I learned a lot about ancient Greece from Mary Renault and quite a bit about the French Revolution from Hilary Mantel. Reading Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and Arthur made me want to learn more about the facts behind the legends. I knew nothing about the business of making and selling fine china and porcelain until I read Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (which also has an unexpected mini-travelogue of central Florida).
All of these books are works of fiction, but with the bonus of facts, or at least gateways to facts. Fiction is fiction, however, so it’s unfair to expect hard factual information there. Or is it?
Some would say that if a writer decides to use a historical period as the setting for their work, they must learn all about it and be true to the facts. If a novel contains information about a profession or craft, the author is obligated to find out all about it and not guess or extrapolate. Others would argue that unless the plot of the novel directly involves historical events or technical processes, it’s all right for the author to blur things a bit. After all, how many readers are going to bother checking whether a battle was fought on a Tuesday or a Sunday, or what the exact temperature is for firing porcelain? And anyway, no one should expect to learn history or science from novels. If you want to find out about Athens in the time of Socrates, or what Alexander the Great was really like, there are plenty of serious, well-researched books about these subjects.
Well, what do I think?
Except for students, it’s very unlikely that anyone would read a serious, well-researched book on anything if their interest in that subject hadn’t been piqued by something, such as a story in the media or a work of fiction. Authors of novels can contribute to knowledge in this way, and they are most likely to do this by incorporating into their fiction subjects about which they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
I also think writers must exercise responsibility when they incorporate elements from the real world into their fiction. For example, World War I appears several times in my Herbert West Trilogy. It was such an enormous and terrible part of history that I decided I had to treat it with respect, which meant doing a lot of reading about the conditions the soldiers and medical personnel endured. Writing about quasi-fictional places in H.P. Lovecraft’s New England, such as Arkham and Kingsport (thought to be Salem and Marblehead), made me uneasy, as I have never been near these places, but I rationalized my ignorance with their quasi-fictional nature.
Even though fiction is fiction, therefore, it presents a unique opportunity to entice people into reading and learning more about the real world. Writers of novels must keep this in mind, and writers of nonfiction would do well to sharpen their technique and present their facts in prose that is entertaining as well as educational.