Just the Facts, Ma’am

~ By Jeff Salter


In my five completed novel manuscripts, I’ve often marked places with bracketed question marks which indicate:  “Jeff, research this.”  I usually don’t stop the flow of my writing at that point, but I DO come back later.

Why?  A real-life example of the importance of fact-checking:

When I needed to change the oil in the riding mower we’d just gotten from my wife’s Dad, I found a label inside the engine cowling which conveniently listed pertinent maintenance info, including its oil capacity:  48 ounces.

Fast-forward:  it’s time to add the new, clean oil.  Some of you may not realize that quarts of motor oil no longer indicate ounces on the label … it’s 946 milliliters.  Well, metrics arrived after I graduated, so milliliters are williliters to me.

Anyhow, my steel trap mind clearly remembered a quart equals two pints and a pint equals two cups.  Simple.  No need to check.  I passed fourth grade consumer arithmetic with flying colors … back in 1960.

Okay, so this mower needs 48 ounces and there’s 16 ounces to each quart.  That makes, uh, three quarts exactly.  Poured it in.  Cranked up that sucker.  Seemed unusually rough as I mowed — sputtered and coughed black smoke.  About ten minutes later, it hacked up one final bellow of nasty soot … and died.

At the repair shop, the guy told me I’d overfilled it with oil.  “No way,” I insisted.  “It called for 48 ounces and I put in exactly three quarts.”

In the way that wiser men sometimes do with blithering idiots, he just looked at me.  That’s when it cllicked that 16 ounces is not a quart — that’s a PINT.  I had doubled the dose!  No wonder my ‘patient’ was so ill.

Hmm.  Maybe I should have checked those ‘facts’ I was so certain of.

So, other than illustrating that men “don’t need no stinkin’ instructions” … how does this sad tale apply to writing?

One huge example (for me) was in my third novel manuscript.  My heroine found herself helping a group of elderly residents stand up against an armed gang determined to rob their entire (isolated) retirement neighborhood.  [Yes, it’s believable in context].

My mind held the archetypal Western scene of a small frontier town with main streets barricaded to keep marauding outlaws from inflicting death and destruction.  So I Googled to find an example of that scene which almost any reader would instantly recognize.  As a former librarian, I’m pretty creative and I expected my combinations of search terms to generate numerous ‘hits’.

Nope … not a single example.

So I turned to my former Reference Department colleagues at a large city library.  They searched.  Nope.  They contacted a library with extensive holdings in western literature.  Nope.  They finally located a specialist (in Western films) who indicated that IF ‘my’ scene was ever found it would be antithetical rather than archetype.

You can imagine my disappointment.  Not only had I (obviously) misremembered, but the core image of my central scene was now dangling in the breeze.  Could I still ask the reader to ‘accept’ that image?  Certainly not.  There was no basis for anyone to ‘recognize’ such a scene … as it seemingly did not exist.

So where / how / why did MY brain capture that alleged scene?  Still don’t know.  It might be a permutation of the archetypal scene where wagons are circled and hapless ‘amateur’ defenders do their desperate best against ‘professional’ raiders intent on conquering them.

Whatever.  I’ve concluded it’s that same part of my brain which ‘remembered’ a quart equals 16 ounces.  Which brings us back to my opening illustration:  no matter how certain you are, CHECK it!

For your manuscript, that might be as simple as —

*  your heroine’s vehicle is a convertible such-and-such.  Does that line of cars even manufacture a convertible?  Check on it.

*  your heroine’s occupation causes her to travel a lot.  Do most people in that type of employment actually travel?  Check on it.

*  your heroine is surviving on a minimum wage job in a large city.  Do the cost-of-living stats for that metropolitan area support such a possibility?  Check on it.

When I was a kid, I had conversations with my parents which I tried to end with the expression, “I’m positive”.  My mom would often (though kindly) say, “Only fools are positive.”

Fact-checking is sometimes tedious … but it’s part of your writing arsenal.  Check on it.

