Why do audiences prefer fiction to fact?

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Monday musing on the difference between accuracy and believability

By Scott Bury

I recently saw a post by an author questioning the difference between historical accuracy, historical authenticity and believability. It’s an interesting question to me, because I write historical fiction and biography.

Accuracy and authenticity are not the same. In fact, they are in many ways opposed. Authenticity is more closely related to believability, and hinges on good story-telling. It has to “feel” right to the audience. Accuracy, unfortunately, is not always as exciting or captivating as a good, fictional story.

Hollywood to the … what’s the opposite of rescue?

An egregious example of this crucial difference is Ben Affleck’s 2012 movie, Argo. It purports to tell the true story of American diplomats taken hostage during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Except … it’s not all that true.

From the reaction, and the Academy Award nominations, the film really struck a chord with audiences, particularly Americans. For Canadians, though, not so much.

The film as shown downplayed the role of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, who took huge risks to get American citizens false identity papers and passports as Canadians, so they could get out of Iran.

The film played fast and loose with other facts, too — such as scenes showing how Americans were turned away from other embassies, and exaggerated the danger the American diplomats faced.

But it was a thrilling movie that won awards for writing, acting, editing and directing. Why? Because, forty years after the events, it echoed the audience’s impressions of the events.

Score one for authenticity over accuracy.

(Almost) stole my idea

Enemy at the Gates was one of the most powerful, moving films I had ever watched. With Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes and Ed Harris, it portrays the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943. Supposedly based on the book of the same name by William Craig, it has very little to do with the history of the events.

Yes, there was a Russian sharpshooter named Vasily Zaytsev (played by Jude Law) at Stalingrad, and a German sharpshooter brought from Berlin especially to eliminate him(Harris). And yes, there were female fighter in the Soviet ranks, including another sharpshooter or sniper named Tania Chernova (Weisz), and she and Zaytsev had a relationship.

But the details are all fictional. Red Army soldiers did not charge at the invading enemy without rifles, and the sniper’s duel between Zaytsev and Major Konings, not Konig, took only a few pages of the book.

The book is a meticulously researched, accurate account of the lead-up, battle and aftermath of Stalingrad. It was very useful as I wrote my biographical trilogy about a Canadian-born Red Army soldier, Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War.

The movie was a hit. Its depiction of the darkness and brutality of war, the squalid living conditions of the soldiers and the people of Stalingrad, the horrifyingly blasé attitude toward killing other people are what made it seem real to audiences. And we are willing to accept the horrors as real. Somehow, we can accept the idea of Soviet officers sending hundreds of unarmed men to charge into machine-gun fire, even if it never happened.

Sticking to the facts

It’s very important to me to get the details right in my fiction. I spent years researching the Eastern Front Trilogy (mentioned above). I spoke with the subject of the book, my father-in-law, Maurice Bury at length about the details that he witnessed. And I lost count of the number of books and websites I read and consulted for the larger sweep of the story, for the statistics and dates that key events happened on. Even for the military units that took part in various battles.

Getting the weapons right was also important. One of the details that Maurice told me about, that really stuck with me, was his description of the immense Soviet “Stalin” tanks that were so heavy, they sank into the mud.

Or the numbers of horses that both sides used to haul men and machines across the landscape.

And the noise — the thing that he remembered the most.

Even when writing historical fiction, I find myself spending hours researching history. For example, I am working on a fantasy set in the Eastern Roman Empire of the early 6th century CE (most people know this as the Byzantine Empire). It’s a fantasy, so the facts really aren’t that important, but I can spend hours looking up how long it would take to travel by horse from Constantinople to Nicomedia, or the types of clothes Romans wore in 602 CE, or the cost of a night in an inn or a jug of ale.

It’s my effort to bring authenticity closer to accuracy.

Fortunately, I have been able to find most of the answers I need, such as the cost of a horse or the denominations of Byzantine coins; the types of weapons and armour used by Byzantine soldiers and cavalry; they kinds of ships used. Roman historians were thorough.

Why is it important?

Why indeed? Depending on the genre, readers tend to be very finicky about details.

With thrillers and mysteries, readers will let the author know about errors when it comes to guns and ammunition. With historical fiction and non-fiction, readers tend to already know a lot about their favourite eras.

It seems that while audiences are willing to excuse departures from fiction on the big things, they’re not so forgiving when it comes to the tiny details.

