Whadda’ya know?

by Pari

Way back when I was writing my very first manuscript — one that never sold — I wanted to know about money laundering and got an appointment to speak with a special agent from the FBI. The interview was a bust. I kept asking questions and he kept avoiding the details that would make my work believable. Both of us became increasingly frustrated until, finally, he said, "You’re a novelist, right? This is fiction. Why don’t you just make it up?"

(If you read CLOVIS, you’ll see the FBI agent isn’t very likeable. We writers get our revenge . . . but that’s another post.)

I’ve never written a manuscript without doing research. Some of it is the obvious stuff. For my New Mexico series, I always go to the town I’m writing about and spend time driving around, staying in the hotels, eating at local restaurants, visiting touristy places. When I write anything with a gun, I ask experts. When there’s actual police procedure, I ask experts. In my new series, I’m reading every book I can find on animal behavior and communication, animal mind and consciousness (or lack thereof).

But in each of my three published books, there’s been a mistake that I didn’t know was a mistake until a reader told me. For example, in SOCORRO, I have Sasha drink from a raku pottery cup. Now I grew up with a mother who collected art. We had several pieces of raku around the house; that’s how I came up with that detail in the first place. Wouldn’t you know?  A woman who was an expert in pottery wrote to tell me that raku is decorative — never utilitarian.

Great. Wonderful. Screwed up again.

Or there was the time I got the wrong kind of freezer in someone’s house. The wrong brand.

Frankly, most of us don’t know how much we don’t know.

But how much should an author second-guess herself? How much should she stop the process when she DOES think she knows? These little mistakes can throw a reader right out, but for others, they’re nothing  — just blips.

There’s probably a fact, something that can be checked, at least on every single page of every manuscript I write. I try to be as accurate as possible without becoming pedantic or boring. But I make assumptions all the time AND I’m NOT EVEN AWARE that they’re assumptions (that’s what happened with the raku and the freezer).

If I stop to check absolutely everything, I’d never finish a manuscript. My hope is that with all the eyes reading my work — my critique group, my agent, an editor, a copyeditor  — that we’ll catch the egregious problems and quite a few small ones along the way.

But . . .

How much do you fact check/research?
How do you know what you know AND don’t know?

What’s your take on this?
Are you the kind of reader who screams and slams a book to the floor if a restaurant you know is on the wrong side of the street?

I’ll be on the road today but will try to check in. If I don’t make it, I’ll respond to every single comment tomorrow. This is a subject that really interests me and I hope the conversation is a good one!


25 thoughts on “Whadda’ya know?

  1. Jo Parker

    Hmmm, firstly I think if you’re too busy looking for errors like that when you are reading you probably aren’t enjoying the book much.

    Unless you happen to have a major passion for fridge freezers, because then I guess you can’t help but notice. For example, I love cars and motorbikes. I would never have spotted the errors you’ve mentioned, but mix up the makes/models/ages of your vehicles and I’ll spot it straight away.

    But will I do anything about it, probably not, I’d just replace the image in my head with the proper one, because we’re all human and can’t be right all the time no matter how much we want to be.

  2. K. Prescott

    I think it really depends on the error. Some little thing I might just gloss over and not care, but some things are pet peeves. One book I read recently had an event called “high tea” that was clearly afternoon tea. It annoyed me endlessly. I checked wikipedia and now apparently Americans are allowed to confuse the two because A. we poor slobs don’t know any better, and B. It sounds right (high as in sophisticated).

    This dumbing down (not just in the book but the attitude in general) bugs me tremendously. Just because some people make assumptions doesn’t mean it should become acceptable to go along calling aftenoon tea the wrong thing. If everyone else jumped off a cliff, etc.

    It takes about thirty seconds to find out the difference between afternoon and high tea. I gather from the acknowlegements that the author based this event on a real event held locally, apparently by people who can’t be bothered to research tea customs.

    Props to Laura Childs, who writes tea shop mysteries, for extensive research.

