Years ago I did historical research for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. A coal-fired power plant run by the Northern Indiana Public Service Company bordered the park. Ponds for disposal of fly ash, a coal combustion product, were leaking onto park land, raising the water table. At issue was whether the seepage was destroying the original ecology or, as NIPSCO claimed, restoring wetlands that prevailed before farmers dug drainage ditches in the 1800s.
Young and foolish, I asked IDNL senior scientist Dr. Bill Hendrickson what to do if our drainage ditch findings supported NIPSCO’s claim. He replied, “We want to know what you find, not what you think we want to hear.” It was a learning moment for me. National Park Service scientists continue to command my respect, as Bill did, by their insistence in putting facts before policy. They did it again last week.
As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I relish creative imagination as well as verified facts. We can value both, so long as we know which we’re dealing with. Some historical novels and literary memoirs add a note telling the reader where fiction and fact diverge. That clarity marks the difference between tall tales and falsification. What are alternative facts, after all, but another name for fiction?
1/30/2017 10:53:07 am
Interesting. This has come up for me twice in the last 18 hours with two different groups. First time was at book discussion last night, discussing a loosely historical fiction book set in 1912. How much can a writer get away with and what details they have wrong (as we know it) will make us distrust something larger (the answer was found on my iPad, which is that the term "brassiere" was first used in like 1898 in France so it was OK to use it in this book...). Admittedly, we were kind of looking for reasons why we didn't particularly like the book. So we had to admit that distrusting the writer was not one of those reasons. We still didn't like the way she CONVEYED the facts, however.
Re how getting minor facts wrong hurts credibility, I recently read a mystery in which one character was wearing a University of West Virginia sweatshirt. I grew up at West Virginia University. Seeing it incorrectly called the University of West Virginia weakened the whole book for me, even though the sweatshirt was irrelevant to the plot.
1/31/2017 10:05:37 am
Ugh. University name wrong. Do you think they invented a university or were they actually referencing the one you know to exist under a different name?
Given how minor the sweatshirt was in the story, I inferred that the author assumed every state has a "University of (State Name)" and didn't check it out.
2/3/2017 11:45:41 pm
Those are good examples to keep in mind, Sarah.
Confirmation bias often misleads us. Perhaps even more often, it serves a positive purpose in helping us make sense of things. If I catch a glimpse of what looks like a wolf in the yard, I will assume it's a dog because that's what I believe lives around here. And that will most likely be true, even if the animal looked more like a wolf.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.