Everyone recognizes that famous line from the TV series (and later, the movie of the same title), Dragnet. Usually, some witness would start blathering on about nothing, and a detective would try to keep things on track. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” The same idea applies in our writing. Not so much for the “blathering on,” although that will be a topic for another blog entry. But in this case, I’m referring to getting the facts straight. Do it right, and readers who know will appreciate it. Get it wrong, and every one of them who know better will send you a scathing email. Not to mention, some may not buy anything from you again.
So why do we go wrong? It isn’t necessarily laziness, although we can all fall victim to that one from time to time. Usually, it’s simply a matter of thinking we know more than we do. Rather than fact-check, we write it down and move on. This can–and will–come back to haunt you. The phenomenon is not limited to self-published authors, or even to those who have yet to be published. I’ve seen these mistakes from best-selling authors at the big publishing houses. So don’t assume that your editors will catch them. It’s not their job to make sure the facts are right . . . it’s yours.
My pet peeve of factual mishaps has to do with weapons. I’ve been around weapons since I joined the Army at the age of 18. I carried a Beretta 9mm pistol, an M-16A2 rifle, and an M-203 rifle/grenade launcher. I own two .40 caliber Glock pistols. And as a crime scene investigator, I have to be familiar with all types of firearms, in order to make them safe at scenes. I may not have the level of knowledge that some people possess when it comes to weapons, but I definitely have more than a passing familiarity.
Glock pistols are perhaps the most popular, and the most abused, weapons in the literary world. Every time a character has a pistol pointed at someone, and wants to emphasize the danger, he cocks the hammer back. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book where a character with a Glock cocks the hammer. The problem here: Glock pistols have no external hammer to cock back. And just for the record, they have no safety switch, either (technically, on a pistol, this is called a “de-cocking lever”).
Another favorite with all semi-automatic pistols is racking the slide. Yes, this is how to load a weapon. But would a character really wait until he’s about to shoot someone before loading the gun? Same goes for shotguns. The pumping of a shotgun’s action is a very intimidating sound. But a character who walks around with an unloaded shotgun isn’t going to live long. I’m a police officer, and I can tell you this: my weapons are always loaded.
Tasers are also frequently used and abused. Thriller authors, always looking for a new way to incapacitate a character, have turned to Tasers and other stun guns. The problem is that many of them have not researched the effects of Tasers. Contrary to how common literary works portray them, Tasers will not cause unconsciousness–not unless the person falls and strikes his head on something. A properly deployed Taser fires two probes into the target’s body. Electricity passes between these probes and short-circuits the nervous system. The farther apart the probes are, the greater the effect. The farther apart the probes are, the greater the effect. For the five seconds that the charge is active, every muscle will tense up to the point that the target is immobilized. Since there is no way to make the necessary adjustments to maintain balance, the person will fall over. However, no one touching the person being shocked by a Taser will feel the electricity. Here at my police department, for demonstrations we have two people hold the Tasered person up. When the Taser is applied, they gently lower him to the ground. The only way they will get shocked is if they place a hand between the probes. One final note – once the charge stops flowing, the target will immediately regain full use of his muscles. There is no period of time where the target is “stunned” and unable to fight.
(SIDE NOTE from Rick: “Taser” is a trademarked name and should always be capitalized.)
It doesn’t have to be weapons. If you write about a real location, eventually someone who knows that spot will read the book. If you get any details wrong, readers will let you know. The best means of assuring accuracy is to actually go to these locations yourself. For my thriller novel, Martyr’s Inferno, I chose a few places I frequent (Peoria and Bloomington, IL, for example). I made the 3-hour trip to St. Louis, MO, and walked the route that the characters followed near the end of the novel. During a vacation to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, I did the same thing, even though Playa only figures in one chapter. But sometimes you can’t go to the location in person. A little Internet research can go a long way. Rick Taubold, my blog partner, wrote a novel that takes place in Detroit. He researched the areas where the story was based, to make sure the shops he mentioned were really there.
(SIDE NOTE from Rick: These were my Mortal Vampire novels. Even though my vampire novel co-author is a Detroit native, I still did a lot of research online to check things he might have missed and to look up pictures and history of the city, especially since I’ve never been there. It helped me immerse myself in the story better. As proof of what Scott said: One of my author friends read the novel. She lives in Colorado, but she used to live in Detroit. It wouldn’t have looked good for me if I’d screwed up.)
Barry Eisler, best-selling author of the Hard Rain novels, has a space on his website just for these issues. If someone brings a mistake to his attention, he includes it on the web page. You can bet he won’t make the same mistake twice. Besides, Americans appreciate honesty above all else. If you can admit to your mistakes, people will (hopefully) laugh and move on. Barry went so far as to get himself Tasered, so that he could write about it accurately. Now that’s a dedicated author. Don’t try that one at home!
That’s not to say you might not want to get the facts wrong on purpose. For example, if your POV character needs to catch someone in a lie, you could have the lying character misstate the facts about something, only to have the protagonist (or another character) catch it later. I used this technique in Martyr’s Inferno. Without going into spoiler details, one of the characters made a claim that was factually incorrect, although most people would not catch it. In this case, it had to do with the assorted federal law enforcement agencies and their jurisdictions. But my main character didn’t catch it – another character did. In other words, it’s okay to get it wrong, if it’s for the right reason. Get it?
So, make sure you do your research. Know your topics before you go too far. Some mistakes could paint you into the proverbial corner such that, even if you realize it’s a mistake, it might take an extensive rewrite to fix it. Try to go to the locations you write about where possible, or at least look them up on the Internet. And remember that not everything on the Internet is correct. Multiple sources are best to help you avoid picking up faulty information that could cause problems later.