  3. K. Prescott

    Oops, I hit post too quickly. I don’t want anyone to think that the author I mentioned at the end was the unnamed one who made the error I referenced at the beginning of the post, she is not. Laura Childs must do an extensive amount of research for her tea shop mysteries as I have yet to find a minor error, much less a major one,and they’re good reads. She was my “good example”. I like to find the positive as well as the negative, so mentioned an author who does a good job of research to balance my pet peeve at the beginning of the post.

  4. Wilfred Bereswill

    Good post, Pari. In my first book, A Reason For Dying, I researched everything. Without keeping track, I’m sure I spent as much time researching as writing. After writing the draft, I went through it with a fine tooth comb. If I mention a gun, I went to the range and shot it. If it was about a virus, I contacted a doctor friend and asked, etc.

    Was it worth it? For me it was. As an engineer, I’m s stickler for accuracy, at least in my own work and I have thrown books across the room when I read really obvious mistakes. Like a Glock with a safety lever. That gets me wondering what else the author doesn’t know.

  5. Bill Cameron

    I agonized for a while, especially about police procedure. I know a few cops, have a lot of respect for cops, and want to portray them fairly and genuinely, nits and gems alike.

    But in more than one conversation with cops I heard some variation on, “If it’s too true-to-life, it’s boring. Real police work is interesting to do, but it would be tedious to read about.”

    So I’ve tried to find a balance between real and genuine, which I sense is what most crime fiction writers do. Be true to the work without focusing on a perfect adherence to reality which could bog down the story. So a crime scene team becomes one person, or the roles of sergeant and lieutenant merge into a single person. Stuff like that. I’m sure it will bother some people, not others. But the trick to me is to tell the best story I can while communicating the quality of reality, not bogging down in details that don’t advance the story.

    And, of course, even so, I’ve made real mistakes that readers gleefully (and usually gently and warmly) pointed out to me.

    As a reader, I understand that authors need to take liberties. Little “errors” don’t trouble me, assuming I even notice them. But I do want that sense of genuineness. The restaurant can be on the wrong side of the street, and it can be Thai instead of Ethiopian, but the street can’t run north-south when it actually runs east-west. The street can be imaginary, shoehorned into some kind of quantum interstice between two real streets, but it should feel like it fits. It doesn’t all have to be REAL, but it does have to be true to place and time.

    I did once stop reading a book, and never picked up anything else by an author, because he moved suburbs around a city I knew very well like puzzle pieces. I don’t know if it was intentional or a mistake — supposedly he knew the city — but the effect was so clumsy and careless that I felt like I couldn’t trust the rest of the novel, and by extension anything else he wrote.

  6. Brett Battles

    It’s a balance, I think. I do the research, but I try not to the let the facts getting in the way of making my story the best it can be. Yes, I try to get the small things right, the factual things as much as possible. Do I miss some? I’m sure I do.

    One of the big research things for me is to visit the locations I write about whenever possible. I need to get a sense of a place so that when i write about it, I feel like I know enough about what I’m describing that if I want to take liberties and change things up, I can. For instance, in THE CLEANER I spend pretty much the whole second half of the story in Berlin. Most of what I wrote as far as locations go was right from my experiences. The Indian restaurant, the Dorint Hotel, even the waterworks building in Neukölln were all actual places. But near the end I needed another hotel in another part of town, so I just made one up. Since most of the rest of the stuff I wrote was factual, it made this location also seem real. If a reader had a problem with it (and I’ve never received any letters about it) then my response would be that a) it’s fiction, and b) it’s not about how real the items in the story are, but about how real they seem in the world the author has created. That, after all, is the bottom line. We are all creating our own little worlds, some mirroring our real world closer than others, but none a perfect reflection.

  7. lucidkim

    Like others have said, it depends not only on the error made, but also on my knowledge. When I read Grisham’s “The Firm” I was fine until he had a character drive South and stop at the Floribama – when it is, in fact, the Florabama (http://www.florabama.com/). I lived in Pensacola for 16 years (and was living there when I read that book) and had been to the Florabama. I kept thinking “typo?” “mistake?” “typo?” it was a little thing but that one letter took me out of the story and puzzling over why you would include a specific real place and then get it wrong.


