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So What if The Author gets a Fact Wrong?

fact wrong

Research books

Does it bother you if you find a  fact wrong in a book?

How about a magazine article or even a blog post?

Do you think, “well, anyone can make a mistake,” and let it go? Or do you even pay attention?

I’m a stickler for facts. Maybe it’s because I trained as a newspaper reporter where, if nothing else, we were to make every effort to get the facts right. Wrong facts doomed the story and if you turned in enough articles riddled with error, you’d be fired.

Reporters and writers are supposed to get the facts right.

I think it’s even more important for an author. We aren’t caught in the fluid moments of an unfolding news story. We’re expected to be the experts on our particular field–whether it’s a novel or a history book.

That’s why I spend so much time checking and rechecking my facts. Because I’m currently writing a book set in World War I and I’m not an expert on that time period, I must google and search the Internet for every three or four paragraphs I write. I cannot abide wrong facts–it’s sloppy writing and probably slopping thinking.

What’s your reaction when you find a fact wrong in a book?

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The first time I see an error, I usually crick my neck and think, “what?”

I assume the author has done his homework and so I wonder, “maybe I didn’t remember that right.”

But finding a possible error makes me uneasy and I become  alert. Sometime I look up the fact and if I discover I’m right and the author wrong, my emotions are mixed.

I feel smug.  I also feel disappointed.

But I’m also irritated if not irrationally  angry.

wrong facts

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

It’s the writer’s job to get their facts right.

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Obviously in writing fiction, authors are making up the story. The words and actions come from their mind. But unless they’re writing fantasy or science fiction (and often even if they are), the setting needs to be based in fact. Gravity pulls things down. The sky is overhead. Water runs to the sea. George Washington was the first president of the United States. The Atlantic Ocean separates north American from Europe.

Of course I don’t want to be bored with just facts, like some sort of Joe Friday Dragnet story, I want and need color. But there’s a difference between telling a story in an imaginative way and muffing the obvious.

Don’t make me not trust you.

Some of this, of course, is the editor’s responsibility to question the author and make sure they’ve done their homework. As I’m writing my current book, I’m making notes of pertinent facts that might be questionable, citing the reference when necessary.

That, however, is a story for another day. You can read Editor Jamie Chavez’s opinion right here.

Breaking the author-reader trust.

I’m currently working my way through a best-selling book right now; I’m in chapter six.

I didn’t know much about one historic character used for background and I got excited about how I could use the stories as research for my own book.

The famous author’s main subject, however, is one I’ve studied for most of my adult life. I know the facts very well.

I bet you know a lot of them, too.

The author got paid a lot of money, but he’s getting his facts wrong.

I don’t trust him any more.

Which makes the book so less enjoyable. I have to read it. I need to know the information. But how can I know if the things I don’t know are correct or not?

There’s the rub for me.

How about for you?

If the author gets basic facts wrong, why trust the rest of the book?

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14 Comments

  1. It’s one of my pet peeves, though it used to bother me a lot more.

    Case in point – I’m reading an excellent history of an event during WW2 (still ‘the war’ to me!), and the author makes it plain by error that he’s not an expert in aviation.Making the claim that a large four-engined bomber was skinned in thin steel…ugh. There were a few airplanes with steel skins during this period – the Budd Conestoga comes to mind – but the one he’s referring to, no.

    And it is one of the prime ‘characters’ in the story.

    I didn’t put the book aside at that point because I’ve come to understand that a lot of people have misconceptions, and they creep into the oddest corners. Ineptness in a technical area doesn’t obviate the rest of the story – because I am convinced the author thought he knew this as a ‘fact’, and never thought to check.

    A valid excuse for the author? No, and neither an excuse for the editor. But I knew other, and more prominent facts of the writer’s story quite well, and he was dead accurate in those.

    So I gave him a pass, and will read his other books.

    Reply
  2. Michelle Ule

     /  January 24, 2014

    I’ve continued listening to the book I referenced and while some parts are interesting, the sloppy research is driving me crazy. Last night he went into details about a setting he couldn’t possibly know about and then referred to the big miracle that happened to that person as a legend.

    Since I had been reading that same “legend” the day before and marveling at how God used it to prove Jesus’ divinity, I shouted at the CD player and went back to muttering. I’ll be glad when this one is over . . . but how do I know if the stories he’s told about the people I didn’t know about are true or not? And can I safely use them myself, then, when discussing the ideas?

    I think this book is a wash of disaster in terms of discussion other than how messy the writer and editors were. 🙁

    Reply
  3. roscuro

     /  January 24, 2014

    Errors in non-fiction really disturb me. In one case, I found the errors to be so blatant that it called into question the scholarly credit of the author. This particular author is well known in Christian intellectual circles, but in two different books, one a philosophical work and the other a history. When I found the error (it said that James II was the son of Charles II, when they were in fact brothers) in the first book , I assumed it to be due to poor editing. However, when I found a similar error in the second book, I began to question how seriously the author took his own writing. Both errors were obvious and easily corrected, so it was as if no one took the time to read the manuscript before publication. It also made me wonder whether the other ‘facts’ in the books that I wasn’t so well acquainted with, were accurately researched.

