There’s a famous (or at least literary circles-famous) story that writer Eudora Welty tells about getting schooled for writing a factual detail wrong in one of her stories.
“One Writer’s Beginnings” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 10–11.
The chagrin she may have felt—for the error was already in print—was something many writers have experienced. Verisimilitude, or the concept of getting your facts straight is what helps make the dream of a story “vivid and continuous” and what enables your reader to sink into the world you have created on the page. A reader giving over to your authoritative telling of a tale is critical for your story’s success, and a large part of your authority as a writer is pinning down the work with realistic (or “realistic-feeling” details).
For example, imagine you’re reading along and come upon a Russian spy in the late 1990s entering a dinner party at a billionaire’s penthouse apartment in Hong Kong wearing an evening gown made by Liz Claiborne.
Now, if you’re not much into fashion or more specifically what a fancy spy might have worn to a dinner party during that era, that reference may have whistled over your head unbothered.
But if you are Gen-X or older and know anything at all about that period of time, as many of our writing group in the late 90s did when we jumped down the collar of our fellow writer for using that detail in his story, that kind of misplayed note of a detail could not only shake a reader from the dream like a baby bird from its nest but also likely cause them to no longer entrust the story with their time or attention, and that’d be the end of that. What a loss!
You work your tail off to write good engaging work, and to lose a reader for such a small thing is a tragedy. But it’s an avoidable one. If your goal is to make your readers forget about the outside world, immerse in your narrative, and suspend their disbelief enough to give over to your story, verisimilitude, meaning getting your moon in the right part of the sky, is crucial.
In all cases, research and consistency are key.
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If you’re writing realistic fiction, verisimilitude ensures your reader doesn’t pause at something because it doesn’t “sit right.”
Like with making sure your sentences sing and your grammar is tight precisely because a gawky line or a misplaced comma can jar a reader and cause them to put the book down, accurate or reasonably used details function the same way. They keep the flow of writing feeling authentic, fluid, and true.
In genre fiction such as fantasy or sci-fi when you’re the conductor and architect of the world you’re building, you set up the rules. This means mapping out how things work and making sure they are consistent within the boundaries of the story.
If it’s stated that your protagonist takes an infusion of X*7 every morning through an atomizer, and in Chapter 23 they wake up and throw back an ampule of the stuff, your reader may pause to wonder whether you’d bungled. That pause breaks them out of the world of your story as they wonder why all of a sudden your character is doing something they never do.
When to Ensure Your Details Are Accurate and What to Look Out For
When Do You Do Your Research?
Some people will front-load the writing with a bit of research. If you’re writing about a place you haven’t visited, another era in time, or are making the whole shebang up, a bit of design of the world, story, and characters at the outset will give you a good foundation from which to spring the story. Not too much- there’s a sweet spot, and only you know if you start over-researching as a stalling tactic, but just enough to get your bearings will give you good ground to stand on.
During the first draft, let everything you learned settle in your body but don’t refer back to it.
Does the type of wick used in an oil lamp in 18th century London matter right now? Nope.
You worry about the bigger issues of laying down the bones of the story, aligning them into a dynamic plot, getting your characters in and out of trouble, and finding the voice and energy for the narrative.
Once you’ve got your draft, however, and you move into revision with the developmental edit, that’s when you want to start paying attention to verisimilitude. Additional pointed research at this point will be your best friend.
What Should You Look Out For?
Historical Inaccuracies: In historical fiction or stories set in a specific time period, inaccuracies related to events, technology, fashion, or cultural standards can undermine the story’s credibility. Technology is a big one to be on the lookout for because of the continual new developments and who might have had access to them.
Geographical Errors: If you have established with your story that you are working with a real location and have accurately laid out the topography of that place, getting even one aspect wrong can be distracting and damage your credibility; for instance, describing a mountain range in a place where there are no mountains or getting the layout of a city wrong.
That said, if you fictionalize one or two aspects of a real place and establish those minor fictional elements toward the top of the book, the reader will inherently absorb without breaking away from the narrative that you are using a real location but making it your own. Famous examples of this are Ricky and Lucy’s apartment from I Love Lucy or invented streets in Heidi Julavitz’s The Mineral Palace.
Scientific Inaccuracies: In science fiction or fantasy settings, disregarding scientific principles or making implausible claims without explanation can lead to a lack of verisimilitude.
For example, ignoring the basic laws of physics or biology without providing a logical explanation can strain believability. The easiest fix for this is to address it head on and own the fact that you’re upending what the modern reader knows to be true in real life.
Continuity Errors: Continuity errors involve inconsistencies within the story itself. These largely happen not due to lack of research but for lack of proofreading!
For instance, a character who has a terrible dairy allergy ordering in a restaurant without mentioning the allergy to the server first; a character’s eye color changes from one scene to another; or even spelling a character’s name differently (MacLean v. Maclean) can be jarring for the audience. Yet another reason you want a second set of eyes on your work before it goes out for publication!
Inaccurate Character Professions or Skills: Certain things you simply can’t wing. If a character possesses certain skills or knowledge, it’s important to depict those accurately or provide a plausible explanation for their abilities.
A sailor or computer hacker will need to perform their work plausibly. Phillip Roth did extensive research for his novel American Pastoral, travelling to Gloversville, New York to learn about the glove-making business and interviewing people upon whom characters were based. He also did a deep dive on the historical eras of the 60s and 70s eras to accurately capture them in the book.
