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.