It’s perplexing. Why do you think that is?

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has several mysteries and thrillers, including Torn RootsPalm Trees & Snowflakes and Wildfire.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

He has two mighty sons, a pesky cat and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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Thursday teaser: The Eastern Front

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By Scott Bury

Maurice stepped to the table. “Good morning, sir. I know you’re busy, so I would like to quickly help you resolve an error—my draft letter is a mistake.” He put it on the table in front of the officer.

The officer looked up, arching one eyebrow. “That’s a new one. What kind of mistake?”

“I am not eligible for service, as I am not a citizen of the Soviet Union. I’m a Canadian.” He showed his birth certificate.

The officer struggled to sound out the Roman lettering. “Doh-meen-i-yon off Kanada,” he read. He frowned, then shook his head and looked Maurice straight in the eyes. “You are still required to report for duty, comrade.”

“But I’m a Canadian citizen.”

“It doesn’t matter, tovarisch. You live here now, and you must help defend the Motherland.” He was already looking at the next man in line. “Report to the train station by seven tomorrow morning or you’ll be arrested. Next.”

Maurice’s flash of anger was quickly replaced by a despairing acceptance. He had known all along the Soviet army would never care about such an insignificant detail as his citizenship.

He took the long way home, stopping in a café for hot tea as much for the warmth as to delay telling his family the bad news.

He returned to the little farm by lunchtime. Tekla and Hanya wept quietly when they heard. His mother even helped him pack warm clothes and tried to hold out some hope.

“Maybe there won’t be a war. Maybe you’ll serve your two years and then they’ll let you out, and then we can all go back to Canada.”

“Who would we go to war with, anyway?” Hanya asked, joining in. “Russia and Germany are allies now. Germany is fighting England, and they’re too far from us.” She did not mention what they all thought: Finland remained a dreaded enemy.

“That’s right,” Tekla said. “Germany is our ally. There’s no reason for Russia to fight them.”

Maurice agreed, and they sat down to a subdued supper. Tekla poured too much of her homemade vodka, and Maurice drank it all.

The next morning, the women drove Maurice to the train station in the horse-cart. His mother gave him a big basket of food for the journey east: sausage, bread, a small flask of hot tea, some apples left from the fall, a jar of preserves.

The train station was surrounded by military policemen carrying rifles. Maurice also saw other men in peaked caps with maroon bands—the NKVD, the Soviet security police. They strutted, ordering people around in rough and guttural Russian, smoking and looking officious.

The platform was crowded with young men and their families saying goodbye. Like Hanya and Tekla, all the inductees’ parents fussed over them. Mothers wept, fathers gave their sons brave smiles and manly kisses on each cheek.

Maurice thought of his father in Canada and wondered whether he worried about his family in Russian-dominated Ukraine.

“Write to us as soon as you’re settled and tell us where you are and how you’re doing. Please don’t forget, my dear,” Tekla said. She tucked his scarf closer around his neck. She had to stand on her toes to kiss his cheek. She cried, but Hanya smiled bravely.

“Be careful, Maurice. Look after yourself.”

The train rumbled and squealed into the station. MPs pushed the young men onto the cars. Maurice found a seat with three fresh-faced, silent young men, all holding baskets from their mothers, looking at him as if seeking some kind of hope or comfort.

Maurice waved at his mother and sister through the window as the train chuffed away. He felt lonelier than ever before. He patted a secret pocket he had sewn under the waist of his pants, inaccessible from the outside, which held his Canadian birth certificate.

He made himself a promise: he would never part with it until he got back to Montreal.

The Eastern Front Trilogy

A Canadian in the Soviet Red Army

He was a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Drafted in the spring of 1941, Canadian-born Maurice Bury found himself facing Operation Barbarossa—the greatest land invasion in history.

Unprepared for the assault, the Soviets retreated and were captured by the millions at a time. By the fall, Maurice and his men were starving in a POW camp.

As the last of their strength ebbed, Maurice conspired to find an escape for himself and his men. After a nightmarish journey across Ukraine, he joined the underground resistance against the Nazi oppressors.

He risked death time after time, but he also found ordinary people who risked their own safety to help him. Not only in standing against the Nazis, but an even more dangerous ambition: to return home to Canada.

It’s a story that reads like fiction. It’s not.

