Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting it as right as we can

Last Saturday afternoon at The Loft Second Story Reading Series in Minneapolis Ricki Thompson and Donna Jo Napoli both read from their historical novels, transporting us first to Elizabethan England in Thompson's City of Cannibals, then to medieval Italy in Napoli's The Wager. And both writers said in the question-and-answer afterwards that they knew, no matter how much research they did, they wouldn’t get everything right. There’s no way to know, for instance, exactly how people in the lower classes talked in Elizabethan England because we have no record of their speech.

This was both a revelation and also a reassurance to me: no matter how hard we try as writers (and we do try as hard as is humanly possible), we will still get something wrong. A non-fiction writer told me once that as soon as you write anything about science or the natural world, you probably have something wrong simply because our knowledge is constantly changing or because experts don't always agree.

As someone who has recently dipped a toe in non-fiction waters, I found this a great comfort: do your research (and both Ricki and Donna Jo stressed the huge amount of research behind their novels), try your best, and know that you can’t get it 100% right.

The Big Bog State Recreation Area is opening an interpretive center in June, and they’ve invited me to the opening. Ah, I thought, that must mean I got things right in Big Belching Bog. My next thought was, Or else I got things horribly wrong and they will be throwing me in the bog as punishment, and my preserved bog body will be found centuries later.

I’m sure that the invitation is sincere, and I’m honored to be invited. But on the outside chance that they take hold of my arms and legs and prepare to throw me off the boardwalk, I’ll quote Ricki Thompson and Donna Jo Napoli to them: as writers, we do our best to get it right, but even at our best we can’t know it all.


  1. Then there is the joy of research. Discovering a world from the past or a subject you knew very little about. A reward in itself.

  2. It is a grand reward. One that can be quite addicting and less intimidating than the writing. You're right, Phyllis. We do the best we can, credit our sources and trust the gods. CRM