Thursday, January 19, 2012

Be My Guest - Jodie Renner

Check Your Facts, Ma’am!

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 writing,  you may assume everything makes sense and all your info is correct, but at some point, step back and reread for logistics. 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 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 suddenly shattered.

If you’re writing a western, make sure the gun makes and models characters use were invented by that period.

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?” revealed 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 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 ne’er-do-well was running from the police in England, around 1855. He happened on a poker game near the harbor and found out one of the poker players was boarding a ship for America within hours. Thinking that escaping to America would solve his problems, the fugitive followed the guy after the late-night game, stabbed him, and stole his ticket for the ship. 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 asked the author how the fellow, who’d boarded the ship within hours of his poker game, could have arranged for his uncle to meet him at the harbor. 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 edited 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 “high-end” (coined around1977). For historical fiction, better to use “upper-class” or “elegant” or “sophisticated” or “affluent” or “wealthy.”

As a freelance editor, I constantly notice little errors like a vehicle make or model changing, problems with time sequence, sudden changes in a character’s name or appearance, inconsistencies with the season, climate or geography, and so on. 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!”

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?
Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at

Posted by Maryann Miller who is struggling to make sure the wordage used in her historical mystery fits the 1960s.

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  1. This is my next task on the novel for which I've just completed the first draft. It was too much fun to write to worry about checking facts at the time. How much artistic licence am I allowed?


  2. I agree that all those little details make a big difference in allowing the story to flow without leaving any stumbling blocks to trip the reader.
    I try to be very specific in checking everything down to what the weather was like on a particular day of history.
    Outstanding tips for writers in this post.

    Blogging from A to Z

  3. Oh I completely agree with you. There is nothing worse than being thrown out of a story because of incorrect data of any kind. One of my BIG bugbears is foreign language. Too often I see (multi) published authors use online translators and often they are completely inaccurate. These free sites are great to get the gist of something, but many languages have certain nuances that only a person who speaks the language will be able to translate.

    Great blog. Thanks!

  4. Fact checking is so important, strongly agree! There are numerous online sites (dependable ones) that give you invention timelines, event timelines, and so on. Great for historical fiction. It is wise to not depend on memory for facts. Excellent post! Am sharing!

  5. You're so right, Jodie. For the reader to suspend disbelief, the writer has to pay careful attention to details. This is particularly true in our age of technology because so many things we take for granted have been in existence only a short time.

    The first historical fiction book I edited contained a scene where a character zipped up her dress. Curiosity got the best of me, so I looked up zippers. They didn't exist in the time frame covered by the story. After that, I checked everything that raised the least question in my mind.

    Great post, Jodie!

  6. Like Karen, I am so pleased that you can do a lot of fact checking online. I'm working on an historical mystery set in 1960 and frequently I am going online to make sure something I just put in the story actually existed then. Did you know that the first peculator coffeemaker was developed in 1865. Electric pots were introduced right after the turn of the century.

  7. Elle, as a reader, I suggest you keep artistic license at a minimum. If I find discrepancies in a story regarding misplaced events or things, I won't read that author again.

    As an editor, I'll point out the error and urge a correction. I may even provide the research to support my position.

    As a writer, I try not to take artistic license at all because anything that pulls even one reader out of the story loses that reader of my books.

  8. Elle, when it comes to facts I don't think any artistic license is good, unless you are writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel. That's one of the benefits of writing it those genres, you can create whole new worlds and introduce new things. For historical or contemporary fiction we really do have to do the research.

  9. Thanks for all your comments! And thanks to Linda and Maryann for answering Elle's question about artistic license! I agree - proceed with caution on that.

    Arlee - that's really specific fact-checking! Wow! Most readers won't question what the weather was like on a particular day in history, unless it was a day we'll never forget, like the assassination of JFK, or 9/11. But kudos to you for being so conscientious and diligent!

    Serena - you're so right about shoddy translations being irritating and taking you out of the story - and maybe throwing the book across the room!

    Linda - Yes, I edited a historical fiction where the clothing was all wrong for the time period too - I ended up searching that online.

    Karen and Maryann - Can you share any useful fact-checking websites with us?

    Thanks to all of you!