The Eastern Front Trilogy is available as a paperback through Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has several mysteries and thrillers, including Torn RootsPalm Trees & Snowflakes and Wildfire.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

He has two mighty sons, two pesky cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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Books and memory

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Over the next few weeks, BestSelling Reads authors will explore how their own memories inform their writing. In this installment, Scott Bury describes how the memory of his father-in-law and the subject of his Eastern Front trilogy meshed with a childhood recollection of his wife, and how it all fit into one of his books.

Going through some old papers and memoriabilia of my wife’s parents, we found a picture from World War II—it’s 78 years old. It’s a picture that my wife said she remembered seeing when she was a little . It’s also a picture that Maurice Bury told me about before he passed away: a picture taken in a small town in western Ukraine as it suffered under the Nazi occupation.

I wish I had found this photo years ago, before I published the first edition of Army of Worn Soles. You can bet it will be in the next edition.

It’s a photograph of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury, on the day he returned to his village of Nastaciv, Ukraine, after escaping from the German POW camp in late 1941. The woman beside him is his cousin, Tekla, who was named after her aunt, Maurice’s mother. Tekla was the first family member who met Maurice on his return home.

Here’s the story as told by Maurice, years ago

Even though it was wartime, the market bustled as farmers sold the last of their harvests: corn, wheat, parsley, apples, pears, onions and beets. Townspeople pressed through the stalls, haggling over vegetables, chickens and animal feed. Behind a stall selling eggs stood a slim woman whose dark brown hair threatened to burst the knot in her kerchief.

Maurice tapped her on the shoulder. “Hello, Tekla.”

The woman spun to face him, expecting trouble. She glared at him for several seconds before her eyes widened. “Maurice? My god, I cannot believe it.” She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. She had to lean over her table of eggs, but she held on. Maurice hugged back, wary of knocking eggs down. When she let him go, she looked at him as if she were afraid he was about to vanish again. “What are you doing here?”

Tekla was his cousin, daughter of Myhailo Kuritsa, his mother’s brother. She had been named after her aunt.

“I’m coming home. Can you give me a ride?” he asked.

She threw her arms around him again. “Of course, Maurice, of course. Oh, I can’t believe it. We heard you’d been…been killed.” She held him at arm’s length. “You’re so thin. You must have been starving.” She called to the woman in the stand next to hers, who had been staring at them. “Hanyah, please, sell the eggs for me.”

“Of course, dear. Take the young man home and give him something to eat. Right away,” Hanyah said. She was older than Maurice’s mother, and Maurice did not know her, but she smiled at him as if he were a grandchild she had not seen for a year.

Tekla re-tied her scarf and pulled on her gloves, took Maurice by the hand and led him out of the market. “My wagon is over here,” she said, then stopped. “You know what we should do, Maurice? Let’s get a picture together.”

“Can’t we…”

Army of Worn Soles cover

But Tekla interrupted, took his hand and led him through the market to a small shop, where she paid a few rubles for a picture. The photographer had Maurice sit on a stool in front of a cloth draped against the wall, and posed Tekla standing next to him. Tekla could not stop smiling, nor babbling.

“I can’t wait to see Auntie’s face when she sees you standing on her doorstep. Oh, and my father, too. It’s too bad your father is not here, Maurice. He would be so relieved, so happy to know you’re home safe. Are you sure this is my better side?” She asked the photographer as he adjusted the camera. He smiled, nodded and calmly pressed the shutter.

“The print will be ready on Thursday,” the photographer said and handed Tekla a ticket. “Welcome back, friend,” he said to Maurice.

How it got here

The print was promised for that Thursday in 1941, 78 years ago. It’s suffered a little over the years, and it will appear in a new edition of Army of Worn Soles as well as the single-volume edition of the Eastern Front trilogy.

What about you readers? Have you ever read a book that meshed with your own personal memories?

Scott Bury

Scott Bury’s military biography trilogy comprises Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War. It’s the true story of a Canadian-born man drafted into the Soviet Red Army in World War II.

Scott Bury has also published two Hawaiian Storm mysteries, Torn Roots and Palm Trees & Snowflakes. Another mystery, Wildfire, is set in California during the wine country wildfires of 2017.

