy readers have their own special set of buttons. (Hey—pipe down, you perverts in the back!)

I guess the answer is, learn from every book. Get good beta readers and a good editor that help keep you honest. Then when your baby goes out into the world, expect to push some buttons anyway.

I’m curious what your buttons are: what sends you into a rant every time you read it?