There’s an excellent review of Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey on Martin McGrath’s blog here. Of Blood and Honey is an urban fantasy set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and it’s been widely praised. Martin finds much that’s troubling in the book regarding its setting – details which ring untrue to someone who grew up in the time and place in question.
And then there’s the Hugo Award-winning Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, whose claim of historical accuracy has been met with howls of derision on this side of the Atlantic. Not to mention the historical blunders perpetrated in earlier novels, such as those in Doomsday Book outlined by Adam Roberts here.
How much trouble would it have taken Stina Leicht to discover that the Royal Military Police wear red berets – and not the Parachute Regiment, who wear maroon berets? Or that the British Army has never been referred to as the “BA” by anyone? BA is an airline, of course; and it was founded in 1974, three years before the time during which Of Blood and Honey is set.
How much trouble would it have taken Connie Willis to discover that the Jubilee Line of the London Underground was opened in 1977, in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, and so wouldn’t have existed during World War 2? Or that people burned wood and not coal in their fires in 14th Century England? Or that no one has used the phrase “trunk call” in the UK since the 1970s?
True, most readers will either miss these errors, or let them slide. Providing the mistakes don’t pull them out of the story, many readers don’t much care. But there are those who will notice – and they will not only be unimpressed, they might be also be offended.
Without drifting into a discussion on cultural appropriation or First World Gaze (to coin a phrase), I believe a writer has a responsibility to their readers, and to themselves, to get the details right. Writers need to strive for verisimilitude (not authenticity). Research is vital in all areas – not just setting, but also science; technology; language… Anything which exists in the real world and which affects the story in any way, no matter how seemingly trivial.
In these days of the Internet, there’s no excuse. Readers can go and look something up online – and frequently do. Wikipedia has made expert knowledge available and convenient for everyone. Writers should not only be prepared for that, they should armour their writing against it. The old days of genre writers getting away with the most egregious bollocks because they didn’t know better, because their readers were unlikely to know better… they’re over. There is no excuse for sloppiness. Writers must fact-check. Everything.
Because they’ll look very, very foolish if they don’t.