Maybe It Could: Changing Facts in Fiction

Maybe It Could

Last week I wrote about the way novelists incorporate facts into their fiction.

While I was at it I also explored the way we sometimes ignore facts in order to advance and suit our particular plots. I listed some general rules I’ve created for myself. This week I thought I’d be more specific.

Recently I read a disclaimer at the beginning of a work of historical fiction. The author announced right up front that she had taken “creative liberties” as she detailed her character’s lives. I appreciated the warning, but it left me with questions. If she chose to state that from the start, without giving instances where she had, did that mean she’d changed many important things?

  • What details are accurate for the era and which are not?
  • Would characters of this period act the way these do?
  • Has the author made life harder or easier than it really was during this time period?
  • Do I really want to do the research I’d need in order to get answers? Isn’t that the author’s job?

Every work of fiction takes liberties.

As I said last week, sometimes authors detail exactly what they’ve changed to make their story work. Today I looked for an example from several of my own books to share with you. In the time I allotted, I couldn’t find one. It’s perfectly plausible that I’ve changed a detail or two in my novels, but apparently never so many that I felt a need to warn you. Or possibly I just slid around the truth in such a way that I didn’t really “take liberties” so much as fudge a little.

Fudging is part of a novelist’s repertoire. After a bit of research we can’t find information on what soldiers in the 1700s ate before a battle? Instead of making up a meal, our soldiers are too anxious to eat, or they eat off stage. Problem solved.

For fun I thought that this week I’d tell you what I’ve changed in my work in progress and why. I’m not rerouting rivers or ignoring existing technology, but so far, I’ve changed the following:

  • Tarpon Springs has a brand new high school and a new gated community.
  • Orlando has a new conference hotel–and we all know how much the city needs new hotels, right?
  • The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks have a new Greek restaurant, generations old.
  • Manhattan has a new group of psychiatrists and a new hospital.

I feel so powerful. In a matter of months I’ve changed the real estate of three cities. Without spending a dime of taxpayer money.

So why did I make those changes? Bet you’ve already guessed. There are some shenanigans at the high school in my story, which I’m calling Coastal Winds. Did I want to write about shenanigans at a real Tarpon Springs high school? No, I did not. Because a real school might not appreciate being characterized that way. Plus if I used a real school, I would have to spend time there, figuring out where the lockers are in relation to classrooms, where students wait for rides–if indeed they do. The parking lots, the steps up or down. A million and one details.

And yes, if I were writing about a real high school, I would do that research. Because anyone who knows the school would catalog my mistakes. The moment a reader finds mistakes, they’re pulled out of the story. I want my readers to stay there the entire time they’re reading.

I want my readers to trust me.

A conference hotel near Disney World was a different matter. There are no shenanigans in my hotel, the Boardwalk Grand. At the same time the hotel is fairly generic, because the hotel is just a place for action and in no way influences it. So instead of traveling to Orlando and spending an hour trooping through a real conference hotel near the same location, I created my own.

Oh, the power!

My Greek restaurant, Yiayia’s Kouzina, is such an integral part of my story I had to build if from the ground up myself.

Finally, my Manhattan (Tribeca to be exact) psychiatrists and hospital. I bet you’re getting a feel for this already and know what I’m going to say. The psychiatrists’ practice and the hospital are important to the story, and events have taken place there that no practice or hospital wants connected to them. I did not want to make an appointment with a psychiatrist in Manhattan so that I could describe an office.

Finally did I just make these things up entirely? Did I pull a rabbit out of my novelist’s hat with no preparation or basis in fact? Nope.

For my high school, I pored over facts about real Pinellas County high schools (one of which I am a proud graduate.) I checked disciplinary procedures, dress codes, schedules both daily and yearly, and curriculum. I wanted Coastal Winds to be as realistic as possible.

For my gated community I downloaded a list of real gated communities in the city and drove to them from the Sponge Docks, checking what my character would see along the way and the section of town she’d head for.

For Yiayia’s Kouzina I prowled Tarpon Springs, eating at real Greek restaurants as well as several nearer to home. I’ve also made a point of watching dozens of videos and reading about the restaurant business. For fun I’m cooking Greek specialties and collecting recipes. These days if you come to my house I’ll serve pastitsio or moussaka. I have killer recipes for both.

For my conference hotel? I checked similar hotels for the layout of the lobby, the parking procedures, the size, and the driving time between Tarpon Springs and that little corner of Orlando. For my psychiatrists and hospital? I spent hours looking at maps, and reading about architecture in the part of the city where I’d narrowed the location. I checked size of practices, terminology, educational requirements, and more. My practice doesn’t exist, nor does the hospital it’s affiliated with, but maybe they could.

And “maybe they could” is the standard I shoot for. Because even when I’m making up “facts” in my “fiction” I want my facts to be plausible. I want my reader to know that even if something doesn’t actually exist, well…

Maybe it could.

Next time you’re immersed in a novel, notice the details. Ask yourself how many are true and how many were born in the author’s imagination. Finally, ask yourself if “maybe it could” applies. I’d say if it does, you’re in good hands.

“No way that could happen” is another story altogether.


  1. Denise Almazar on February 5, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    I see why you’re so good at what you do! Thank you for explaining all this to us. I know I haven’t always thought about what goes into writing a book. I will have a greater appreciation for all the research and time goes into to creating the stories! I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Jane Goodhand Dougherty on February 6, 2020 at 9:23 am

    Years ago I read a Nora Roberts book where a character visited Washington State University. While there she stayed on the 8th floor of a hotel and ate in a fine Italian restaurant with linen tablecloths. I loved that description because I lived there in Pullman, and we had no hotels higher than 3 stories and we had not one single restaurant that used linen tablecloths. From then on I began reading descriptions more closely and trying to decide what was real and what was truly fiction. The whole writing process is so interesting and I am in awe of all of you.

Leave a Comment