Friday, July 24, 2015

Just the Facts, Ma'am

by Jean Henry Mead

I spent nearly ten years researching and writing my first novel, after publishing five nonfiction books and an eight-year stint as a journalist. The experiences taught me the value of getting the facts right, no matter how long it takes to verify them. The novel was written after a two-year stint at a library microfilm machine, reading old newspapers to research a central Wyoming centennial book. I also relied on information from a book written in the early 1900s about troops stationed at an early army fort as well as another historical event which a museum curator challenged and the book was rewritten—after it was published. I’ve made other mistakes since that time, but they’ve been confined to typos, punctuation or missing words.

If I’d stayed the nonfiction course, I would probably have only written five or six books by now, instead of 21, and I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun as I’ve had writing mystery novels. But you can’t write mysteries off the top of your head. There’s always some research involved.

The Internet has been a real research boon for writers, although there’s a lot of misinformation online. I’ve had enough books in my home library to answer most of my research questions, but I also had to run to the library for answers, or call the research librarian, B.C. (before computers).

I started my career as a news reporter, which is good experience for writing fiction. Getting the facts straight was ingrained from college journalism courses because your job is at stake if you write something erroneous which embarrasses the publisher, alienates an advertiser or leads to a lawsuit. And that, of course, carries over into fiction. A villain or devious character based on someone you know can lead to legal problems. Or a plot based on your next-door neighbors’ divorce can land you in court.

I’m reminded of a sixtyish widow, a confessions writer, who operated a small cafĂ© and two-pump gas station along a lonely Wyoming highway. She would listen to stories told by truckers and bus drivers who stopped in for one of her “sagebrush” ham sandwiches. She then used what she’d heard as plots for confession magazines. One day the wife of one of the truckers read a story written about her husband and knew it was him. Enraged, he confronted Betty during his next trip. Fortunately, he didn’t sue.

Misinformation included in a plot can earn the writer nasty comments from readers/reviewers as well as a loss of readership. I’m sure that Nelson DeMille heard from readers about his mistake in The Lion’s Game when he located Dover Air Force Base in Maryland instead of Delaware. I might not have noticed if I hadn’t lived at the base for two years while my husband was in the Air Force. But Dover AFB is often in the news when the remains of the overseas military is flown there.

I’ve learned as a journalist to check facts from at least two sources before I include them in my work. Fantasy writers can get away with iffy problem solutions that we mystery writers cannot. So taking time to make sure that technical jargon or facts are correct will help to ensure that my work won’t alienate readers. I recently read a promo ad from an author who said that when the power grid goes down, a certain device will ensure that you can still receive the Internet. I don’t think there will be an Internet if the national grid system fails although there is a proposed system called the Hinternet which can operate on a Ham radio channel, without traditional electricity. But I stopped reading because I wondered about other possible mistakes in his work.


Radine Trees Nehring said...

I agree 110% about facts! Thanks for the emphasis.

Note: When our Make Mine Mystery blogs appear on my computer they most have nothing identifying the author. Perhaps all should put their names near the beginning of their comments? Do other notice this? Unless I click on the Make Mine Mystery name at the bottom of the original post and go to comments I see no author name.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree about bylines, Radine. Thanks for catching that.

Linda Thorne said...

This attracted me immediately with the comment of ten years for a novel. That's what it took me. Interesting story. You had some advantages in your career and background that I envy.

I enjoyed this.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Linda. Journalism taught me brevity and how to stick to the facts. :)