Something that I must have been aware of at some level for years, but that only arranged itself in my mind as an idea yesterday was the difference between the observations of characters in travel stories. There is a marked difference between what a character notices depending on the viewpoint that the author has chosen. First person travel characters seem to notice more natural detail. It must be easier to convince a reader that the subtle way a tree branch bends is relevant if the character is portrayed in the first person. Something that I had not previously given much thought to is that this seems to apply equally to fiction and non-fiction. This has probably organized itself into a coherent idea at the moment because I am having to concentrate my research for the book I am writing. It is a non-fiction book, but I am simultaneously doing some work for a published writer of fiction. She is keen to portray a fictional character in history, who nonetheless has an accurate understanding of the natural world around them, particularly the night sky on one particular night.
There are two separate points here I think. The first is simple, although there are plenty of exceptions, travel stories written in the first person – fiction or non-fiction – tend to have a greater level of natural detail observation. The second is something of a banana-skin for writers of fiction, dishonest writers of non-fiction and many in the creative arts.
Those of us who spend our waking hours trying to understand the natural world can spot the difference between a fake and the genuine article quite easily and take some relish in doing it. I do not think that it is a coincidence that some of the great works of fiction contain evidence of an accurate understanding of natural phenomena. Moby Dick is one good example.
In my book I am covering another example, concerning the moon, that would probably escape the casual reader of Treasure Island. Lazy (or tired?!)artists and writers can be tempted to abuse the fictional licence however. I read a children’s story last night that contained a picture of a moon that could not have been seen by the characters in the story. Although the suspension of disbelief was tested for me a little, no, I did not ruin the story for my kids over this point and in many ways it does not matter. I do suspect however that that particular story will go out of print before Treasure Island does.