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Accuracy, Reality, and Writing in Today’s World by Terry Odell

When we write, we strive for accuracy.

Even if we’re writing fantasy, there are rules about the universes we build, and they have to be consistent. If your writing includes guns, there’s an obligation to get weaponry facts right. Ask any author who’s made the mistake of showing a character thumbing the safety off a Glock. Likewise, police procedures have to reflect those followed out in the book’s setting. Medical Examiner or Coroner? They’re not interchangeable.

My Mapleton Mystery books are set in a made up town, but I had one reader tell me there weren’t any towns at that elevation in that part of Colorado. I told her there is one town there—Mapleton—and she was willing to accept my fiction. I also made sure that my Mapleton had the right flora, fauna, and climate for where I’d put it.

If you set your books in a real place, you need to do your homework.

People who’ve lived or visited will call you out if you put a building on the wrong street corner. When I set a book in Orlando, where I was living at the time, it was actually harder because there were so many details that I needed to get right. And, of course, things change. I did a lot of yummy research at a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood, and set a scene there. Shortly before the book was published, the restaurant closed.

There’s also the caveat that if you’re using real places or real products, that they shouldn’t be used in a bad light. One of my early publishers wanted everything generic. Less liability that way. However, to me, saying someone drives a flashy sports car doesn’t give the same image as saying he drives a Ferrari. If I set a scene in a coffee shop, calling it a Denny’s brings up an immediate image. For my publisher, I had to get permission from Denny’s to use their name—and they were happy to do it. Same went for my character ordering a Knob Creek. The rep at that company was intrigued and delighted. But I couldn’t have a murder take place at Denny’s, or have someone put poison in my character’s bourbon.

Now, more than ever, authors face a dilemma when it comes to portraying things accurately.

How realistic should your book be?

If you’re writing it now, can you predict what the outside world will be like in 3 months? Six months? What’s true today where you live might not be true somewhere else. You’ll never get everything right, because readers bring their own perceptions to the book.

Here’s a question. Given the times, should you be writing a romance? How can a relationship develop when society mandates staying six feet away from everyone? There are the classic 12 Steps to Intimacy, first presented by Desmond Morris. Given today’s world situation, it would be difficult to include these in a book trying to portray these steps realistically. There’s a lot of physical contact going on. (I’ll be covering these steps in my upcoming class, the 12 Steps to Intimacy.)

A common ‘getting to know you’ activity is dinner and a movie. How do you show that when restaurants have strict guidelines for dining at their establishments? When theaters may or may not be open. Can you share popcorn while wearing a mask?

Another consideration is the ever-growing chasm between views of what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to following mandates. No matter what you write, odds are, you’re going to alienate a good portion of your audience. Is it worth it? After all, with today’s rapidly changing circumstances, odds are the book will be out of date before you finish writing it.

I started my current manuscript before the pandemic hit.

It’s part mystery, part romance. It’s set against the backdrop of a tour group visiting the British Isles. The story opens in the US, but my hero and heroine travel to London to start their tour, something that would have been impossible three months after I wrote those chapters. There are nine on the tour, on a ten passenger tour bus. They visit crowded tourist venues, which if things were to be portrayed accurately, aren’t even open.

There were decisions I had to make. Do I rewrite the book for accuracy, or ignore what’s happening around me? Or, simply put “April, 2019” as a header in Chapter 1?

Other authors were also posing the same question on social media, in their blogs and newsletters.

Overall, the consensus was an overwhelming no to referencing the pandemic, and more overwhelmingly against writing about it. Readers, especially romance readers, read to escape. There was discussion of how long it took after the pandemic of 1918 before references were made in fiction. How long after recent wars before they were addressed?

Agents and publishers are facing the same dilemma.

Publishers are driven by the market, and if they don’t have a handle on what will sell, they’re going to cut back on what they will buy. In traditionally published books, there’s a much longer wait time than for indie publishers. Any new books coming out now were likely written and contracted over a year ago. Well before the pandemic and social unrest.

My book club’s selection this month was a well-written book by a best-selling author, published this year. Had I not made the commitment to finish it, I probably would have put it down before finishing the first chapter. Why? Because well-written or not, the book followed two timelines. One, ten years after the Civil War, from the point of view of a former slave who despite technically being “free” was living a life of oppression. The second timeline was set in 1987, in a poor rural south Louisiana town, from the point of view of a new teacher teaching in an “integrated” classroom where prejudices and poverty were the norm. Reading the book was painful. I—and this is my personal feeling—don’t want to get upset when I read.

What about the book I’m writing?

The decision I made was to continue writing the book I’d started. No pandemic. No date references beyond months of the year to establish the seasons. I finished the draft pre George Floyd and its aftermath. I saw no need to change my book. Readers will have a few hours of escape to an alternate reality, where two people can meet, hold hands, and share a meal. A mystery is solved. The good guys “win.” That’s what I need to read right now, and that’s what I need to write.

While it might be an interesting challenge to approach a book, especially a romance, set against our pandemic backdrop, I’ll leave that to other authors. Until we know how the pandemic ends, how can we write a story set afterward? I know I certainly don’t need to read about the craziness out there. Not while I’m living it.

What should you write? Only you can answer that.


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Check out Terry’s next class

12 Steps to Intimacy with Terry Odell – June 29th – July 26th


There’s no escaping your past, no matter how deep you try to bury it.

Morgan Tate has spent over a decade trying to bury her past, hiding behind self-imposed barriers. When she inherits a house in Pine Hills, Oregon, she decides it’s the perfect time to pack up and start a new life. She arrives to discover her new home is a dilapidated structure, filled with mysteries and secrets, and she’s not sure she’ll be able to live in it as required by the terms of the trust. A threat painted on one of the bedroom walls sends her to the police, where she enlists the help of Cole Patton, a local officer. Working together, her barriers threaten to crumble. Can she reveal who she really is and let Cole into her life? But only as a friend. The last thing she’s looking for is romance.

Cole Patton changed his life’s direction to become a cop after losing his childhood sweetheart to violence, but he’s afraid he made the wrong decision. He fears that someday, even in the small town of Pine Hills, he might have to put his life on the line. If that happens, will he find the courage to step forward? When Morgan Tate shows up at the police station asking if someone can explain a threatening message in her new home, Cole is eager to help her discover the truth about her late uncle. The task seems simple and safe, and it doesn’t hurt that Morgan is an attractive woman. He’s not looking for a relationship but Morgan intrigues him. When she’s put in danger, can Cole be the cop he set out to be?

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I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, then moved to Florida where I raised my own family. I’m now happily “retired” and living in a ...
Excellent post! I struggled in the beginning with where to set my story and ended up going completely fictional for all the reasons you set forth. I occasionally mention known places like Dallas or Ft. Worth for perspective as to the location of my fictional town in different books. Even if you write historical and mention known places, you have to have the facts right or readers will call you out.

You made a good point about writing romance given today's circumstances, but frankly, I think we need it more than ever. As a told a fellow writer the other day, reality sucks, give me a fantasy!
    Thanks for your comment, Dana.
    I'm a big "read to escape" person, so I have no trouble reading something that bypasses what's happening today. As for writing -- who knows what the world will be like when a book is published? Accuracy--or at least consistency--is important, but as fiction writers, we get to make stuff up, so if my world doesn't have a pandemic raging, so be it!

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