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Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Check Your Facts, Ma’am!

02 Apr

You’re busy creating your story world with your right brain, rolling along with the great plot and developing your characters while your muse is buzzing. Great! But later, when you’ve got that first draft done, it’s important to switch to your left brain and go back and check for continuity, logic, and accurate information – or get someone else to do it for you.

As you’re busy writing along, you may assume everything makes sense and all your info is correct, but at some point, step back and reread for logistics. And while you’re at it, verify your facts, to avoid annoying or even alienating your readers – and eroding your credibility. “But,” you say, “I’m writing fiction, so who cares about facts?” You should, because you want to create a credible world for your readers to be drawn into, and if an erroneous fact jars them out of it, they’re going to be disappointed and annoyed. Think about watching a movie about Ancient Rome and suddenly you notice a watch on one of the gladiators! The illusion of being caught up in their world is shattered.

If you’re writing a western, make sure the gun makes and models they use were invented by that period. And in a contemporary novel, don’t have a character in the 70s or even 80s researching a topic on her home computer! A quick Google search with the question “When did home computers become popular?” reveals that Microsoft pioneered the home computer in 1992, and 1995 was the year computers really became mainstream.

Yet, I recently read a novel in which the (missing and assumed dead) mother of the protagonist had sent emails 20-25 years earlier! I think I personally started emailing around 1996 or ’97. How about you? Similarly, don’t have your everyday characters using cell phones in the ‘90s.

In a historical fiction I edited a few years ago, a murderer was running from the police in England, around 1855.  He headed to the port and spotted a lone man with a ticket for a passage across to New York. He lured him into a secluded area, stabbed him, and stole his ticket for the ship, which he boarded almost immediately. Arriving in America three or four weeks later, he was greeted by his uncle, whom he’d arranged to meet him at the pier. I immediately queried the author as to how the fugitive, who boarded the ship at the last minute, could have arranged for his uncle in America to be at the harbor to meet him? By cell phone? The author admitted he hadn’t thought of that, and was grateful that I’d pointed it out.

Also, be aware of whether expressions were in use in the time frame or geographical region of your story. If you use a modern expression in a historical fiction, it jolts the reader out of that time period, and they’ll probably feel you did a shoddy job of recreating that world for them. For example, in a historical fiction I was editing that took place about 150 years ago, the term “upscale” was used. This struck me as out of place for that time, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster lists the year of the first appearance of many words, and “upscale” is listed as first being used in 1966, so to even use it in narration in a historical fiction takes the reader out of that world. Same with the even more recent expression, “high-end” (coined around1977). For historical fiction, better to use “upper-class” or “elegant” or “sophisticated” or “affluent” or “wealthy.”

And as a freelance editor, I constantly notice little errors like an amber necklace suddenly being called a sapphire necklace later in the evening; someone picking a daffodil from the garden in October, a wound in the forearm moving inexplicably to the hand; a character’s vehicle color, make or model changing; problems with dates and time sequence; sudden changes in a character’s name, age, or appearance; inconsistencies with the season, climate or geography; and so on. I was editing a murder mystery several years ago where the victim had been shot in the head while he sat in his car (a single gunshot). Several chapters later, the autopsy was investigating his only wound—in his chest! And another where an apple tree in blossom became, the next morning, a tree bearing ripe apples! If errors like these aren’t picked up before your story is published, you can be sure that a number of readers will notice them and may lose confidence in you as a writer – and put down your story.

So if in doubt about facts in your story, take the time to look them up, or run your story past trusted readers before publication. Better yet, employ the services of a freelance editor, who will be on the lookout for incorrect information, discrepancies, and logic problems, and may query you with a comment like “Was this invented back then?” or “Did she just buy a new car? The one she had yesterday was a blue Toyota. Now she’s driving a Ford,” or “Who’s Ralph?” (That character whose name you changed.) The last thing you want is for your readers to say, “Oh, come on! This doesn’t make sense!” then toss the book aside.

How about you? As a reader, have you ever been jolted out of a story by something that didn’t make sense? As a writer or editor, have you noticed incongruities that needed to be fixed? Do you have any interesting or funny or absurd examples to share?

