Sparked by Words

Just the Facts, Ma’am

And get them straight. Know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites because no one likes tripping over stalactites in a cave – it means they’re traveling bat-like, feet up, and feeling nauseous at being upside down. And if you don’t know the difference between elicit and illicit, you may find yourself punctured by barbs volleyed your way by irritated readers. No one likes reading falsehoods, whether in non-fiction or fiction. People want certain inalienable facts to be correct and well established. Even science fiction should begin here on earth before it spins to the outer edges of the Milky Way.

As a kid I figured a word in print was a word in fact. I’ll always remember the first time I knew that to be wrong. I’d been reading a kid’s book, not one that was famous or remarkable in any way except that it occupied time in my boring life. The main character was a homely girl with few talents who was looking for something to make her shine – the same thing every lonely kid wants. A friend washes homely girl’s long hair and discovers that, wet, her hair is curly. Thing is, wet hair, soaking wet hair, is straight. If curly hair is ever going to hang like iron rods, it’s going to be when the shampoo has just been squeezed out. Curly hair releases its springs as it dries, each tendril winding around its invisible cylinder to make a singular corkscrew among hundreds of corkscrews. I know. I have curly hair. I didn’t trust anything else that happened in the book, and it was one of the last kid’s books I read. (Until I became an adult and realized how outstanding some kids’ books are.) Skepticism isn’t a bad trait to have but how unfortunate to have developed it in an activity – reading – I loved.

A colleague is writing a story that includes a common if potentially dangerous medical condition, one of those events you learn to recognize when taking emergency first aid courses. Once trained, the markers are obvious, the course of action to protect the victim is well established, and the possible outcomes are reliably documented. When her story detoured through a completely inaccurate set of medical events, from onset of crisis to the all-clear sign, I wondered if she was trying to hint at the characters taking control by faking the medical incident in order to confuse the other characters. Discussion proved that the writer simply didn’t know her stuff and made up a scenario that fit her plot. Unfortunately the whole scene threw the book out of kilter and made what was supposed to be climactic, silly. The tone of the book went from thrilling to ridiculous.

One of my books relates a devastating local event that happened in our city when I was a teenager. It forms the backdrop of the story. A very dear friend who lived right next to the event, a huge fire, gave me first hand information based on what she saw, literally right out her window.  She told me things I couldn’t have discovered any other way. But she had one crucial piece of information wrong: the year. I knew the actual year, and it was critical to my story to be accurate. She’d even loaned me the dozen or so saved newspapers with the fire as front page news, the date of the fire on top of every page. It provided a trove of facts and details I’ve incorporated into the story. I chalked up her error and insistence that she was right about the wrong year to stubborn one-ups-man-ship, or to the occasional quicksand of her golden years and her temporal distance from the event. (No, I didn’t argue with her. She was a dear friend and there was no need to point out her one little mistake. I did make it right in my book.)

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the main male character exhibits a gift for building and repairing, later for finding hidden, radios. In the hands of rebels, radio transmissions reveal secret Nazi strategy. Thus conveyed, partisans are scuttling the Axis war machine. Fascinated by the ability of radios to condense time, to breach borders and allegiances, Doerr learned everything he could about their operation, how they’re built, how they can be located, and how they transmit across radio waves. A world of beauty and horror, of innocence and moral redemption, is made palpable through the simple but thorough descriptions of mollusks, birds, diamonds, and radios, all of it dependent on in-depth knowledge of the actual items.

Isabelle Allende is famous for lapsing into magical realism in many of her books, a jaunt into what is physiologically impossible yet essential to the story. In The House of the Spirits, based on historical events in twentieth century Latin America, the violence and abuse of a powerful male figure is juxtaposed by the loving spirituality of the women around him, and eventually leads to his reformation. One woman famously plays piano without lifting the piano lid. The connection to a world outside of science and pragmatism lends a radiant quality that makes the accurately depicted historical events ever more exquisite and horrible and ultimately comprehensible.

The difference between knowing what’s real yet choosing to present what isn’t, and not knowing the difference, is what makes one writer’s works celebrated, the next, criticized. Writers must build on a scaffold of fact and history. We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel and the likelihood that we will be able to fly. I want to hear my readers gasp as they soar over chasms, to touch rock safely on the opposite side. Or believe they have.



Newsboy painting courtesy: Karol D. Witkowski, and Wikimedia public domain images



Comments on: "Just the Facts, Ma’am" (19)

  1. I read a book where our resourceful heroine was fleeing from her would-be murderer. She tripped and sprained her ankle yet continued to run over rocky and uneven ground. Maybe adrenalin helps but when I’ve sprained and/or broken my ankles I couldn’t even limp on the level. At the end of the book she was in hospital, no surgery needed for the fracture/s, just a plaster cast. Struck me as implausible and spoiled the ending as I just could not imagine anyone running over uneven terrain with such an injury.

