Imagine you’re reading a book set in India in 2017, and you arrive at this passage.
Dad was looking at his phone, chuckling at one of those American chat show hosts lambasting President Trump. This was the right time.
“Dad,” I said. He looked up.
“I want some money … for, um, notebooks,” I said.
He fished out his wallet, extracted a 500-rupee note from it, and held it out to me. “Keep the change,” he said.
Did you do a double take?
Most readers across the world will find nothing factually incorrect in that piece of writing. But if you’re up-to-date with the general current affairs in both India and the US, you would have spotted the mistake right away. And if you’re like me, you’ll put the book away.
The tiniest false detail sometimes ruins an entire experience of a book or a movie. For example, when I was a child in the late 80s, watching Mahabharata on TV, one of the characters (Pandu, I think) sported the scar from the smallpox vaccine on his arm. How did the makeup artists miss that? For several episodes after that, I kept looking at his arm instead of concentrating on the story.
But, isn’t fiction essentially a pack of lies? When you read a book or watch a movie, don’t you temporarily suspend your beliefs? So why should these false details matter? It is because, after all, fiction is rooted in reality. Even works of fantasy or science fiction, in which entire worlds are imaginary, need to be logical in order to make sense. Just because a writer extracts a tale from her head doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t get her facts straight. Otherwise for the reader, it is like encountering a green chilli in a bowl of halwa.
Pay attention! “I pulled the shawl tightly around myself against the December chill, and waited under the Gulmohar tree, whose fallen scarlet blossoms made a carpet under my feet.” Nope, there’s not going to be a scarlet carpet in December. (Unless, you know, climate change.) Or, how about this — “On the eve of Eid, she looked up wistfully at the full moon in the sky.” It happens to everyone, just when you’re not looking. Stay alert.
Beware of assumptions: Perhaps you grew up just “knowing” that Tiruchirappalli is the capital of Kerala and Tiruvananthapuram is a city in Tamil Nadu. Enter Google. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve done a quick Google search for something I already “knew” and found my assumptions come crashing down. Also, beware of what we think of as “common knowledge”, like “Hindi is the national language of India”. The list of untrue “facts” grows exponentially with every day on Whatsapp, so watch out.
Feel free to ask experts, but confirm with your own research (using books and reliable internet sites).
Look out for anachronisms: a girl with an iPhone in the year 2005, a man in the 1930s wearing a polyester shirt, and yes, a mythological character with a smallpox vaccine.
Play it safe: In the example in the beginning of this piece, assume for a moment that you had no way to confirm whether demonetization happened before Trump or after Trump. Instead of mentioning note denominations, you could just say, “He gave me five hundred rupees.” That way, you’re covered.
But don’t be lazy! Details make the reader’s writing richer. Don’t hesitate to add detailing for fear of getting them wrong.
My first brush with wonky detailing came with one of the first stories I wrote. I had a protagonist who knitted. I hadn’t done any knitting myself, but grew up around avid knitters, and so I confidently wrote, “Ratna got a pair of size 3 knitting needles and a ball of yellow wool.” There was no reason for me to mention the size of those needles but I thought a little detailing wouldn’t hurt.
But, as it turned out, it did. My aunt, an excellent editor and a knitter, read the story and gave me a little tutorial on knitting needles. On their thicknesses and what the numbers mean … UK and US numbering conventions and why my character Ratna would probably be using UK sizes. Which would mean that Size 3 was for jumbo-sized yarn, which Ratna wouldn’t use for a sweater. My aunt talked about knitting trends, of today, and of three decades ago when my story was set. And how these trends would affect the needle size. Which meant that Ratna would most likely have used size 12 or 13. My head felt woozy to think of the number of details I needed to know to get the size of a pair of knitting needles right! I also felt quite foolish. But ever since, I have had more respect for writers, and I make the best efforts to get my details right. [Read now: #NaNoWriMo How to finish your novel in 30 days]