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!