Industry Insider Jargon Inaccuracies: Consider law, medicine, and investment banking- these fields all have very specific terminology that would need to be used accurately. You’re going to want to know your bones, medicines, and procedures, your tort law and courtroom protocols, and the colorful terms stock traders use on the floor or else your reader may pause or even have a good laugh at your expense. If that doesn’t sound like fun, you’ll want to run your your work by someone familiar with those fields.
That’s why medical TV shows keep doctors on as consultants. (This doctor writes about what it was like to be the consultant, and this one explores popular shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Nurse Jackie that have episodes causing “doctors to facepalm.”)
Language and Cultural Inaccuracies: It is the author’s job as a member of the world community to accurately depict people from cultures other than and including their own. Misrepresenting, stereotyping, or misusing language or culture can have deleterious effects not only for the work but for you personally and your career.
If you are writing from the perspective of someone not in your lived experience or about people from other cultures, do your research, ask other writers or people from those cultures for help, and consider hiring a sensitivity reader to ensure you’ve respectfully and accurately depicted those characters and cultures.
Time Travel Paradoxes: In time travel stories, paradoxes and contradictions can arise if the “rules” of time travel, either that have been established by others or by your own story, aren’t consistently applied. Often referred to as a “contract,” the rules you put forth in terms of how things operate in your narrative at the top of the story will dictate how the reader takes in the rest of the work.
Scientific Anomalies: Like with time travel, if your story involves supernatural or speculative elements, you’ll want to establish their own internal rules and logic early on. After that, you have to adhere to these rules consistently to maintain their feeling like “givens.”
There are some famous examples of factual inaccuracies in stories that range from minor errors to major plot holes, all of which detract from the overall verisimilitude of their narratives to the point where they’ve become cautionary tales!
Here are a few examples of factual inaccuracies in some notable stories:
Historical Inaccuracies in Braveheart: In the film, Mel Gibson’s portrays the life of William Wallace, a Scottish knight who led a rebellion against English rule in the late 13th century. The film however takes many liberties with historical events, characters, and timelines, such as depicting Wallace wearing a kilt (which wasn’t common at the time) and featuring an entirely fictional love affair.
Geographical Errors in The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown’s bestselling novel features numerous geographical inaccuracies related to locations in Paris. For instance, the book includes a real church, the “Church of Saint-Sulpice” but describes it as inconsistent with the real church’s layout and features. Could Brown have simply made up a church to get the layout he needed and avoided jarring readers who knew the real church? Absolutely.
The same happened in The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. He describes the city of St. Jude, which is said to be located in the Midwest. Some readers have noted that the city’s geography and characteristics don’t align with any real place in the Midwest, leading to questions about its authenticity.
Gray area inconsistencies:
Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park involves the cloning of dinosaurs using DNA preserved in amber. While the story is science fiction, some of the real scientific processes described are inaccurately portrayed. DNA has a limited half-life, making it unlikely to survive for millions of years as suggested in the book. But then again, when you’re looking at cloning dinosaurs, some suspension of disbelief is required.
The same with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, which faced criticism for its portrayal of vampires and the transformation process from human to vampire. The rapid healing abilities and lack of physical change in the vampire characters defy biological principles. But so do vampires, really …
Entirely avoidable blunders:
Stieg Larsson’s novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is set in Sweden, but he has occasional inaccuracies related to Swedish culture and language. One biggie is that some character names don’t conform to Swedish naming conventions. Something a quick search in a baby names registry or a conversation with someone from the country couldn’t have fixed!
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is work of historical fiction, praised for its portrayal of World War II-era France. However, some readers and historians have pointed out minor inaccuracies in the details, such as the incorrect date of a specific Nazi decree.
Factual Inaccuracy v. Fictionalizing or Misremembering
Like some of the examples above, some authors plug in fictional elements into an otherwise verisimilitudinal situation to give themselves some creative leeway. This isn’t the same as an inaccuracies due to oversight or limited research. In the case of memoir, when certain books have come under fire for not being factually accurate, one needs to consider the intention behind the inaccuracy.
Where fictionalizing aspects of memoir, as James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces by fabricating his criminal record, his struggles with addiction, and a certain dental procedure, is considered 100% un-kosher, misremembering or remembering things that may turn out to be factually inaccurate as Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes or James Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain did is another.
The distinction between literary fiction and memoir is fiction, whose focus is on exploring emotional truths and the human experience, can enjoy some leeway when it comes to certain aspects of factual accuracy, whereas memoir, while based on real experiences and is obliged to strive for accuracy, may be shaped by the author’s memory, perspective, and storytelling goals and as such inadvertently inaccurate to varying degrees.
Getting the Story Facts Straight
To achieve verisimilitude, you’ll want to undertake the necessary research, pay attention to the details of your characters and settings, and ensure that your narrative choices align with the established rules and logic of your fictional world. This attention to detail can make the difference between a story that resonates with its audience and a story that falls flat.
That bit of homework is all that’s needed to ensure you’ve attended to getting all your story facts straight. As a writer, keeping your reader engaged from page 1 to the end is your job, and upholding good verisimilitude, like the sky holding its moon and stars in all the right places, is key to your doing it right.
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