Years ago when I mentioned to one of my relatives that I was writing a story set in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) she indignantly informed me: “Just because you briefly stuck your nose into the city, doesn’t mean you can write about it.”
I don’t remember my reply. I did not say, “Oh, yes, I can.” I know I did not remind her that Margaret Mitchell (my relative loved Gone With the Wind) did not live in Georgia during the Civil War. I may have said, “I am not writing a travelogue or a history of the city. I’m writing a novel.” Fiction.
Writers cast a magic spell with their words in even the most realistic of fiction. A spell that can make even the most improbable things seem real. Contrary to what Franz Kafka wrote, in The Metamorphosis, there never was a man named Gregor Samsa who woke up one morning to discover that he’d turned into a cockroach. Nor did a nose (The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol) take leave of a man’s face and run (!) around St. Petersburg being very officious.
Sometime later, the same relative recommended The Dogs of Riga. Henning Mankell, she said, had done an excellent job of portraying Riga. Of course, I had to read the book, if for no other reason than to see just how accurately Mankell had depicted Riga, Latvia,which I’d also visited. There was almost no detail. He might have mentioned a famous clock and one or two other well-known landmarks in the city, but that was it. Mankell even admitted in an interview that he’d never set foot in Riga.
Then how was it that my relative was convinced that the author knew Riga well? She grew up in the city, naturally, she knew it well. That was Mankell’s trick. When he wrote about the Laima clock, in my relative’s mind it conjured up memories of her hometown. She could visualize the tree-lined boulevard on which the clock stands, the blue hotel, and the Freedom Monument in the background. So it seemed as if Mankell had actually been on that very street corner. This writer did not cast a spell. He knew the right details to include to make the reader create her own spell. To those who don’t know the city, the details don’t matter much anyway. They’re interested in the plot.
Louis L’Amour, author of many best-selling Western novels did not rely on his word power to make his settings seem real. He was a stickler for detail. It is said that if in one of his novels he wrote that a lamppost was on a particular corner, in a particular town, you could go to that town and find that very lamppost. Provided it hadn’t been knocked down by some drunk driver in a truck. That last sentence is my addition. Reality changes.
Does it matter if the lamppost was ever actually where L’Amour said it was? To me, it does not. Nor does it matter that a man never turned into a cockroach nor that a nose never deserted its face. What matters is the story–the magic spell that the writer casts.
John Grisham once cheerfully admitted that a prison he’d depicted in one of his novels did not actually exist. I did not read this in his acknowledgments until after I’d finished reading his book. It did not matter. It was still a good book that I’d enjoyed and would read again. Anyone who did not read the acknowledgments wouldn’t know the difference.
Authors who are not writing fantasy or science-fiction must try to strike a balance between what’s real and what’s fiction. If someone writes a novel set in Seattle and puts Mt. Rainier in the wrong place, I’ll be highly irked, but if the author’s books are engaging enough, I will read them again and again. It’s the story that matters and the spell the writer casts.