  8. Louise Ure

    Like your raku example, I find that it’s difficult to recognize what I don’t know. (I’m sure there’s a Donald Rumsfeld example here about the known-known and the unknown-knowns.) In my case, I used the local name for a mountain range, only to have the copy editor correct me. What does this pipsqueak from New York know about my hometown, I railed. Turns out she was right.

  9. Naomi

    I’m trying to remember the context of Sasha and raku pottery cup–but it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to drink from such a vessel. In fact, I’ve heard contemporary potters who insist that their works be utilitarian. So I don’t even think that you’re wrong . . .

    I have people correct me on occasion and scold me. But often times they don’t understand that I’m looking at things from my characters’ POV–it’s not nonfiction with footnotes and all! And in terms of geography, places are always changing. Eateries can come and go, streets can be renamed, etc. Although I write a lot about places, I take some liberties with streets and landmarks. This is my virtual reality.

  10. Jake Nantz

    I think a lot of it depends on how in-depth you tend to research. I wanted to make sure I knew my detectives worked in the Major Crimes Unit here in Raleigh, not the Robbery/Homicide Division. I also wanted to make sure they worked out of Headquarters in the Downtown district, not out of any particular precinct.

    But the inside of the MCU offices? There are maybe 20 people who will know it intimately enough to know that I needed it to be bland and stark and governmental, so I changed it. That I needed two ranks to get blended and altered, so I did.

    It’s times like that when I look at THE SLEEPING DOLL, and see a letter from Mr. Deaver apologizing to the people of Capitola for putting a maximum security prison right in the middle of their little town. Sometimes it’s just got to be fiction.

  11. TC

    Sorry to say that I’m a throw-the-book-to-the-ground-er. Partly, that’s because I’m a non-fiction writer…no, partly, that’s because I spent several years as a science-magazine fact-checker. It was my JOB to really, really care if a fact was wrong. I’ve never really been able to let that go.

    But also, it depends on the fact in question. Go ahead and put the restaurant on the wrong side of the street…so long as it STAYS there throughout the book and doesn’t suddenly switch positions midway through. The raku pottery thing wouldn’t even bother me THAT much…unless I knew that the glaze they use on those cups would actually be poisonous if ingested or something like that. THEN it would bug me, especially if the character didn’t keel over and die like I would expect her to!

    For me, a science writer, the deal breakers are scientific facts that get messed up. I recently read a book where the author talked authoritatively about putting a baby down on its belly to AVOID the risk of SIDS, and pretty much couldn’t read any further.

  12. Bryon Quertermous

    I could care less about errors and such. What I look for are the telling details. The little detail that lights a manuscript up. Michael Connelly is great at these. For the most part, since I’m writing my first novel, I’m using places I’ve already been, people I’ve met, things I know, and a bit of general bull shittery. But the little bit of research I do is to find those telling details.

  13. j.t. ellison

    I do my absolute best to make sure everything I write is accurate — and pray that readers understand that we all make mistakes, and sometimes mistakes are made for us. Perfect example — sometime post-proof for 14 a typesetter or proofreader changed the Frist Center in Nashville to the First Center. I would hope that my readers recognize that I do know the difference.

    I’ve had people who gleefully correct me who’ve been wrong, and people who are apologetic to correct me be right. I prefer accuracy when I read, and get frustrated with errors that are easily researched and fixed. I bring that to my books, and enlist creative license only if absolutely necessary. But it’s fiction, so that does happen.

  14. Allison Brennan

    What Brett said. I try to be as accurate as possible without sacrificing the story. I won’t suspend the law of gravity, for example (unless I was writing something supernatural and then it would follow the rules of my world), but if I need a DNA test result faster than I know is possible based on work flow and priorities, I have my character know someone in the lab. After working in government for 13 years, so much of life is who you know and what to ask for.

