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Just The Facts, Ma’am

Have you ever watched a movie set in another country, for example, Italy, but the main character’s accent is distinctly German? How does the audience react? Imagine yourself as that actor – would this performance be a resumé enhancer?

Fiction pieces in which there are numerous technical flaws elicit the same reaction from readers as does a technically inaccurate performance by the abovementioned actor, but
to many fiction writers, the term “artistic license” means they can discard any semblance of reality in their work. Good fiction, however, requires that the story maintain a basis in reality. This creates a situation in which the reader slowly suspends his or her disbelief, and becomes thoroughly engaged in the story. Glaring factual errors tend to be jarring and many times, inadvertently comic.

Things That Make You Go “Hmmm...”


Factual errors can crop up anywhere, but they are most prevalent in the following areas:

Culture and geography

Language and dialect
Technical procedures within specific disciplines


Technology encompasses a number of details, from the make and model of automobile the protagonist drives to the kind of stove the butler (who is always the prime suspect) uses to cook that final, fatal meal.  Up until the past two decades, technology changed slowly, giving the writer some leeway with regard to detail. Historical fiction needs to take account of the common technology of the era in which it is set; in other words, keep those iPods out of the 1920s, and be certain that your protagonist spends his spare time listening to the Amos and Andy program on the radio, not watching boxing on television.

Culture and geography also present stumbling blocks, especially for writers who have not traveled to different countries or regions within their own country.  Buying habits, housing styles, entertainment and food preferences vary depending on the region, often because that region’s particular geography required a certain type of construction (e.g. the peaked roofs of New England and Minnesota evolved as a means of keeping heavy snows from collapsing the roof) or encouraged the cultivation of certain food crops or livestock. Today commerce is global, but many of these preferences are so entrenched that they are part of the fabric of the area. Hence, Wisconsin is still associated with cheese, Iowa with corn, and Pennsylvania with shoe-fly pie.

Language and dialect go hand in hand with culture, and these vary with region, race and ethnicity.  The English language is a hybrid of Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon to begin with. Add to this the influences of the many immigrant populations that merged within the borders of the United States since 1776, and you find that the English spoken in the hills of West Virginia varies greatly with the English spoken in North Dakota, central Indiana or the Okeefenokee region of Georgia. When President Bush pronounces the word, nuclear as “nu-cu-lar,” it may grate on the delicate olfactory membranes of Connecticut resident Andy Rooney, but the cowboys working in Montana, Idaho and west Texas don’t understand what the uproar is all about, because that pronunciation is  the norm for that region. Fictional characters need to portray speech patterns that are common to the region and time period the writer has chosen for his or her story.

History and historical timelines are readily verifiable by readers, many of whom may have lived through the time period being described. For this reason, historic events that serve as a backdrop for a story must be accurate. This may sound like common sense, but I’ve seen manuscripts in which President Barry Goldwater ordered the A-bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. This degree of historical revisionism isn’t allowed even in fiction.

Finally, fiction writers whose stories involve detective or police work, law, medicine or even agriculture need to research and verify processes and techniques utilized in these disciplines. Television programs, such as CSI or Law and Order, use technical advisors in order to be fairly accurate in their depictions of forensic investigations, interrogation and profiling techniques, and even the psychology of serial killers, rapists and other criminals. The viewing public is less likely to be sophisticated enough to differentiate between fact and fiction than the reading public, which makes it even more imperative that writers have their facts in order.

I Want My PBS

How can a writer avoid the perilous waters swirling with factual inaccuracies? Easily – we live in an information-rich world, and writers have any number of resources available for researching their topics.

Start by watching television, specifically, Public Broadcasting. Programs such as Nova, The American Experience, Secrets of the Dead and Nature offer factual information that could be relevant to a number of fiction genres. For example, Nova has offered a series of programs that are a murder mystery/detective writer’s dream. One program, entitled The Mind of a Serial Killer, focused on the subject of forensic psychiatry and criminal profiling. Another detailed the life of a serial arsonist, his methodology, and the unusual sequence of events that allowed him to be captured and convicted. Nature recently offered a program featuring real “CSI” techniques, including forensic entomology and botany, or what bugs and plants at a crime scene tell investigators.  PBS programming is readily available in most television markets, and its value far outweighs anything a writer can learn from, say, American Idol or Inside Edition.

Second, the internet opens up a world of information to the writer. Technical journals, research white papers and all manner of documentation from universities, government agencies and other credible sources (emphasis on the word credible) are free for the asking, and easily discovered thanks to user-friendly search engines such as Google or Cross-checking any references is quick and easy as well; second opinions with regard to most material is advised, as every academic setting has its share of  kooks and cranks on the payroll. Remember Professor Timothy Leary’s advocacy of LSD use in order to “expand consciousness?” If you do, you probably didn’t follow his advice; most of the people who did are either dead from one of those “bad trips” or have brain cells so burned out from drug use that they can’t remember where they are today, let alone what they did during the sixties.

Third, the local library and its hard-working librarians are the “low tech” answer to the problem of research.  Books, periodicals and encyclopedias are still a bedrock of research materials, and the librarian can direct a researcher to the material that answers obscure questions, such as “What kind of poison doesn’t show up on an autopsy?” (A writer may want to preface that question with, “I’m writing a novel, and need to know....” lest the librarian jump to an erroneous conclusion.)

Finally, interviews with people who have been there and done that are highly informative and not all that difficult to accomplish. In general, people love to talk about themselves; the difficulty may come in finding the person who has the skills, background or experience you are seeking. However, networking opportunities abound, either face to face or via the Internet. Sometimes, the people next door will be the best resource. For example, in a synagogue I once attended there were 1) two Holocaust survivors, one of whom had personal interaction with Dr. Mengele,  2) several middle-eastern families who were “displaced” thanks to government takeovers by Islamic fundamentalists in their respective countries of Iran and Iraq, 3) one of the first female members of the United States Marine Corps, and 4) a renown professor of pediatric psychology who, ironically, was considered the “black sheep” in his family because he chose academia over running the family business.  Thirty minutes worth of listening to their stories is worth as much as several hours of academic research, and puts a human face on the concepts a writer is attempting to convey.