Wednesday, January 27, 2016

JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM!

Authors get slammed for a lot of different things, but if you want to really send readers over the edge, get your facts wrong! Describe their hometown incorrectly, misspell something, mess up a historical reference, and watch out! When the attacks come, and they will, all you can do it tuck your tail between your legs and run away! (After many apologies.)

Of course some complaints are valid, and we should take those seriously. However, some are not. Here are examples of two criticisms I received over particular books:

One comment had to do with my book, Blessings in Disguise. Set in the real town of Sugarcreek, Ohio, one lovely lady wrote a letter stating how much she hated my book because, “Nothing like that ever happened here.” Sigh. Writers may use your location, but unless you live in a place like New York City (where everything has happened!), we may have to create plots that don’t necessarily reflect reality. There’s a difference between fiction and a historical reference book.

Here’s another comment I received by a reader of one of my Road to Kingdom books who felt I didn’t know anything about Mennonites: “I once visited a Mennonite church and it wasn’t anything like this!” Uh, yeah. It wasn’t Conservative Mennonite, dear.

These comments may seem silly, but almost every author with some sales behind them have gotten similar complaints. So…what kind of research is important  when writing a book? What should we be careful about?

Names: When bringing up real people, be sure to get the names right. Nothing irritates people more than seeing their name or the name of an historic figure misspelled.

Places: If you’re writing about a real place, be sure to portray it as accurately as possible. With Blessings in Disguise, I had view online pictures in an attempt to accurately portray the town since I’d never been there. A trip to Sugarcreek showed me where I was right – and where I was wrong. Thankfully, I didn’t make any huge mistakes. When I decided to include actual places, like the Honey Bee Café, first I contacted the owner, asking her questions about the café and the people who worked there. She was happy to help me. Of course, when I visited, it really gave me a better picture of the café, even allowing me to put the Honey Bee in the middle of a mystery in book 15. I’m writing book twenty-two now and am in correspondence with the curator of a museum. I’ll work with her to get my facts straight. No place for guesses when it comes to real locations!

History: This can mean world history, U.S. history, or even the history of a town. History is set and can’t be changed. You can make up things that happened in the past, but you can’t change events set in stone. For example, if your character served in World War II, make sure you know enough about that war to write about it. And if you mention when a certain building in a town was constructed, make sure you have your facts straight. Even though most of my books contain towns created out of my imagination, I always set them near real cities. I’m careful to research those cities and towns so that I don’t misrepresent them in some way. 

Science / Medical: Using poison? You’d better know what you’re doing. Research poisons, don’t just make something up. I have a reference book of poisons. Has your main character had an accident? Is he ill? Make sure you describe his injuries or sicknesses accurately. I have a doctor friend in Wichita who answers my questions in these situations. 

Disabilities: Please, please, please handle these situations with respect. Don’t throw in a disability as a plot device not knowing anything about the condition. I included a character with Down Syndrome in one of my books. I researched the condition carefully. Thank God I did. I received a letter from a reader whose uncle had Down Syndrome, and his name was the same as my character’s! My portrayal meant a lot to this kind lady who even sent me a picture of her uncle Drew. I treasure that photo. 

Practices and beliefs: My reviewer friend might not have understood Conservative Mennonites, but it’s important for writers to present different groups with accuracy, whether certain denominations or certain people. Good Amish writers do a lot of research so they don’t represent these gentle people incorrectly. 

Professions: Be careful when you step into a world you’re not used to. For example, my new series, Defenders of Justice, will debut toward the end of this year. I have characters that are U.S. Marshals and another character who is a police officer. I have a retired U.S. Marshal and an active officer as consultants. I wouldn’t want to misrepresent the brave men and women who defend us. Getting it right in these situations can bleed into all kinds of details. Firearms, procedures, and even personal feelings. We all know law enforcement has been under fire lately. I wanted to explore the effects of recent events in the lives of LEOs. (Law enforcement officers.) Even though I could guess, I’d rather hear it directly from those who live it every day. They can certainly tell me more about their personal experiences than I can glean from my imagination.

I’ve tried to name several areas where research is important when writing a book. Can you think of anything else? Have you ever lost interest in a book because the facts were wrong? Leave me a comment and share your experiences. I’ll give away a copy of my upcoming book, FATAL FROST, from my Defenders of Justice series. You’ll have to do two other things to win. Leave me your contact info (your entry won’t be considered if you forget this!). You’ll also have to have a lot of patience since the book won’t be out until November!