Jeff Salter has completed five novel manuscripts, two of which he considers chick lit.  He also co-authored two non-fiction books with a royalty publisher, in addition to an encyclopedia article and a signed chapter. Jeff has also published articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems. His writing has won nearly 40 awards, including several in national contests. He’s a retired librarian, a decorated Air Force veteran, and a published photo journalist. He’s married with two children and five grandchildren.

27 thoughts on “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

  1. Thanks, D.D., for your cordial reception and kind remarks.
    We got lots of terrific feedback on this post.
    Plus, some enduring images of things like writers locked in trunks, or stuffed in garment bags, exploding boat motors … and, of course, a riding mower with twice the oil it’s supposed to have.
    What an interesting range of things we discuss here!
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Jeff, you beyond rocked your inaugural For Writers blog post!!!

    Well done!!!

    Love your whole “Check on it” approach!!!

    I do the same as you when I’m writing my rough, initial drafts…I just put in parentheses what I need to research…but thanks to your fabulous theme in this post…I think from now on I’ll just type “Check On It” then I can put a huge Check Mark thru my pages when I’m done…and I luuuvvv me some fabulous smelly markers on my rough draft pages!!!

    Your the best, Chick Lit Chuckie!!!

    Sexy Sassy Smart Check On It Wishes — D. D. Scott

  3. Leigh,
    Some garment bags are the cheapo type I’ve seen at some drycleaners (and elsewhere). But I had one that was heavy vinyl similar to a golf bag. Of course, I never attempted to stuff a body inside it — alive or dead.

    Good thing you checked on the taters. I’m gullible enough to ‘accept’ taters in ancient Britain, but apparently that would be anachronistic.

    My favorite of the Blackadder series were the ones set in Elizabethan time.
    Thanks for returning to my post.

  4. Hi, Jeff. I’m back, as promised (or threatened!) Cautionary note about garment bags: the last time I tried to stuff anything in one, the seam holding the zipper split in every direction but the zipper held firm. We weren’t stuffing it with a body, just a sleeping bag and pillow. But don’t most garment bags come in a foldable style and aren’t they a bit short and flat? Sorry, that’s just the 13 minutes to go before the 10 o’clock BBC news in me talking.

    My favorite ‘check your facts’ story is about a novel set in ancient Britain – I was the editor. The author had the villagers eating potatoes. Ummm….? Potatoes were introduced to Europe sometime in the 17thC when Raleigh brought a few back from his travels in the Americas – I think Blackadder used them for something rude.

    All the best, Jeff.

  5. Thanks, Diane.
    The word “assume” always jumps out at me.
    I’ve heard this elsewhere (since), but first time I heard it was from my C.O., a Capt., when I was a one-striper in the Air Force:
    “You can’t ASSUME anything. Look at the word: it makes an ASS out of U and ME.”
    Thanks for the image of garment bags to hold bodies. I’ve had some very sturdy garment bags that just might do so. And some terribly flimsy ones which wouldn’t hold cotton candy.
    Depends on quality of construction and thickness of material.
    Thanks for commenting.

  6. Hi Jeff,

    Great post! I think we’ve all gotten into trouble assuming we knew what we were talking about. And while I have never volunteered to be locked in the trunk of a car, I did have a coworker zip me into a garment bag to see if it would hold a body. Since then, garment bags and body bags seem way too similar.

    Thanks for the advice!

  7. Hi, Chris. LOL.
    Well phrased!
    In my particular case, the arithmetic itself didn’t “undo” me as much as hubris did. I was so certain that 16 ounces constitutes a quart. And even though I searched the plastic oil container for an indication of ounces … I was too lazy to go to one of my wife’s cookbooks (or a dictionary) and check the table of measures.
    Hubris can take out the most meticulous wordsmith also!
    Thanks for your comment.

  8. Jenn, It’s a good thing you checked that detail and didn’t take it for granted.
    So much better to catch it now, than when a persnickety reviewer would jump on it after publication.
    Thanks for stopping by my post.