    Read another book where the main character was listening to the latest album of a popular band. The year before they had formed and released their first album.

    Destroys all credibility doesn’t it?


    • But heroes don’t limp!

      What amazes me even more is the number of books traditionally published, agents and editors also in the mix, that are absolute crapola. I wouldn’t want these people cleaning my oven with their lack of attention to facts (were they house cleaners) and I stop reading the book. Credibility is also a big issue for me. I’m guessing this is an area you stress when you edit?


      • I can’t remember the detail now. Maybe she just ran? Sprained ankle and all? 😀

        Depends on the novel really. You mentioned magical realism, which along with fantasy, has its own rules. But even so, yes, the detail needs to be correct with no silly errors.

        Speaking of trad pub, I read a Lynda La Plante novel where the hero had a major knife wound in one leg, and the next moment it was in the other. So yes, they do lack attention to detail. Time/financial pressures I guess.


      • That seems like a genuine writer error, though I think others are probably printing errors. The writer should catch them when proofing galleys but we all know our brains corrrect all kinds of errors. (You got that, right?)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So true! I feel the same way – possibly even more so – about typos and grammatical errors. Not that I’m always innocent of them myself; but I find I sit there getting huffy when I spot them, and it takes me right out of the story. On the other hand, I think it’s even worse having an author who’s done loads of research and insists on telling you about it – every last rivet in the Glock .29 Magnum Reverse Action Special, or whatever. All very tiresome!


    • That’s the other end of it, isn’t it? Becoming a textbook as proof of knowledge. Personally, my eyes blur over passages about guns of any sort, so while I think one or two tidbits might be necessary to convince readers the writer understands the difference between a pistol and a rifle, (one is way longer, right?) more than that and I’ll skip the section.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I came across Roseanne Barr’s autobiography in a store not long since it had been published. I browsed through a few of the pages finding a part where she said there was a railroad going through Silver Creek, Colorado. Being a native of the state and having been through most of the Rockies there, I knew that was not true. Her credibility went down the toilet for me.


    • That was a pretty big no-no. She didn’t write the book, I’m sure, but she obviously didn’t even bother to read what her ghost writer wrote. Too busy practicing her singing, I guess.


  4. Excellent post on the importance of research and getting it right. I couldn’t agree more. This is one trait I particularly like about blogs, online newspapers and that sort: You can include links to the primary evidence so readers can verify facts for themselves.


    • That’s a really good point about bloggers being able to refer readers to the original source. I disguised one example in the article because I have no desire to humiliate anyone in the early stages of writing, but once someone is published, no holds barred.


  5. Inaccuracies (and other alternative realities) seem to be blurring lines between fact and fiction in all “genres” these days. Your post is timely not just for writers and writing.


  6. Sharon, this is a superb post and one I also feel strongly about! Silly mistakes in books brings the reader out of the wonderful imaginary world with a crash and suddenly it’s just words on paper/kindle! I’d nearly completed an okay book recently when suddenly the writer got the name of the main male character totally wrong, naming instead someone killed early on! Argg!! Was it me? Was I confused? These were my first reactions. Then I started to wonder how this error got past the writer, proofreaders, editor etc…by then I really didn’t care for the rest of the book! I love how you didn’t challenge your friend about the year of the fire, the cost to your friendship would be too dear and you were right just to put the right date in the book. You also point out very interesting cases when ‘mistakes’ work brilliantly such as in the magical realism of Isabelle Allende (I love her books!!). Great post with many quotable sentences, this is one that stands out for me: ‘We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel.’😀


    • Thank you for such a thoughtful reply, Annika. The odd thing is that so many people point out the errors in the work of other folks and still don’t catch their own. Absolute proof that you need a professional editor to spot for you. Our brains naturally self-correct so well that our own errors fly under our brains’ brilliant radar. I just read something I’ve edited a thousand times (OK, maybe a hundred) and found a glaring error.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I’ve done that too, edited, read my work aloud and then a few days later the most frightful mistake! still there! Embarrassing. I’m intending to get my ms professionally edited!!


      • I’m convinced that’s the best way to stay out of the amateur quicksand. I also read my work aloud, and it helps to find all kinds of errors and inconsistencies – but not all of them.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I know I’m guilty of this and the reminder is welcome. I agree, as a reader, we do sort of check out after the trust factor has been broken. Thank you, Shari. I find respite here every time I return.


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