    However, for works of fiction, errors can be forgivable, especially if the author admits in the foreword that they combined places or characters in order to help along the plot. They also should not be completely out of the realm of possibility, unless of course, the author is writing a fantasy on a historical theme. Speaking of novels in historical settings, Michelle, you asked a while ago about books written during or about WWI. I have thought of three more novels, John Buchan’s Richard Hannay series: The Thirty-nine Steps, Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast. They were written during the war, so the facts are deliberately blurred, but their atmosphere is invaluable for the period researcher.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 24, 2014

      Good point, Roscuro, how seriously did the author take his own writing? Does he care about his reputation?

      Steampunk, of course, is one genre that allows for some blurring of truth, but that’s a specific type of book people are reading for the incongruities.

      Thanks for the Buchan suggestions; they’re on my Kindle.

      Reply
  4. One area that authors commonly trip is in the use of ‘caliber’.

    I small arms, caliber refers to the inch-fraction of the weapon’s bore – hence, 45 caliber has a bore of .45 inches. You can’t really say “.45 caliber”, as the decimal is already implied.

    In metric, it doesn’t apply, so “9mm caliber” is kind of meaningless.

    In naval artillery, caliber refers to the barrel length. A 5-in 45-caliber naval rifle has a barrel length 45 times the bore, or 225 inches. It does not imply a bore of 5.45 inches, as a lot of writers think it does.

    It’s a minor point, but it does set the journalistic writers apart from the experts.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 24, 2014

      I wouldn’t know anything about fire arms, Andrew, which is why I have my naval officer husband vet everything I read with a potential military error!

      Reply
  5. As an editor with an eagle eye, I work hard to not let any factual errors get past me. Sometimes it’s trivial stuff, like the time two characters were walking single file and talking, and the one in front saw the other one’s facial expression. (The author briefly forgot that they were walking in the scene, and not sitting or standing and able to look at each other.) Sometimes it’s more significant, like an error in biblical chronology or talking about a conversation between two people who actually lived at different times. (That one almost went into a book I wrote, because one of my sources wrote about it. I double-checked their dates after I wrote about it and it didn’t sound right.)

    But part of “getting facts right” is simply knowing when something needs to be double-checked, and knowing how to double-check those things. I’ve run basic stuff by other people when I’m outside my own expertise. (“Does a carburetor really do such and such? In baseball, is it called a ground ball when . . . ?”) I’d rather look ignorant at the fact-checking stage than when the book goes to print! And now the internet gives us ability to check definitions and dates and spellings really easily.

    (And proofreaders have saved me from a few embarrassing glitches, too!)

    But yes, errors cause me to be cautious with this author; even a large number of typos tells me the book was rushed through and not checked by enough eyes.

    Reply
  6. Michelle Ule

     /  January 24, 2014

    Good points, Cheryl, about knowing who and when to double check information. In the book I’m discussing, he’s talking about Jesus. Curiously, as I’ve continued listening to the book, he pauses now and then to cite a reference to why he says something–and it’s never a point I would have argued with.

    I simply don’t understand how an editor allowed the problems in this book to happen. It cannot have been about a lack of money, though I suppose time could have been an element to it. 🙁

    Reply
  7. I usually don’t find any glaring errors in books I have read. However, I read a book that said it was set in Scotland in 1810, but they were still using the (I think) feudal system. They also fought their battles with bows and arrows. I think most things were correct, except the time period it was supposed to be in. That really bothered me.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 24, 2014

      Something like that–bow and arrow fighting in Scotland 1810, really should have been picked up by an editor. Thanks for commenting, Susan.

      Reply
  8. I am always finding errors in spelling, grammar etc. and those I see often and wonder if the author wants to know about them. But I have also seen some historical errors that I would like tell the author about and always wonder if they would appreciate it or not.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 24, 2014

      I would want to know, even if I felt humiliated by the error! 🙂

      Reply
  9. I am writing on Navajo history. If I botch what kind of plants my character uses for his headache, the average Anglo reader won’t know. BUT, a vast percentage of Native Americans will take huge issue with my work and poof, buh-bye credibility.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 29, 2014

      That’s an important point, too, Jennifer. You don’t want to alienate your potential biggest supporters by displaying your ignorance. Because you miss a relatively small point, how can you be trusted with the big ones? While writing Bridging Two Hearts, I poured over maps of Coronado and finally took a trip down (where to my surprise, I didn’t need a map!). Actually walking the streets, however, showed me the contours of the land, gave me a better feel for what was next to each other and helped me see ways I needed to alter my story line.

      Yes, you can do tons of research on line, but it’s much better to be there.

      As you know. 🙂

      Reply

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