    In TEMPTING EVIL, I had an FBI agent leave his jurisdiction and follow a fugitive out of state. Yes, I assumed he’d do this based on television and the movies. During copyedits, I was fortunate enough to make contact with an FBI agent who said that no, the agent would contact the local FBI office in the other state and pass on the information. While agents WILL travel to pick up a fugitive who has been arrested in another state or country (depending on whether there is money in it from the US Attorney’s office or a private source, which is a whole other conversation), they won’t pursue them because it’s a matter of staff and resources and jurisdiction. Grrr! This FACT ruined my entire book, and since I was in copyedits, I didn’t want to rewrite huge sections. So I asked what would happen if an agent broke protocol and followed the fugitive anyway–say he was really involved in the case. My contact said, well, anything from a reprimand to termination, depending on the circumstances, the agent in question, the supervisor, etc. Yowza, that was PERFECT because my guy was a maverick and tended to break a lot of rules AND it set up the next book better because I could pull him off fugitive apprehension as punishment and create real conflict between him and his boss.

    Anyway, Pari, I’m sorry you had a bad experience with your agent. I’ve been lucky to find some great contacts, both retired and sitting.

    But the most interesting question you had is, what if you don’t know that you don’t know? That’s one hard. I made an error on a prescription and was called to the carpet for it from a nurse, because I didn’t know that 5/100 was 5 mg of the drug like Vicodan or Valium, and the 100 was the amount of Tylenol (or whatever. I’m sure I got it wrong again.) I made an educated guess and was wrong.

    But sometimes it’s not the author. In Playing Dead, there’s a road called the delta road. Technically, the name is River Road, but NO ONE in Sacramento calls it River Road, everyone calls it the delta road. My copyeditor changed them all to Delta Road. Which would make me sound like an idiot who hasn’t lived in Sacramento for the last 20 years. I hope I caught them all between the copyedits and page proofs, but I’m nervous about it and I don’t dare re-read my book.

  15. J.D. Rhoades

    It depends, I guess, on how integral details are to what the book’s trying to do. Tony Hillerman has to get the details of Navajo life and culture right, because those are central to the book and are part of why people read Hillerman. But unless you’re writing raku-pottery or freezer mysteries, only a very, shall we say, compulsive person is going to squawk at the kind of error you describe, and really, how many of those are there? I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to do research and get the little things right, but keep your eyes on what you’re really trying to accomplish.

    However, as I noted yesterday, you have to get firearms right unless you like reading a lot of e-mail from gun aficionados telling you what an idiot you are. The answer to the question “how many people are going to notice” is, when it comes to guns, “a whole lot of people. Very cranky people, at that.”

  16. Dana King

    There are, I think, two issues here. The obvious one is the research, concerns research, how much to include, and how to realize what you don’t know. To me, more detail requires more accuracy. If you just say the crook has a gun, it doesn’t matter as much how many bullets it hold, or whether it’s an automatic or a revolver. Once you say it’s an automatic, then the shooter can’t be surprised when it runs out of ammunition. If you say the town is Downers Grove, it can’t be north of Chicago.

    Another question comes to mind: when is an error an error? If the character incorrectly calls her little soiree a high tea when it is, in fact, an afternoon tea, you’re not really wrong; she is. If a Pittsburgh character refers to a jumbo sandwich, the copy editor changes it to baloney at his peril; in Pittsburgh it’s called jumbo, no matter what is “right.”

  17. Suzanne Adair

    Pari, thanks for your interesting post. I write historical suspense/mystery and am constantly checking facts and researching. Since I’m also a historical reenactor, I’m beginning to develop a sort of sixth sense about my time period that enables me to sniff out 21st-century material in my manuscripts. Plus, some of the folks who read my manuscripts before they go to the editor are history buffs, and they’re quick to point out where I screw up.

    Nevertheless, errors slip past everybody and are published. Usually I find out about it when a reader calls it to my attention. I realized a couple years ago that if I waited for perfection, I’d never have another novel published.

    Yes, I strive for accuracy. What may be more important is providing riveting drama and compelling characters for readers. For most readers, if they aren’t sped along by the drama and characters, they aren’t going to care if the book is 100% accurate. They won’t read it.