  9. Great topic, Jeff. fact checking is soooo important.
    I had a scene in my current WIP that was completely derailed because my facts were wrong. It seems that crystal does not sparkle in water. Who knew? Apparently, me. LOL!


  10. Runere,
    In that example of yours, you may also face the decision about how much technical lingo the reader can absorb!
    Is that one of your stories? Or something you got from the headlines?
    Like you, I think I’d fret about possibly becoming a pin-cushion. Self-preservation is pretty high on my priority list.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  11. Tonya, Thanks for reading and commenting.
    When you double the volume of liquid in a confined space like the oil reservoir, it has to go somewhere, so it backs up (through the cylinders) past the piston rings and gets into the ‘head’ of the engine, where it fouls the spark plug (which eventually stops the engine). In the meantime, oil has leaked into the combustion chamber with the gasoline and air mixture … which explains the black smoke.
    Ask anybody.
    Looking forward to finding a date to ‘guest’ on your blog.

  12. [Jillian], glad you comment showed up.
    My spouse didn’t say much of anything. Perhaps she figured if she fussed a lot, I’d leave it to her to do the upkeep on the machinery.

  13. Rebecca, thanks for stopping by.
    I could tell you about being in a car trunk. I bought a 1960 Ford Fairlane with a rusted out floorboard (in the rear) and a bashed-in trunk lid. Since I only paid $40 for the vehicle, you can be sure I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money at a body shop. So I put a piece of plywood over the hole.
    Then I got inside the trunk, had my neighbor close the lid, and I pressed out the dents with my knees.
    It worked.
    For the record: it smells funky, dusty, and there were things sticking in my back. I banged my head on the side / lip of the trunk, both getting into position and getting out.
    Oh, and my neighbor DID let me out.

  14. Love the post, Jeff! Proves things like that happen to all of us.

    There are so many things to consider while fact checking. Politically Correct vs Reality. Example: Working on oilfield vessels, when taking the Coast Guard test for licensing and the issue of a run away engine is posed, the answer the CG looks for is ‘shut off the fuel cock to cut off fuel supply to engine’. Problem there? Said engine has become a super-vacum at that point, capable of suctioning every drop of fuel from lines, and filters, as well as consuming oil in the oil pan, allowing it to over rev long enough to explode, sending metal projectiles everywhere. Real answer? Trip the blower flap atop the engine as you dive behind the engine room’s safety wall. Basic physics. No oxygen; fuel can’t burn. In immediacy. Yet shutting the fuel off is a major polution preventative with a disabled vessel. So that answer is correct, too.

    In fact checking, it’s a matter of weighing what is most expedient at the moment. So even facts have to be sought out in context. Strange, huh? (But I still think I’ll shut off the fuel cock AFTER I’ve ensured my body doesn’t become a shrapnel cushion! lol)

  15. HOLA Chuck!! I love the way your male mind works!!! It’s totally a writing tool for guys to put your goals, conflict and motivation in terms of all things car related. As for me, I had NOOOOO clue what you were talking about, I understand you, but I just call the mechanic:(
    I’m so glad you have now blogged and we goddesses are waiting for you at The Naked Hero!!!

  16. Great Post, Jeff- I knew I liked you for a reason- that pint v. quart thing sounds like something I would do- only I’d be in big trouble with the spouse over it- he’d fuss and carry on enough to make me never forget again. AND then I’d forever after tell him he needed to do the oil check as I screwed it up so bad the last time- oh wait, that sounds like a plan! Thanks! Jillian

  17. Kimberley,
    Thanks for reading.
    I guess one of the most intriguing aspects of this memory stuff (for me) is the CERTAINTY with which I remember certain things.
    Especially when those things either didn’t happen, happened differently, or involved variant specifications.

  18. Jeff,

    I mis-remember all the time (or so my husband says). I think it’s the curse of the creative brain–it makes up stuff. Checking facts is important.
    Thank you for the great blog!

    Kimberley Troutte

  19. Thanks, Melissa, for producing my inaugural blog (related to writing). You did a great job selecting the graphics.
    I really appreciate your patience during this process.

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