Storytelling: Education or Entertainment?

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Passchaendale 100 years

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I've just finished reading Don Winslow's The Force. It's a brilliant portrayal of a corrupt detective's fall from grace. The book cover has heavyweight endorsements from Stephen King, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, the Sunday Times, New York Times and Mail on Sunday.

Michael Connelly says:

"There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He's a master."

I can only agree, for Winslow knows his stuff, being a former investigator, anti-terrorist trainer and trial consultant. His previous seventeen novels are all well-researched, gripping and totally believable. Two have been filmed—The Cartel, and Savages—while The Force has had its film rights bought by Ridley Scott.

It would be impossible for Winslow to write his true-life crime novels without mentioning the facts—reminding the reader of news stories, while they identify with the fictional characters the author has inserted into history. The atmosphere of fear and tension he creates is all the more credible for it.

In my own writing, I do loads of research to get facts correct—a lot of crime fans think they're experts through watching such television series as the CSI franchise, which is wildly inaccurate a lot of the time. I love passing on knowledge, especially if it's relevant to the story I'm creating, but there always comes a moment when I pause to think is this too much information? I'm writing a fictional story, not delivering a lecture.

Do facts ever cause you to dither as they become obstacles to your narrative?

Have you ever learned anything useful from a novel?
I often remove facts in my editing process, because my default thought processes tend toward education. But since I know that about myself, I can usually catch when I slip into teacher mode.

I've learned lots from novels. Perhaps the oddest one is a gardening trick I learned from one of the Little House on the Prairie books--when you're hit by a late spring frost, spray water on your plants before the sun hits them, and they're likely to survive the frost. That one has come in SO handy here, as my garden sits in the bottom of a slough and can frost long after the offical last frost date. I also learned how to pick potatoes without digging up the plants from one of the Little House on the Prairie books--lots of good homesteading tips sprinkled through those things.
I agree, the best books teach as well as entertain. When I write fantasy, I don't do much research. But at the moment I'm writing about a boy in 13th century England, so I've been reading books and doing lots of research around people's lifestyles and their working day in that time. Ordinary people, I mean, not the aristocracy we usually see in films Like, getting up and going to sleep with the sun because candles cost money. And where did they go to pee... :) Then I try to forget all the detail I've read, and attempt to incorporate it naturally. If kids thought for one minute I was trying to give them a history lesson, they'd switch off.

I've learned loads of useful stuff from novels. I don't retain much it, but I usually remember which books had what information: I loved Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness for that reason – all the lovely insights into a world without our technologies. And the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, more great detail about a world that's long gone. The most interesting thing, though, no matter who's writing what – human nature doesn't change much. People still lie, betray, love, honour, fight...die...
I've learned things from novels, but the best stories, IMHO, are still the ones where the research doesn't show. If I want to read about a subject with the intention of learning it, I will read a non-fiction book on it. But I read novels to be entertained. To escape. :)
I love to learn from novels and I include a lot of facts in my writing (I also provide a list of references at the end of the story for those who want to learn more). Facts don't always get in the way of a story and are essential in techno-thrillers. For example, some people like to know that such and such a weapon tends to jam, or that the latest RN destroyers have power failures because - allegedly - the MOD mis-specified the sea water temperatures in which the power plants were to operate. Welcome to nerd-land.
I've certainly learned lots from fiction, including, as a boy, how to go poaching for wildlife. I'm a Nature lover, but all the same was fascinated by how the labouring class defied their lords and masters to take gamekeeper-protected game birds and salmon. I wondered if such stories as 'tickling fish' were true. This is where the poacher lays on the bank dangling his hands in the water, waiting for a fish to rest above his palms, gently stroking its belly before scooping it up and out of the river. Years later, as a young man, I worked with a poacher, who took me poaching with him and I found that all of the tales were true.

As Margaret Culkin Banning observed

'Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.'
And this is why I try to get all my facts straight--isn't it awesome when a work of fiction gets it so right you can go fish tickling from the description in the book?
Frederick Forsyth got a letter apparently, telling him how people aren't throw backwards when they're shout. The denouement of Day of The Jackal, and Lebel saves the day just in the nickers of time before the Jackal takes out de Gaulle.



Gunfire. Jackal hits the wall. Slither, slump.

Infuriating for Forsyth, and if I spot a duff fact it does put me off somewhat, but I'm ready to let him off that one.

Still a stunning novel.
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Reading and Eating

Passchaendale 100 years