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor, specializing in suspense/thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as mainstream, YA, and historical fiction. For more information on Jodie’s editorial services, please visit her website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 

 
27 Comments

Posted by on April 2, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

27 responses to “Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Check Your Facts, Ma’am!

  1. Lucy Nash Merrill

    April 2, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Be careful with that Google search.

    You say ” A quick Google search with the question “When did home computers become popular?” reveals that Microsoft pioneered the home computer in 1992, and 1995 was the year computers really became mainstream.”

    So I guess I didn’t really have that Apple II in the 1980s. I have such a clear memory of it, too.

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    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 2, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Actually Apple was formed in 1976 and the Apple IIe was one of the early ones—I had one too. The MAC came along in 1984—launched with the famous Super Bowl ad. So your memory is correct.

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  2. wcgreen

    April 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I bought an IBM PC in 1981 and was on-line via dialup to local Bulletin Board Servers (linking through them to others) and Compuserv. I sent e-mail, did database searches at universities , and participated in Usenet and BBS discussions. it was slow, but it was possible.

    Needless to say, I was jolted out of your article by something that didn’t make sense

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  3. Jodie Renner

    April 2, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Thanks, Lucy and Doug. But I don’t think many households had home computers in the 80s. I know I was a teacher and I didn’t have one until the early 90s. So I still think hardly anyone was researching subjects on their home computers in the 80s.

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  4. ballenhoffman

    April 2, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Last week’s episode of “Alcatraz” had a character in 1963 greet a child with the phrase “Hi, buddy.” I don’t remember the phrase used back then. It was one of those jolting moments. By the way, the recreation of the Bullit chase scene in the same episode was terrific.

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  5. Jodie Renner

    April 2, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Thanks, WC. I guess you and I were posting at the same time!

    I stand corrected – some people obviously did have home computers in the 80s. Thanks for clarifying that for me, and I guess I should have done a more in-depth Google search on that point. Anyway, it’s worth thinking about these things, and cell phone use, etc., when writing novels that take place a few decades ago.

    Thanks for all your comments so far!🙂

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  6. Mar Preston

    April 2, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I do recall getting a PC in 1984 when it felt like buying a Lamborghini. I berated my husband soundly wondering what on earth we’d ever use This Thing for. Ha!

    But still Jodie’s point about unhooking yourself from the present when you’re writing the past is dead on. I read a historical the other day where the protagonist actually says “Yowsa!”

    In my second book Jodie spotted issues that made me blush. And I had been careful, careful. Now I’ve tentatively handed her my third.

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  7. Beverly Purdy

    April 2, 2012 at 10:22 am

    This article presents great advice. The overall point being, that today’s readers are tuned in and aware of details, so getting facts straight in fiction gives the author credibility.

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  8. Jodie Renner

    April 2, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for your comments, Ballenhoffman, Mar, and Beverly. Yes, I often see my clients’ fictional characters in stories taking place several decades or more ago, using expressions that just weren’t in use at the time, like “24/7.” Readers are very savvy these days, and much more likely to put down a book if they’re jarred out of the story.

    Mar, it was a pleasure editing your last book, and I look forward to working on the next one!

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  9. Jodie Renner

    April 2, 2012 at 11:04 am

    A few other fairly recent expressions that would date a book set in the 50s to 80s would be “metrosexual” (Merriam-Webster says it was coined in 1994) or the more recent “My bad.” Got any other good ones you’ve seen as bloopers in books set in the past?

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  10. Allan Leverone

    April 2, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Ballenhoffman, I had the exact same thought regarding the “Alcatraz” chase scene – very cool. I loved the classic Mustang/brand-new Mustang dichotomy in that episode, too; Ford definitely got their money’s worth out of the product placement last week!

    Mar Preston, I’ve been there – I’ve had a number of manuscript inconsistencies brought to my attention by sharp-eyed editors, including our very own Jodie Renner. Regardless of who had a home computer when, her point in this piece is a good one and should be considered carefully by every author, because readers WILL point out issues in your book, and it WILL make you feel stupid when they do…

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  11. L.J. Sellers

    April 2, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Even if some people had home computers in the 80s, most did not, so giving your character a computer in that era might seem wrong to many readers. So Jodie’s point is valid: make sure everything reads as if it’s factually correct. (PS: I’m glad I don’t write fiction set in the past. On the other hand, fiction set in the future is much more fun!)

