If you look carefully in the picture, you can see a crack in the glass that just runs along the side of the glass without starting at an edge, sort of an interior crack. When I pulled that glass out of the dishwasher, I thought, “That can’t happen!” Of course, I was really thinking, I didn’t think that could happen. In a writer’s context, if I had read about such a crack in a story, I would have questioned whether the writer knew her stuff.
Clearly, it can happen, though, so I was in the wrong. But it does illustrate an important point for the writer: you don’t want the reader to start questioning your credentials or your basic mastery of the facts. And even if you actually have a good basis for your statement, your reader may still doubt you.
Our first response as writers is to do research and this is a great starting point. However, that only gets you so far because your readers aren’t doing the research. You may know that there really were cisterns on Earth of over 200,000 square feet but your reader probably doesn’t. So the fact that you have a historical justification for that large cistern is useless in getting your reader to accept it in your story.
All is not lost, of course. It just takes some care. Here are a few things you can do about it:
Have a character in the story question the fact. This immediately establishes that you, the writer, know the fact is odd and that therefore you meant for it to be there. That is, it wasn’t a casual error on your part. For instance, if your story has a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant that is 40 years old, that would strike anyone with some idea of how the military works as very peculiar. Second lieutenant is a very junior rank. In modern times, there is a tenure-range for when a lieutenant should be promoted (the “zone”) and if you are passed over several years beyond the zone, you are out of the military, the thought being if you aren’t good enough to deserve even a modestly late promotion, you aren’t useful to the army. They don’t let you start a military career at that age either. If your character comes across your old lieutenant without comment in the story, readers may wonder if you know anything about the army. However, if you have a character question that in the story (“A 40-year-old lieutenant? How did he avoid getting kicked out? His dad must be a four star general.”) then you prove to the reader that you know this isn’t normal and that you didn’t just make an error.
Another thing you can do is have the character explain the situation. In the case of our decrepit lieutenant, he can simply explain in story how he came to be 40. This is a bit of exposition but if the circumstances are unique or funny, it may work.
Similarly, you may be able to show how the situation came to be, especially if you are in an omniscient point of view where you can explain how something came to be. In the case of the glass in the photo, your omniscient narrator could explain how the glass was manufactured with a microscopic defect that passed unnoticed until another glass happened to hit it just right on the rinse cycle to cause a small crack that grew during the drying cycle. This doesn’t always take an omniscient view-point, though. Maybe it just takes a scene where it becomes clear how the strange situation came to be.
If your setting is Earth, for some odd-ball facts, you might simply be able to reference a place or event on Earth. “The cistern was big, but only half the size of the one built 1600 years ago by Constantine under Constantinople.” For fantasy settings, you don’t usually have that option, though.
For some classes of the incredible, it may also be possible to simply relate it as a fact that has already occurred. Readers are more likely to believe something you tell them because they tend to trust historical facts. This only works for certain things, probably not the old lieutenant, perhaps for the glass.
Lastly, you can simple remove the offending fact from the story. Is the 40-year-old lieutenant worth the time you will have to spend explaining his situation? If he isn’t important to the story, it may just be simpler to make him younger or higher rank. Is it that important that the reader knows it is a 200,000 square foot cistern? Maybe you just say, “big cistern,” (or better show it is big by the number of columns they can see or the way sound echoes) and leave it at that. Sometimes these awkward facts are just we authors showboating: hey, look at the cool fact I found. In that case, they should be purged as quickly as purple prose, call them purple facts.
- Historical Facts and the Fantasy Writer (mqallen.com)
- Writing Crimes #1: Purple Prose (jennymoyer.wordpress.com)