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 Describe their hometown incorrectly, misspell something, mess up a historical reference, and watch out!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 There’s a difference between fiction and a historical reference book.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!