    Regards,Suzanne Adairwww.suzanneadair.com

  18. Allison Brennan

    JD, I got a small gun fact wrong, and the reader–an NRA firearms instructor–offered to help keep my facts straight. I know a bit about guns, but not everything. The fact dealt with the California Concealed Carry law. Or, more accurately, what the license for carrying concealed is called. I called it a concealed carry permit (as in, permit to carry concealed.) It’s one of those things I didn’t know I didn’t know. I’d always called it such. The instructor said that it’s called a CCW “concealed carry weapon” permit. Now I know. I still think most people think of it as a concealed carry permit, but I won’t be making that mistake again!

    Fortunately, that’s the only gun fact I’ve gotten wrong (knock on wood.) I did have a friend of mine who owns a Glock tell me that they’re plastic and therefore not “cold” as I described in my first book. I disagreed with him. Plastic can be cold, and it was also used as a descriptor relating to my heroine who slept next to a “cold Glock.” I left unsaid “rather than a hot guy” because that’s not how she would have thought. All the female reader friends I asked got it. And I asked a retired FBI friend of mine who told me her Glock could feel cool to the touch as well.

  19. Tammy Cravit

    As others have said, there’s a balance between messing up a critical point, and glossing over niggly little details for the sake of writing a novel rather than a textbook. I think we play an intuitive balancing act between the two. Sometimes we hit the right balance, and sometimes we miss the mark. That’s part of the game — not everyone can hit the ball 100% of the time, even though we’d like to try.

    The deciding factor for me in where I draw the line is the place where the details we gloss over don’t affect the story and don’t destroy the suspension of disbelief for most of your readers. For example, your mistake with the raku pottery is, to my mind, a minor one because (a) not very many people, out of the pool of your readers would know that, and (b)I suspect that detail is not central to the storyline (ie, it could as easily have been some other kind of crockery).

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Interesting post – great topic. I’ve just read a couple of books where the authors had obviously done a LOT of research, and oh boy the reader was going to cop for all of it. If I really wanted to know that much about the subject, I would have read a text book instead. Everybody likes to feel they’ve gleaned a new little fact from a novel, a piece of insider info, but they don’t want a lecture.

    I’ve made one or two howlers in my time, but the only ‘mistake’ anybody’s called me on, wasn’t a mistake at all. Somebody took me to task for a traumatic amputation in one of my books, saying the character would have bled to death before the medics could get to them. In fact, my father-in-law was a retired ambulanceman who had dealt with just such a case and I used many of the details as he’d described them.

    And a California test reader commented that they’d never heard of Brunswick stew, which my characters sit down to in New England, when it’s a distinctly east coast dish.

    But, silly mistakes that are relevant to the plot DO shake me out of the story, no doubt about it.

  21. Fran

    I just finished reading a book where the author obviously did TONS of research and it’s all interesting. . .but it doesn’t all belong in the story. So partway through she crams in all these interesting-but-confusing facts, and it’s not that she was trying to show that she’s a good researcher. I think it was more that she herself is so fascinated by the stuff (and again, it was interesting, just distracting) that she had to share. And the story got muddled along the way.

    Errors that jar a reader out of the story are unfortunate, but if the story stays true, most readers, I think, will forgive. Or be pleased that they found a mistake.

  22. pari

    Hey all,I lied. I said I’d comment yesterday but came home from the trip so tired I’m still recovering today. Will try to read these manana.

    But, thank you thank you thank you for the interesting discussion. I’m really glad the topic stimulated thought.

  23. Sunnie Gill

    There’s always going to be some anorak somewhere who will pick up on tiny little inconsistencies. It’s inevitable.

    Speaking as a reader,unless something is glaringly obvious then it doesn’t bother me.

    Recently I read a book where the author (Swedish) had a character living in the Northern Territory on a sheep farm with green pastures. (for those not famillar with Australia, the Northern Territory is mostly desert and if there are sheep numbering in double digits there, I’d be surprised) Perhaps for someone with little knowledge of Australian geography that would have gone un-noticed but for us Aussies it screamed at us at the top if its lungs.

    I suppose errors are in the eye of the beholder. For Aussies that was a howler of epic proportions, but for others, perhaps it passed unnoticed.


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