Truth or Consequences

Barbara Kingsolver once said that if she comes upon a fact that is not true, even in a fiction novel, she will not read another word.

Unfortunately, Kingsolver’s admonition came back to me after I had drafted a key scene in my novel, Bear Woman Rising.

As was my habit, I had shot the scene looking through the lens of my imaginary camera, a ploy I used to envision new scenes and make them come to life. For me, the camera brings me into the scene but at the same time keeps me at a necessary writer’s distance.  

In this particular scene, my heroine, Jesse, has decided to visit the Albert Einstein Memorial on her first morning in Washington, D.C. She had arrived after catching the first flight out of Barrow to Fairbanks weeks ago. There she’d retrieved her van and began the 5,000-mile trek south from the arctic research station she’d loved. I wanted to show her at the cusp of reinventing her research career thousands of miles from the Arctic where she, the lone female for six years, had worked to gain the respect of her male peers. So, I “watched” her climb onto Einstein’s lap to gaze at the universe at his feet. I saw her contemplate the unknowns of her future as she studied the steel studded, marble sky map. I hoped to capture her at a pivotal moment as she prepares to navigate a new job in yet another male dominated universe, this time at the prestigious Office of Polar Research.

I had very clear memories of visiting the memorial in the 1980’s and felt it was the perfect setting for Jesse upon her arrival in what she perceived as an alien universe—a sprawling scientific institution within a sprawling metropolis. However, I remembered Kingsolver’s admonition and decided to reacquaint myself with the memorial’s particulars to ensure I would describe the site correctly.

Much to my dismay, I discovered the Einstein Memorial didn’t exist when Jesse arrived in D.C. in 1976. It wasn’t dedicated until April 22, 1979!

 The consequences of leaving that scene in Bear Woman Rising would have meant that discerning readers like Barbara Kingsolver might catch that mistake and then wonder what else I had gotten wrong. More importantly, factual errors that interrupted the flow of the narrative also caused readers to stop and scratch their heads. But the single worst outcome would be if readers, like Kingsolver, refuse to read another word.

In the end, truth won out, and I had to bid farewell to a scene I absolutely loved.

Kingsolver also wrote, “Write a nonfiction book and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts. But write a novel and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”

With that in mind, I am committed to careful fact checking in hopes I earn the trust of readers who venture into my stories.

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