Tuesday, November 25

Check Those Facts...It's Critical



I think I’d rather be a writer right now than in any other time in history. Publishing is in a state of sea change, it’s true, but it’s still an exciting world in which to earn a living. I’m lucky because I get to see the book world from both sides—as a writer and as an editor. It’s in interesting perspective. There are lots of mistakes I see as an editor that I vow not to make as a writer. Glaring punctuation errors, not using an oxford comma, using the wrong spelling of a word (you're vs. your; too vs. to vs. two), passive voice, mixed-up tense--the list is pretty long.

One of the things I find myself fixing frequently when I edit fiction is facts. Seriously. You’d be amazed at how many authors talk about a place or a person or an event in history, but have their facts mixed-up. Case in point, I once edited a book where the author had sent the heroine on road trip from Chicago to a hotel in downtown Indianapolis. On the way, she drove through the hills of Brown County—a very scenic area about an hour south of Indianapolis. Now all she had to do was look at a map and she’d have known that Chicago to Indy through Brown County was the long, long way around. Readers in Indiana would know immediately that the author hadn’t taken the time to check her facts. Another book included a character writing a letter to the painter Jackson Pollock in 1985. Pollock died in 1956, so unless she had discovered a way to get mail to the next plane of existence, he wasn't going to be reading it. As an editor, I always verify dates, people, places, events...it's my job to help authors sound as smart as they surely are, but I always wish they'd checked their facts before they sent me the manuscript.

When I first started reading romance, I loved historicals, especially ones that took place in the pre-Civil War South. But I once read a book, can’t remember the title or the author, where the heroine is having a huge ball. She’s getting things set up (well, her slaves were getting things set up). The venue is perfect with flowers everywhere and candles ready to fill the ballroom with light. A friend arrives and oohs and ahs over the gorgeous orchid arrangements, to which the heroine replies, “Thank you. Orchids are my favorite flower. I had them flown in from the Caribbean.” Well, okay… How exactly did she accomplish that? Carrier pigeon? A flock of hummingbirds? Each one carrying an orchid stem in its tiny beak? 

I write about a fictional town in Michigan, but I don’t live in Michigan, so I drive up every so often, spend time in the area upon which Willow Bay is based, and soak up the atmosphere. If you can’t travel to your book settings, Google is the place find detailed maps and pore over pictures of the buildings and the scenery and the people. Fictional or real, get to know your settings. Google Earth is a wonderful resource for geographical research--you can walk the streets of Paris or Rome while you're sitting at your computer. Give it a try!

Google is your best friend for all kinds of research and verification. The Summer of Second Chances, the soon-to-be-released third book in the Women of Willow Bay series needed a lot of research. So I Googled information about diving on wrecks in Lake Michigan, Roosevelt recalling gold as a currency, and even cherry season in Michigan. And I didn’t just do Internet research, I also contacted a salvage company to find out how long paper money would survive under the chilly water of the Great Lakes. I walked the beach from the lighthouse to town in the area that is my fictional town, so I could imagine my characters there. I drove from Sleeping Bear Dunes to the road that my fictional heroine lived on so I knew how long that drive would take her.

You get the picture… do your research. You don’t want some copy editor pointing out misquoted facts, or worse, a reader discovering that you didn’t bother to find out for sure how long a flatboat ride from Pittsburgh to St. Louis took in 1843.

6 comments:

  1. Oh my gosh, I'm still thinking of flying in the flowers! I don't know how editors catch all they do, but I'm really glad of it. Great post, Nan.

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    1. Thanks, Liz! It's the whole new eyes thing more than anything, I think, plus we're trained to look for that kind of stuff so readers don't discover it later! ;-)

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  2. One of my favorites things about the wip - which i should finish today! Yay! - is the setting. It's one of my favorite places (Ohio's North Coast) during the early summer when the days a long and the temperatures are comfortably hot. Doing the research was as easy as taking a little drive, but Google has save me a lot of trouble a lot of times! Great post, Nan.

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    1. Thanks, Kristi!! I've never been to Ohio's north coast, but I'm game. Sounds lovely!!

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  3. Great post, Nan. You touched on one of my pet-peeves.

    Did you know that Fifty Shades begins in my town? And in the first or second chapter, that stupid girl heads to Seattle by way of Portland. And yep, a quick look at a map would should that no way would someone leave North Vancouver go South to Portland to turn around and drive North to Seattle. Just for the record, Vancouver and Seattle are in Washington State and Portland is in Oregon.

    And in a another book, an author put fireflies in Seattle. I wish. That's my only regret about living in the PNW, we don't have fireflies. In fact, I don't think they have them in Idaho either. So, I can't even blame the rain.

    My current book takes place in Baker City, Oregon and last year, my mom and I stayed in a B&B there so I could soak up the atmosphere, take some pictures, and just get a general sense of the area. And after I finish the book, I'll probably go back and do it again to add more to the book--things I'll know I need in the revision.

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    1. Doesn't it amaze you that all an author has to do is look at a map to get it right? Lazy!!! No fireflies in Seattle? Do you want me to send you a jar of them next summer? Indiana has tons!

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