His first published novel is a historical fantasy, The Bones of the Earth.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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Thursday teaser: Under the Nazi Heel

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Book 2 in the Eastern Front trilogy

By Scott Bury

Chapter 10: The heel grinds

Nastaciv, July 1942

Maurice woke at noon the day after the night raid. Hot air came in through the open window and he felt sticky with sweat. After washing, he found his mother in the sweltering barn, tending her still.

“Bad news from the villages around,” she said when he came in, without looking up at him. She put more fuel into the little furnace, her brow furrowed. A soft gurgle came from somewhere in the still, and she tapped the copper pipe that led to the first collecting barrel.

The heat from the furnace under the still made Maurice dizzy. “Come outside and tell me.” He stepped out and waited for Tekla to finish fussing over her vodka and follow him. Outside, a slight breeze relieved some of the heat of the summer sun.

“What did you hear?” he asked finally, lighting a cigarette.

“Young Yulia Evanyshyn from Yospivka went missing last night. And a man named Yurchik was killed. People buried him here in Nastaciv secretly at night.” As she looked up at him, Maurice felt like her eyes were drilling into his head. “You’re smoking too much lately.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Where were you all night?”

“It’s best if you don’t know that.” Maurice took one more drag, then threw the half-smoked cigarette to the ground and stomped it with his heel.

“They say the Germans in Seredynky are hopping mad,” Tekla said, closing the barn door.

Maurice helped her push it closed. “Who says?

“People.” She latched the door and walked toward her beet field.

“We better go to the village and find out what people are saying.”

“You go. I have work to do here.”

Vasyl was sitting at Komorski’s café as usual, but outside on the step. “Hey, Maurice,” he said as Maurice sat beside him. “Did you hear about Seredynky?”

“Not much. What did you hear?”

“The Germans have burned down five houses and executed three men. They sent their families away, to camps, they say.”

Despite the sun beating on the back of his neck, Maurice felt cold. “Why?” came out like a rasp.

“Partisans attacked last night, they say. They killed five German soldiers at the garrison there, so the commander ordered one house burned for each man killed. He shot the fathers of each house himself. One of them had a pretty, young wife and they say he has her in his quarters now, where he’s using her for his own sick pleasure.” Vasyl spat into the dirt. “Bastards.”

Maurice stood, feeling himself tremble from head to foot. He went into Komorski’s little house and found the café owner sitting at his own table, his head in his hands. A plain bottle of clear liquid sat on the table, beside a shot glass. “Is it true what they’re saying about Seredynky?” Maurice asked.

Komorski looked pale. He smoothed his hair and spoke to the table. “The Germans set the first house on fire at dawn. They didn’t even bother giving the people inside a warning to get out. They shot the father in front of his three children.”

“How do you know this?”

“The brother of one of the men shot came down here a few hours ago. His name was Loboda, and he was my cousin.” With shaking hands, Komorski poured a shot from the bottle, slopping some of the homemade whiskey onto the table. He threw the drink into his mouth and swallowed. He tried to pour another shot, but his hands could not keep the bottle’s mouth over the glass. Maurice took the bottle and poured for him.

“Yurchik was killed and buried secretly last night, too,” Komorski continued. “He lived here, in this village. He was my friend. It won’t take the Germans long to work out the connection.” He looked up, finally, at Maurice. “Are they going to come here, Maurice? How many houses will they burn in Nastaciv? How many men will they shoot? How many girls are they going to rape?”

About Under the Nazi Heel

For Ukrainians in 1942, the occupying Germans were not the only enemy.

Maurice Bury was drafted into the Red Army just in time to be thrown against the invading Germans in 1941. Captured and starved in a POW camp, he escaped and made his way home to western Ukraine, where the Nazi occupiers pursued a policy of starving the locals to make more “living space” for Germans.

To protect his family, Maurice joins the secret resistance. He soon finds the country faces multiple threats. Maurice and his men are up against Soviet spies, the Polish Home Army and enemies even closer to home.

Experience this seldom seen phase of World War 2 through the eyes of a man who fought and survived Under the Nazi Heel.

Get it on Amazon.

About the author

Scott Bury can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has written in the Lei Crime (Torn Roots, Palm Trees & Snowflakes, Dead Man Lying, Echoes), Jet (Jet: Stealth) and Sydney Rye (The Wife Line, The Three-Way) Kindle Worlds.

His latest work is the Eastern Front trilogy: Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War.

Get to know Scott from his:

And follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.

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