“Stories are how we learn.” – Bill Mooney and David Holt
People can learn a great deal through stories. Material that is presented in the form of a narrative is often more readily retained by the reader or listener. Using a fictional story as a vehicle to present non-fictional information is a teaching technique that can bring a subject to life in a way that doesn’t always happen with data alone. Sadly for me, it’s not the most appropriate form of teaching and learning for everything. If it were, I would have done a lot better with algebra and wood shop when I was in school. Some things can only be learned by doing. That being said, I’ve learned a great deal from reading fiction that incorporates fact.
When you read a mystery by Diane Mott Davidson, you follow her protagonist Goldy in her dual roles as a caterer and as an amateur detective. When Goldy isn’t involved in some sort of intrigue or danger, she’s usually in her kitchen creating some sort of culinary masterpiece, often named after some aspect of the case she’s working on. To draw the reader even further into the story, the author provides the same recipes that Goldy is using in the book. The result is a novel that’s also a cookbook, or is it a cookbook that has a storyline? I didn’t learn a whole lot about how to be a detective from these books, but I did acquire some new knowledge about food preparation, as well as some great recipes.
Hilary Mantel’s book Wolf Hall is a fictional account of life in Henry VIII’s court from 1500 – 1535. The story is written as a biography of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose to an unprecedented position of power during the Tudor era. A novel like this one represents a true achievement in edutainment. As the story sweeps you along you also painlessly absorb a lesson in British history. Hilary Mantel reportedly organized her meticulous research into a card catalogue, with accurate details of each and every historical individual that appeared during the narrative. For the most in-depth experience, I’d suggest reading the book, then watching the brilliant BBC version.
I don’t always put into practice what I read, which is a good thing, since after reading K. J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy I learned about some decidedly anti-social activities, like the best way to win a duel and how to build a deadly catapult. This is a trilogy that’s hard to catalogue – it’s somewhat like a fantasy in that it takes place in an alternate universe, but all of the characters are human, and none of them are magic users – unless you’re as mechanically challenged as I am, and consider engineers and their abilities to be magical. In the first book, Devices and Desires, we’re introduced to Ziani Vaatzes, a man who is condemned to die after breaking the rules of the engineering guild. With nothing to lose, Ziani retaliates by setting a terrible chain of events in motion.
Fictionalized accounts are just that – fiction. However, some novels do have accurate, verifiable content. If you’re a reader that prefers a large helping of facts in their fiction, I’d recommend checking out the goodreads site, where you’ll find lists such as the Most Historically Accurate Historical Fiction and Books That Cook (Stories with Recipes). If science is more your thing, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific has a list of fiction books with certifiable scientific data.
Reading a novel that contains elements of fact gives you as a reader the opportunity to embrace reality and make-believe simultaneously. You could even view reading this type of fiction as a form of multi-tasking – you pick up new bits of knowledge while also enjoying a story. For me, factual fiction is the best of all possible worlds.