Same Words, Different Book

As a sociology student in college it was engrained in our heads that who you are and how you act/react is largely a product of your upbringing and circumstances. Despite being an English major and seeing firsthand how different people discovered different truths I never truly thought to apply that to casual reading. I made that realization based on a recent read.

On a recommendation from a friend I recently loaned the ebook of Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I loved it. It was awesome. I highly recommend anyone who has ever read and enjoyed anything science fiction to pick it up. While I was reading it, we chatted about a few highlights throughout the book and I mentioned a few scenes that caught my attention. But, what really struck me was after I finished she mentioned what was what she took from the book as a whole, "it's just full of great messages about gender equality and sexual identity and consent and acceptance."

Her assessment is completely true, and an excellent lesson to take from an incredibly well written book, but it wasn't the message I took from the book. In fact, I wasn't looking for a greater overall theme or meaning. After completing the book I was in awe of Chambers ability to build the world and the characters in such a detailed manner without weighing down the book and feeling like I was reading a report of fictionalized alien races and worlds.

I'm not likely to sit and contemplate other viewpoints of future fiction I read, but the recent discussion with my friend has reminded me that while we may all read the same words we each read a different book. Something to keep in mind as I dive further into my own writing.

Do the details Matter?

A few weeks ago I stopped by my local Barnes and Noble and noticed a book I had seen in hardcover and been extremely interested in reading was now available in paperback. I made an impulse buy and brought the book home. I finished Blake Crouch's Dark Matter (almost 350 pages) in 4 days. I'm a reader of average speed, but it has been a long time since I finished a book that quickly. And normally, when someone reads a book that quickly one would assume they loved it, automatic 5 star rating. Right? Wrong.

Very early on in the book Crouch makes it clear that his story is set in Chicago (multiple parallel universe version of). I immediately thought, "Awesome! I know the city. This will be fun as to see if I catch the landmarks he points out." But then the unthinkable happened. He botched a real life location. He chose Pulaski Drive. While I never lived in the city, I had family that did and from the time I was little through high school we drove Pulaski many many times. And it's Pulaski ROAD. All it would have taken is a moment to Google the name and Crouch could have gotten it correct. I brushed it aside when I realized the author wasn't from Chicago. Still shouldn't have been wrong, but I'll let it pass. Then the story continues and he drops his version of Pulaski into an industrial neighborhood along the lake. WHAT?! It's not even close to Lake Michigan. Strike 2.

By the time all was said and done Crouch had struck out twice. I finished the book because the plot, despite the clunky mechanics of his quantum superposition description (which were the driving force behind the story). The idea was great, the execution was flawed.

I'm not saying that all the details a writer uses must be exact. In fact, I'd almost prefer that they take some liberties when using realistic settings. Give me an intersection, a neighborhood, even a building and speculate around that, but don't use a location incorrectly. If you want a road by the lake, use Google and find one. Or make one up. Don't use a real road in the wrong place. Crouch mentions a couple of fictional hospitals in Chicago. Cool, great. That's fine. But, if the details matter to the story, fact check. Please.

I have a story that I wrote taking place in Chicago. One pivotal scene takes place a specific corner overlooking a specific bridge on the Chicago River. Why? Because I know the spot and it gives a great feel and an anchor to the story. The businesses located up and down the street in my story are fictional, but those aren't the important part.

In the end, I think if a writer is going to use real life locations or roads are a great way to draw in readers, especially those who actually know the area described, but that means that the details have to be right. When you botch the details, it makes the reader question other aspects of your story, especially one about cutting edge/fictional technology.