Have You Got the Facts Right?


It makes sense that you must do your homework when it comes to writing non-fiction.  Editors expect to see from your bibliography that you have studied your subject and the era in detail.  They want to be able to verify all the data you present.

However, some writers seem to feel they can take a break from the library archives when their book is fiction.  Not a good plan.

If you’re starting that novel and haven’t read the book THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES by Jack M. Bickham I’d encourage you to pick up a copy.  He has some invaluable advice for fiction writers.

On page 55, in the chapter entitled “Don’t Assume You Know; Look It Up,” he writes about the consequence of not verifying every detail:

“Once… I was writing a western novel.  I gave my cowboy a Colt single-action revolver, a “Peacemaker” model, which he referred to as a thumb-buster.  The novel was set in 1868.
The Colt single-action model I described was not patented until 1872.
My editor missed it.  You should have seen some of the irate letters I got from western history buffs – some of whom probably never bought another novel written by me.
An error of fact can not only make you look foolish.  It can destroy your readership and your relationship with an editor.  You simply cannot guess or assume you know. Even when you are 99% sure, look it up!”

While your characters are fictitious, your setting isn’t. Unless you’re inventing another world you need to research and try hard to accurately portray the setting in which your novel takes place.

I picked up a book at the Library one day and read the back cover.  It sounded interesting and, being set in Alberta, a ramble over familiar territory.  So I started reading… and learned that the city of “XX” is located about half-way between Edmonton and Calgary (like Red Deer?), that you can see its skyscrapers from a distance.  (Skyscrapers in Alberta?  Oh, right, this is fiction.)

It’s located about an hour’s drive from the oil fields of Grande Prairie (has Grande Prairie moved?) and is populated largely by the descendants of Ukrainian immigrants. The women of this city are so religiously and socially active, constantly scheming to be the heads of various charities, that they turn their poor babes, soon as they can toddle, out of doors early in the morning and collect them at night.

I returned the book before I got to Chapter 3.

Yes, I know it was a made-up place.  But even when people know they are reading fiction, they want to believe it could have happened. They give you their confidence that you’re describing the setting as it is.  If they know the area/era you’re writing about, they will be annoyed every time something rings a false note.

Worse yet, if they don’t know any better, they will believe it. Some folks argue that it doesn’t matter.  So what if a London or Glasgow reader doesn’t know that Grande Prairie is a day’s drive–not an hour’s drive–from XXX.

It’s a question of writer integrity.  Am I believable or am I not?  It may be impossible to get details 100% right, but a writer may give serious misinformation about some place or people that readers may believe for the rest of their lives.  Just ask the ladies in central Alberta how they feel about the above description of their mothering skills.

Here’s a little home-grown exercise.  If you know anything about the prairies, see how many errors can you find in this writing, set in 1899.

Kimberley took off her sunglasses and gazed out the window of the train car.  She was so weary and stiff from days of jostling across the prairie on this stuffy immigrant train. At least the scenery outside was appealing: the prairie was a mass of yellow blooms.  Dandelions, someone told her; nuisances.

She’d seen very little sign of domestic livestock today. Passing through southern Manitoba early this morning she had seen a large herd of buffalo grazing knee-deep in the long prairie grass; they’d lifted their shaggy heads to stare as the train rumbled by. She was delighted to get a glimpse of them; folks said they were almost extinct.

It was early July and the 98 degree heat was stifling; very seldom was there even a breeze to cool the land.  Fellow passengers were telling her the crops needed rain badly.  Kimberley could see fields of wheat as the train rolled along; their golden heads drooping in the hot sun.

She thought about the people meeting her in Regina: an aunt and uncle she hadn’t seen for five years.  They had come to Saskatchewan back in 1895 and homesteaded near Indian Head.  What a funny name!  This spring they’d written to ask her if she would come and teach in their small village school this fall.  She accepted the teaching position, also their offer that she could board with them.  But would they be able to get along, cooped up together in a little prairie shack?

She smiled as she realized she would soon experience the turn of the century–and life in Saskatchewan.  Who’d have ever thought it!

Vetting the manuscript:
Sunglasses in 1900?  I doubt it.
Paragraph 3 says it’s early July.  No dandelions.
Buffalo standing still as a train goes by?  They’d be off into the horizon at the first distant rumble.
Wheat wouldn’t be headed yet; if it’s “golden” in July, it’s kaput–nothing but straw.  Also, wheat ripens from the ground up; by the time it’s even half-ripe, rain will do it no good at all, though later crops will still profit from rain.
Since she was traveling from the East she would overshoot Indian Head –very impractical for all concerned– if she went on to Regina.
She was in the Northwest Territories.  Saskatchewan didn’t become a province until 1905.


7 thoughts on “Have You Got the Facts Right?

  1. I’d say this applied to fiction genres like fantasy and science fiction. I’ll accept quite a big of technobabble and “it’s-magic-okay” hand-waving in those genres, but there’s a limit. Nothing worse than having your suspension of disbelief blown by an impossible premise or an annoying detail.


      • Well, it’s easier to overlook some things in a fantasy world – like the fact that every cow herder can read and write, or that everyone in a world of mideoval channels of communications speaks the same languages. But sometimes, you get annoyed at the details. For example, why does this pre mass-production village in the middle of nowhere, where salt is a huge luxury, have glass bottles, glass windows, and, well, glasses?


      • And, of course, all the aliens are humanoid!

        Some sci-fi authors deal with that issue of alien evolution by suggesting that all aliens are just humans who evolved under the effect of new environments and separation from each other. But yeah, heh.


  2. There can never be enough posts on this subject.

    I hate it when books and movies have gun details wrong. If the author/screenwriter can’t bother checking simple facts about guns, I am disinclined to trust anything s/he has to say.


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