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  12. Mark A. Lewis

    April 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Yeah, there’s been a computer in my house since 1982. My mother worked at Xerox, and got one at half-price, $5000. *LOL*It had 64K RAM and no hard-drive. However, it did have 2 double-sided 5 1/4 inch floppy drives!

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  13. Meg Mims

    April 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Great post, Jodie! Yowsa! ;-D

    It’s always better to be careful than sloppy. I caught a few minor errors in Double Crossing before it was published (TG!) because *I* am happier knowing it’s right rather than wrong.

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  14. Ian Walkley

    April 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    For me there are three issues here: the first is called “continuity” in the movie industry, and I can recall almost having a bald guy run his fingers through his hair in a later scene of my book; the second is factual accuracy (a reader wrote to me recently to say there is no such rank as “Senior Constable” in the UK police). And the third is historical or cultural consistency.
    Obviously with fantasy and sci-fi there are no rules about accuracy, although if there are references made to real-world events or products the rule should apply. Also, many of us create fictional towns or organizations, with fictional equipment, software or other convenient items that make the story fun (think of James Bond and Q).
    The biggest challenge for me is consistency, remembering whether a character has glasses, or drinks scotch rather than beer. And of course, while it’s easy to create the characteristics early, we might want to change something later, to make the persona more what we want. Using character software or a character sheet to record these elements is vitally important.
    The computer example is interesting. Similarly, when cars were first invented there were one or two. They didn’t become widespread until decades after, when mass production got going. I agree that it is important if we are writing real-world stories that we should not try to cheat by using something that didn’t exist before.
    Cell phones have probably done more to change how suspense novels are written than anything, because no longer can we have characters racing to find someone who is not contactable. It is barely an excuse for a writer to say the character has their cell phone switched off.

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    • Stacy A

      April 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

      In sci-fi you still have to have a certain amount of accuracy … nothing jars my husband (a computer science major whose father was an astrophysics professor) more than sci-fi “facts” being inconsistent with true science. A blaster weapon (Star Wars) is a great idea and works just fine on film, but if you’re writing a Star Wars novel and you try to describe how it works, it had better seem plausible to my hubby or he’ll toss the book. It’s that sort of thing that can take certain readers right out of the story, and it’s that reason I don’t try sci-fi!

      I know my husband had a cell phone in the late 90s. I had one when my son started 1st grade in 1999, and I remember telling hubby a couple of years before that I really wanted one like his by the time the kid started school. My hubby’s was a sleek StarTac flip-phone (I have no idea why I remember that). He got me a clunky thing about the size of the portable landline we now own! lol

      My dad bought a refurbished Commodore 64 in the mid-80s. No printer. I typed my college class essays on the computer, then had to type them again on the typewriter for the printed version!

      And hubby says he was using dial-up modems in the mid-80s, too. We had Compuserve in the early 90s when my son was little.

      Sorry, I know the computer thing has been established now, but I had to chime in.

      Downton Abbey has several idiomatic anachronisms (I know, it’s TV, but it’s a recent, well-known example). You can google it to see what they are.

      I just read a book that took place in the 90s that had a couple of idiomatic anachronisms, too, but can’t remember now what they were. I do know they made me stop and ask, “Did they say that back then?”

      Good article … good stuff to remember and keep in mind while I’m writing! Thanks!

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      • Jodie Renner

        April 3, 2012 at 11:03 am

        Thanks for all that great info, Stacy! I certainly remember the *%&#@ Commodore 64 I had! Very frustrating! And yes, it’s important for authors to maintain credibility, even (or especially) with the expressions used at the time. Not only in the dialogue, but even an anachronistic term or expression in the narration can jolt us out of the imaginary world of the story that we really want to stay immersed it.

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  15. Jodie Renner

    April 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks for your interesting comments, Allan, LJ, Mark, Meg and Ian! I appreciate you dropping by and giving your opinions – and Doug does too, I’m sure!