21 comments:

  1. I Have never lost interest in a book you wrote because the facts were wrong, i always feel your books were researched very well, and im so looking forward to reading the new one
    Shirley jcisforme@aol.com

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  2. I lose interest in a book if there are too many characters thrown in that are not part of the story line. They may stay for a few pages and gone. Too confusing. janetmurphy (at) cvctx (dot) com

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    1. Fatal Frost will be different than my other books. It's written in third person with multiple POVs. I worry about exactly what you mentioned. One person doesn't come back because...he dies. But I put in another character to explain why he died. And that character never shows up again. This new style has me a bit concerned. Of course, my editors haven't commented yet. They may tell me to pull someone out. I don't want to confuse my readers. Thanks for
      your comment. Food for thought. :)

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  3. I'm not picky. I read a book for enjoyment and to "get away" for a while. If the storyline is good and holds my interest I don't pay a lot of attention to the facts. After all fiction is fiction.
    And I have the patience of Job!
    tumcsec(at)gmail(dot)com

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  4. As long as the story is interesting, I don't nit pick about the details.
    debsbunch777(at)gmail(dot)com

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  5. As long as it holds my attention I don't worry about details. angelachesnut246@gmail.com

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  8. Nancy Mehl, I wish (WISH) you were teaching my class on Creative Writing. I'm sure we would all get so much more out of it. And, to comment on your Suspense Sister's blog. I do look for and care about details. I was reading a very interesting story not long ago, but I couldn't finish it because there was a glaring detail that was very wrong. It stopped me short, and I couldn't get passed it.

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    1. Oh, Mary. I wish I was teaching it too. To be honest, teaching those classes was one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. I hope I get a chance to do it again!

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  9. I love a well researched book! That shows me the author WANTS to make the story as real as possible. If they use a real town, I don't mind if they make up fictional scenarios for that town. That's what fiction is all about! I'm so glad you are one author (among many) who do lots of research for their books, it shows you care!
    I have read one novella recently that I really didn't care for. The characters attitudes felt juvenile to me, their attitudes towards other people made me feel like I was back in high school....lol! I put it down fast, I'll probably not read any more by that author. I do love to connect with the characters & when I can't, I almost feel bereft & probably won't finish the book. I think that's really the only time I'll move on to other books. Characters to me are like my circle of friends & family :-)

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    1. Well, I forgot a few things with my comment....lol!! Thank you for the chance to win your newest novel, Nancy. I really enjoyed today's post, I love to learn how authors do research or anything about their writing process. Blessings!

      teamob4 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  10. If the story and the characters are interesting, I tend to be pretty forgiving about some factual errors. But as a writer, I want to make sure my facts are accurate. Thanks for the great information and the giveaway.

    momrain(AT)aol(DOT)com

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  11. I absolutely love your books. I do lose interest If the facts are jumbled and don't make sense. I appreciate authors that do research on the topic or destination they are writing about. It makes the story more realistic and holds my interest with the description of the place or era. Thank you for continuing to give readers books that capture out attention and draw us into a he story.
    Deana
    Jhdwayne(at)peoplepc(dot)com

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  12. I've lost interest in books because the facts were wrong, often facts of history (which, like you say, are facts. Not opinions). I appreciate that sometimes authors have to twist the facts to make the story work, and some authors can do this better than others.

    I'll be looking forward to your next novel!

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  13. I have lost interest in a book. It was a biography type and the memories of a 30 year old recovered drug user from when he was 3 years old, and other memories just didn't make sense.. I do appreciate a well researched story.. thank you for the interesting post... dkstevensneAToutlook(DOT)com

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  14. I lose interest if a lot of facts are wrong, particularly historical events. I really appreciate it when authors get the facts straight, whether historical, procedural or a personality or physical trait.
    betsylu2@msn.com

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  15. I very much appreciate an author going to the trouble to get the facts straight! I especially appreciate several authors recently who have characters with visual or auditory impairments and could tell that appropriate and caring research was done. Recently I read a novel about genetics but was quite turned off when the "R" word was used.
    Thanks,
    Janice, pjrcmoore@windstream.net

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  16. Nancy, you've provided an excellent checklist. I once decided to include the real name of a fellow with whom I attended high school, figuring he'd never read the book. And you couldn't tell after you finished the book whether he wore a white hat or a black one. I didn't think more about it until I got invited back to the town where I grew up--by that man's wife, who was head of the book club that wanted me to come. Fortunately, he enjoyed seeing his name in a book, but just to make sure, I put him in my next novella and left no doubt that he was one of the good guys. But never again.

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  17. Hi Nancy, I have enjoyed reading these valid points you make for good research. I love to have a book set in my state of Kentucky and sometimes, I find myself doing research about something in a book but it doesn't bother me if some of the story has been embellished. After all, It.Is.Fiction!
    My only objection would be if an author should alter the symptoms of an illness or a handicap. So many people deal with life I threatening and heartbreaking issues and I don't believe in taking liberties with their problems.
    I can see why your books are so well-written and the reason that you would be a wonderful teacher for authors!
    And yes, I do have a lot of patience! :-)
    Connie
    cps1950(at)gmail(dot)com

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  18. Hi Nancy, I found this post to be fascinating. It all makes very good sense to really know what you are talking about when you write a book. But as a reader I have to admit that I usually take the research required for granted. I have always been aware that historical novels require a lot of research. I never thought about the same attention to detail being needed about towns and locations for contemporary novels. Thank you for making me realize this.

    Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy of your book. I have plenty of books waiting for me to read so waiting won't be a problem.

    debbiewilder (at) comcast (dot) net

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