Writing Right with Dmitri: Respecting the Truth

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Respecting the Truth

Tip of the Week: When inventing characters, try not to give them inappropriate names. It is extremely unlikely that a saloon dancer in the Wild West in the 1880s would have the name 'Brittany'. No matter what the producer of Dead Man's Gun seems to have thought.

Editor at work.

I know from copious feedback to this column exactly how much the writers around here hate doing 'research'. They find it tedious. They think it interferes with their freedom of expression. They are afraid they'll get lost in the archives.

So what happens if you don't do the research, and just make it up? That will just be a problem for know-it-all 'experts', right? And who cares what they think? They don't buy enough books to count, am I right? When it comes to enjoying badly-researched fiction, ignorance is bliss, isn't it? As my baby sister once pointed out when I raged against Bonanza's be-stethoscoped doctors, delivering babies in hospitals and bleating about 'she's lost the will to live'. After all, what harm does it do to get a few facts wrong, and just make up the rest?

My friends, you can do a lot of harm that way.

Undoubtedly, it is important to take an interest in the fate of the victims of Auschwitz, especially the groups of prisoners who are often insufficiently represented in the commemorative literature, such as the Sinti and Roma deported to Birkenau, but not presenting their situation in a thorough historical manner makes it difficult to recommend such literature. This is because it contains too many substantive and factual errors that are harmful to those who want to learn about the history of Auschwitz.

Teresa Wontor-Cichy, 'Fact-Checking Auschwitz Lullaby', Memoria 19 (04/2019), p. 15

That's an actual quote from a book review I just read online. Memoria is the journal of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. It's their mission to educate the world about the horrible things that happened there. Can you imagine working in such a memorial site? The responsibility you would feel as you catalogued each item, carefully tagged the pitifully few possessions left behind by the victims of mass slaughter?

The other day, the museum posted the picture of an item: a pair of shoes. Those ragged shoes, much repaired, had been lined with layers of paper – which turned out to be pages from a Yiddish-language textbook of mathematics. You can see them here. That artefact teaches us so much that it takes our breath away to look at it. I started imagining the person who owned those shoes. I might want to write a story about him – I'm guessing 'him' because of the shoes – but, oh, boy, would I want to know more first. To do less would be to lack respect.

Once upon a time in beautiful Virginia there lived a little boy named Robert Edward Lee. It was in the days before the Civil War when, if we may believe all we hear, all the women were charming, and all the men were gentlemen.
The Story of Robert E Lee by Ruth Hill, 1920

If people in 1920 hadn't written stuff like that – for children, among others – maybe Heather Heyer would still be alive. She was killed in violence that broke out during protests over a statue of Lee, the losing general in an insurrection that ended over a century and a half ago. Gone with the Wind has a lot to answer for, not only for Margaret Mitchell's fashion descriptions. It's not healthy to create a romantic myth around people who made a way of life out of crime. At least Mario Puzo was honest in The Godfather.

'Ah,' I hear you say (in my inner ear, it talks to me like that, I really should see a psychiatrist), 'That's only true for awful things like the Holocaust and slavery. That's why we shouldn't write about them. There's no harm in making up fun stories about the good periods in history, is there? You know, the romantic Crusaders? Oh, okay, maybe not them, if it makes people anti-Muslim. The French court? Oh, dear, there was that awful Revolution, and if you read the historians, women suffered terribly during the 18th Century. Maybe the Mormon trek? They were so brave and all…they did what? A massacre? Well, it just goes to show you…what does it go to show you? Something, I'm sure…

'I know! Jane Austenland! Jane Austenland is perfectly pure, and safe. You can make up anything you like. And nobody will get hurt. Guaranteed. No nasty Historical Realities will intrude.'

I hear you beaming with joy. (My inner ear suffers from synaesthesia.) Jane Austen, yes. Let's hear from her.

'Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.'

'But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?'

'I did – and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.'

'And I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence!'

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Yes, there's usually dead silence in Jane Austenland if you begin to interrogate that particular reality.

'Butbutbutbutbut…' Here comes that pesky internal interlocutor again, I wish it would go away. 'I don't want to write about dreary old reality. I want to have fun! I write to escape, and I hope my readers will read to escape! Why can't you just leave us the hell alone?'


  • Sloppy documentaries and worse historical fiction can cause more mischief than a possum in Farmer Hoggett's chicken feed. It can even start wars and get people killed. At the very least, it's a crime against the growing minds of innocent children. I spent a couple of years laboring under the misapprehension that the aristocrats were the good guys in 18th-century France, thanks to Dumas. Don't even talk to me about the cult of Charles I.
  • It's no use to revel in that sort of lie – and let's face it, that's what this sloppy stuff is, lies – and then complain that younger people have no respect for the truth and can't tell fake news when they come across it.
  • Even 'made-up' stories need to be honest about human beings, their attitudes, motivations, and actions. So even if you're making up a whole universe (and I really wish you would think twice about that), if you're in the habit of lying about the way humans behave, you'll have a very shaky universe, even if it's made up of adorable sentient jelly babies.

Okay, I'll shut up now. At least the voice in my head has stopped talking. I suspect it's gone off somewhere to sulk and read romance novels.

Youtube Recommendation of the Week:   Mrs Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, is beloved of atheists and Christians who wish those fake ones would go away. Mrs Betty's terribly funny, and she has style. She corrects a few historical myths along the way, as well.

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