How Fictional Can Fiction Be?

I am not by nature a particular, precise sort of person.

Indeed, quite the opposite. Give me a recipe that requires 10 different ingredients and I’ll probably substitute half of them for whatever is handily in the cupboard and proceed to ignore the prescriptive method to go my own way.

I am hopeless at following instructions, preferring an imaginative approach close to guess work rather than working methodically through How To manuals for sensible advice. Brute force and an exertion of will are my go-to resources when putting things together or attempting to take them apart.

And since fiction is by its very nature – well, fiction – I should be content to find inconsistencies, inaccuracies, errors and flagrant reinvention in a novel and simply go along for the ride.

But I’m not.

And I don’t.

And it’s the little things that annoy me.

Recently, I was reading a novel with several timelines and in a section set in the year 2002, one of the characters goes to her local supermarket and buys Pomegranate Molasses as an ingredient. No! I found myself screaming at the page – we weren’t buying Pomegranate Molasses in 2002. Pomegranates – yes – but the stuff in bottles that appears now to have become a staple item on kitchen shelves, casting disparaging assertions on the salad cream and thousand island dressing, was simply not around at the start of this millennium.

Then, in another novel, there was a reference to a character spending the entire afternoon in London in a pub, gradually drinking her way through a bottle of wine.

Fine. Except that it was not fine since this particular novel was set in 1983.

It was not until later in the 1980s that pubs were permitted to seek extended licensing hours and break from the restrictions that had first been brought in during WW1.

An insignificant point, maybe, and perhaps very petty of me to be irritated by the errors. But it is so easy these days to get things right. It’s not as if one has to trawl all the way to the reference library and seek clarification in dusty tomes that lie in states of sad neglect in a remote corner. One quick push of a button on a key board or iPhone and the information is there at hand.

Then there is the business of ageism. I think some younger writers must feel that decrepitude and loss of pride in appearance set in around the age of 58.

Reading the description of a character recently – a character who had somehow managed to reach the age of 60 and still be standing – was to confront her permed set hair do and straight tweed skirt. Really? And this character was not supposed to be eccentric or unusual in any way, but simply – well, 60! And living in the 21st century rather than a time-travelled spinster blue stocking from a considerably earlier era.

In a book I read a while ago, the central character’s mother appeared to need her daughter’s arm to go down a few steps yet again this woman was in her mid 60s and no physical impairment or injury was referred to!

Then there is the matter of places.

If a writer is talking about a real village, town or city, I want them to get the facts correct. I read an interview once with a renowned and highly successful novelist who was being taken to task for describing and naming a real town and then inventing several notable features that simply don’t exist in it. The writer’s answer was to say that fiction is fiction, none of it is true, anyway.

And perhaps she is right.

But if you want to invent, why not invent entirely?

And I have to be cautious here as I do tend to set my novels in real places – although I play with the precise location in order to have, as I see it, a freer rein with detail.

In my first novel, Counting the Ways, the Greek island which is one of the several settings is fictional by name. But it is strongly grounded in my knowledge and love for Crete and I could not have written about the landscape and climate without such awareness and personal experience. But calling it Kronos allowed me to write freely – and to deprive it of an airport, a significant requirement for the plot – without the need to ‘get things right’ as I see it.

My third novel, Miller Street SW22 which is due out next month is another case in point.

There is no SW22. There are a lot of other SW locations in London, of course, and I lived in a couple of them years ago and so felt comfortable writing about the south of the river locale.

But I did not want to be hooked to the need – my need – to be precise and particular about detail. I wanted to feel happy to invent shops and cafes and river walks and pubs that do not match the reality of any specific SW, but are just generally resonant of the area.

But perhaps it’s just me.

And maybe it explains why I’ve never enjoyed science fiction or fantasy or parallel universe novels which inevitably conjure entirely other worlds, settings and sometimes even species.

Anyway, I feel my fussy attitude to this matter of wanting to get things right is here to stay.

I am currently working on my next novel that is set firmly and solely in 1983 and my study walls are covered with records of events and facts of that year. And as I am blessed – or you might say cursed – with a ridiculous memory for trivial detail I am finding it relatively easy and fun to recall the year to make sure the novel sounds authentic.

And just in case you are either too young to remember or were having a more riveting and hectic time than I obviously was in that year, I can tell you that 1983 saw a long, hot summer with record-breaking temperatures -and the wearing of seatbelts in cars became compulsory!

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