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  16. Mary Jo Powell

    April 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    As for cell phones–Look at any map of coverage and you will see that–even today– swaths of west Texas are not covered. This fact figures into a contemporary mystery I am working on.

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    • Mar Preston

      April 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      No cell phone service? Ah, it’s true where I live in a village in the mountains in California. The big city detective I’m writing about is gobsmacked to find cell phones don’t work here. Imagine what that does to the emergency services network? Big problems.

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    • Jodie Renner

      April 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      Good point, Mary Jo. Fortunately for me, my editing doesn’t include fact-checking. I just point out possible discrepancies or logistic problems I notice and will look up something if it piques my interest.

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  17. karenselliott

    April 3, 2012 at 5:28 am

    Great post. I have been jolted in numerous novels, and I just say, “What? I don’t think so.” I read a novel recently in which there was a Deaf character. Having worked with the Deaf for five years, there was a jarring comment about Deaf culture that I knew was not true. Did the writer talk to any Deaf people? I agree that this type of problem is very annoying. I usually put down or delete the novel at that point.

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  18. Jodie Renner

    April 3, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Yes, that’s the danger, Karen. Fiction readers are inundated with good books to read these days, and don’t have the patience or tolerance to stay with one that turns them off in any way – I know I sure don’t! If I lose respect for the writer, for whatever reason, I just close the book and start another.

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  19. Tim VanSant (@TimVanSant)

    April 4, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Sometimes I’m amazed at stories that are widely praised that have what I think are huge errors. For example, I was really disappointed with the book The Lovely Bones. [Warning: spoilers and a little gore ahead.] We are supposed to believe that the killer could dig an underground room with a chimney and a wooden cover by himself in a cornfield in the winter and no one sees him do it. And it is so well disguised that the victim is almost on top of it and doesn’t see it. And then within a few hours of the murder he collapses the hole leaving nothing more than “an obvious area where the earth had been freshly manipulated.” The victim was butchered with a knife, but an elbow fell out on the ground when the body was moved. An elbow? Wouldn’t he have to separate the body at the joints with a knife? How do you get an elbow that way? There are also inconsistencies with a hat that played into the story that I won’t go into. I found it a lot easier to accept the idea that the story was being told by a dead girl than any of the details about the actual crime.

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  20. Jodie Renner

    April 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Tim, I notice things like that all the time, even in big sellers. I think in some ways, editing books has spoiled me for just relaxing and enjoying a good novel! Fortunately, not completely – I’m still able to get immersed in a well-written, riveting story. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Hunger Games right now and loving it, despite the suspension of disbelief necessary for a lot of it, like how the cameras are everywhere in the woods, even in a random small cave they find to hole up in. And how do those little parachutes drop down with such precision, despite the fact that the kids can see nothing overhead? But never mind – that one’s so exciting that I’m still loving it!

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  21. writingcrew

    April 7, 2012 at 7:24 am

    Lots of excellent points here, but the computer dates were really jarring. I know I was probably ahead of the curve, but email has been around for much longer than the early 90’s. I bought my first PC in 1985. You’ll find what’s probably the definitive history of the internet here: http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/. But, you are sort of right – email in those early days wasn’t the instant thing it is now – it involved a chain of computers calling each other over phone lines to do the data transfers. So it could taken anything from minutes to several days to reach the recipient, depending on how close you both were to the backbones sites, if anything was down, and how often the systems on your route polled each other. Computers and the internet are very tricky things to get right in terms of what was going on when, because they changed so incredibly fast (and are still doing so).

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    • Jodie Renner

      April 7, 2012 at 7:40 am

      Thanks for that information and link, writingcrew. I’ll definitely check it out! And the irony of the title of this article has not escaped me! LOL

      Fortunately, my services as a copy editor don’t include fact-checking or research – I just comment on or question points that don’t seem to make sense to me.But I definitely should have done a more detailed internet search of when home computers were first in use, for the purposes of this article. That said, my point is still valid, as I’m sure most homes didn’t have computers in the 80s – just the techie/intellectual cutting edge. As a teacher back then, married to a university professor, we didn’t have a computer in our home, as the Commodore 64s, etc. were available in the workplace and too expensive for the average household.

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