  10. A funny fact checking story.
    Issac Asimov was a week or so into writing one of his books and he realized the planet free of Carbon Dioxide couldn't exist in nature. Since he was nearly finished he just pointed out that fact in the intro and finished the book.
    I always think about that big oops when writing the first draft.

  11. As a journalist, I never let facts ... or logic ... get in the way of a good story.

  12. Excellent post. I just set aside a historical fiction novel - it's hard to write it and even more difficult to keep things accurate. I am constantly stopping to look things up.

  13. Project Savior - Thanks for your story!

    Christopher - love your humor! (And, as a journalist, if you're not kidding, hope your superiors don't read your comments here!) LOL

    girlseeksplace - I have a huge amount of respect for writers of historical fiction! I'm not sure I'd have the patience and determination to do all that research to get the facts right on that time period!

  14. Etymology is a huge issue in historical fiction - it's one of the things I look for hardest when editing. You might have a police radio in your novel, for example, because those were invented and used in the early 1900s, but you definitely wouldn't issue an APB because that acronym (and the expression "all-points bulletin") didn't come into popular use until decades later. This might sound like nitpicking, but the more popular your book, the more likely you'll hear about the error from a reader after your book is in print!

  15. I agree with you, Dani. In my example of the writer saying "he lived in an upscale neighborhood" for a novel taking place around 1850, the author thought it was fine because it was in the narration, not the dialogue, but I disagreed with him. I said that the term "upscale" appearing at all in the book jars the reader out of that historical period, even if they can't put their finger on why.

  16. Yes, I should've clarified that it is a fantasy novel set in an alternate world.

    I'm also reminded of books in the Magical Realism genre where a fact might be changed for dramatic effect, like a reality where Ronald Reagan wins an Oscar for a movie role and never enters politics.


  17. That sounds like a comedy to me, Elle. ;)

  18. Elle, I don't know what to suggest about the Ronald Reagan thing, although my off-the-top advice would be to just write a brand new character for that instead of using a well-known figure.

    But for fantasy, pretty much anything goes, as Maryann said.

  19. I agree, Jodie. Even in third person narrative, the wrong expression can pull the reader out of the story. I'm having a discussion with a writer about first person narrative in a chapter book - it can't sound like an adult is talking. It has to sound like the dialogue. If the person talks like an eight-year-old, his first person narrative has to sound eight-years-old.

  20. Absolutely, Dani! I totally agree! I once edited a middle-grade novel in which all the 12-year-olds spoke like university professors, and used words like "exquisite" and "marvelous". And it was contemporary fiction!

    And yes, the narration also has to be from their point of view. If an 8-year-old walks into a room, he's not going to be thinking about the "Louis XIV antique furniture" (to use an extreme example). Better to mention things he'd notice first, like maybe a dog lying by the hearth, or whatever, and forget a detailed description of the interior decor.

  21. I do my best to write simply, not for the reader, but for me, so when I edit I can figure everything out and not get freight trained by my own cleverness :D

  22. The Reagan example is from a Salman Rushdie novel, not mine ;-) And it was amusing, if I remember correctly.

  23. Elle, I like the idea of turning the real world on it's head, so to speak, when writing fantasy. It is not a genre I read a lot in, but my daughter occasionally gives me a book to read. It is always fun to find an element of that pretend world that relates to something in reality. Much like the example you gave of Ronald Reagan. Readers can associate with that even though it is not factually correct. So my advice is take all the artistic license you want with your fantasy.

  24. Thanks for a great discussion, everyone!

    J.R., I think simple, to-the-point, streamlined writing is the most effective, anyway - certainly for today's readers.

    Thanks, Maryann, for your comments about Elle's ideas. I don't read a lot of fantasy, but do enjoy it from time to time.

  25. I've been doing a lot of this on my latest book because it's set in 1991. What's funny is I find it really easy to write the teen characters because they're about my age at that time. But one of the adult characters is a newspaper reporter and I keep quizzing an older colleague to make sure I'm accurate for what was in use back then. You mentioned cell phones, and that's one of the big ones - I have to keep reminding myself that he can't call his editor unless he finds a pay phone.

    OTOH, I've found that the constraints of facts have actually enhanced some sections of the book — they even fixed a timeline issue I was having. Once I factored in a hurricane that took place in the area, it solved a couple of plausibility issues my editor had with the inciting event.


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