October 8, 2013

Getting the facts right

Dear M,

I have always been worried about getting the facts right in writing. If I am writing about things I know well, I am fairly confident I could get them right, of course; at least I would know where to look in case I have questions. But there are times when we need to write about places we haven't visited, or things we do not know, or science that is beyond our comprehension.

Okay, one argument would be to restrict our writing to what we know about. That's how we start, but soon we would want to explore the unknown, stretch ourselves a little further, learn things new and write about lives of people we have no clue about. We cannot confine ourselves to what we have experienced, forever. We would have to venture out, sooner or later. Otherwise we run the risk of being stereotyped.

I know people who have written confidently about countries they have never visited, careers they know nothing of, history they were never part of, oh yes, all writers wander out to areas they have never been to. And reading them, we would never guess they were not there, that they were not writing from their own experience.

One example is John Irving's "A Son of the Circus" which is based almost entirely in India. I would never have believed that he had not lived half his life over here. Apparently he has visited India only once or so (as he has explained in his Introduction to the book). Clearly he had people who verified everything he has written, provided information he needed, and supported him in ways none of us can hope for. Except for one minor lapse (which can be easily overlooked) I did not find anything that made me think this author is not an Indian.

On the other hand, recently I saw a show (apparently popular in the US) which had a glaring foolish error about laptops, which could not be ignored, because the rest of the story was based on that error. But what the hell. People watch it (apparently), they may have laughed about it, and forgotten it. In defence of the show, I believe it was made a few years ago, maybe people did not use laptops as much as they do now, and maybe the makers did not use one themselves, so they must have assumed that's how laptops work, etc. etc.

So how important is it to get the facts right? Very important, if we need to gain some respect of the readers. If you read Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy", you will be mind-blown, wondering how in the world the author learned all these different things about politics, law, history, geography, medicine, botany and everything else under the sun during the 1950s. Yes, if I don't respect him for coming up with a thousand-odd page book, I would admire him for all the research he has done into producing it.

In this age, where Google can answer everything (even though only on a superficial level, most of the time, and sometimes provide wrong information), it is easy to verify facts than once upon a time. This is good, and this is bad. For one thing, your queries are answered, which is a good thing. You get an idea about things, you can watch videos of places, you can read up on experiences, you can learn the latest science. What you do not have is a clear, complete picture. You can watch videos but they do not tell you how the beach air felt - cool? warm? smelly? noisy? You can visit wikipedia to know about a planet system where your alien life-form is based on, but without knowing anything about the basics of space travel, if you write about ships shooting across space and time, it would sound more like fantasy than science fiction.

But the best part is (and I shouldn't be saying this), not many people care, as long as the story is engaging. Arthur C. Clarke writes about quantum drives, which have a basis in science (as in something that is theoretically possible). He explains it to great detail. But even if he had made up something utterly fantastic and scientifically impossible, I wouldn't have given a damn.


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