Fact-Finding for Fiction Writers
International fiction thriller author, Tom Clancy is noted for his detail to realism in his novels. He stated, “The difference between fiction and reality: Fiction has to make sense.”
Fiction authors have free reign to comply with or to exceed reality, nature, facts, science and history. I favor compliance with the natural order and human condition to make my works of historical fiction believable. Research is a novelist’s best tool to accomplish this.
I established this section of my Word Press site to share my experiences on how I conducted research into areas I was not familiar with, and even into areas in which I have expertise.
There are professional researchers for hire that proofreads sections of writings for other authors looking for flaws. The proofreader does not look for grammatical flaws so much as for technical errors in the piece. This might be a wrong date; Columbus did not set sail from Spain on October 12, 1492. He left August 3, 1942.
Technical criticism of types of firearms, transportation means, make and model of a car and its equipment, and errors on military rank by branch of service or historical setting affects the credibility of the author’s work. There is no current rank called corporal in the Air Force; but there was before and just after the branches separated September 18, 1947. The rank names for what became known as pay grade E-4 in the Air Force underwent many changes in subsequent years.
Today’s Internet is an excellent place for an author to begin research.
The following is a brief overview of some of my experiences in fact finding my stories, or those other authors shared during the time they were writing said story. I will add more fact-finding articles for fiction writers to this section of my Word Press site. Each of those will be more case or topic oriented. Visit again.
Military Facts and the Viet Nam War Era
I read a short story from a creative writing student regarding a member of the Air Force during the early 1970s. The style was good and the story captivated me. A small error stood out for me. He titled the E-4 rank as Senior Airman.
I was in the Air Force at that time and honorably discharged at the rank of E-4 Sergeant. E-4s were unofficial dubbed Buck Sergeants, though the word ‘Buck’ was not officially written in the regulations. The switch in terms or status of Sergeant to Senior Airman began in stages near the end of my final year, 1976. The student author was born six years later. It is therefore natural that he would have no inkling that the pay grade of E-4 as Senior Airman would need any research. He probably would have continued with the incorrect term for 1972-76 had my personal experience not caught that fine detail. Several professors would likely not know the rank was titled wrong in his story. The average reader would not notice this unless he or she is a veteran of the Viet Nam war era, or otherwise knew a veteran of that era.
The student was delighted to learn his character was a sergeant and made the changes.
Another casual proofreader informed us that a certain piece of automobile equipment was originally manufactured six months after the story setting or scene. The author could probably get away with the error seeing as the item was available in the same year for the same model. Hardly any reader would have known the difference.
Standard active duty time varied for draftees from 18 to 24 months depending on circumstances. A number of authors not in service then or born after Viet Nam are under the impression all drafted personnel served a full two years.
Official reports differ about the level of our military presence and involvement in Viet Nam for specific periods of the war. The conflict does not mean one report is right and the other is wrong. Do research to find out why there are two versions. An author may favor using a particular set of facts over another, but insisting only one document is correct may embarrass an author later.
Date, Time and Weather
Minor details are usually more forgiving, but are worth a web search. Look up the weather in the story location if you use exacting dates. There is no problem for the story’s sake if you claim that May 15, 1997 was a sweltering day, sunny, around 84 degrees. This is fiction, after all. Unless that day was significant to a particular reader, no one will care that it was actually 65-72 degrees with rain likely, full cloud cover. Do you want to add the day of the week? It was a Thursday.
The day of week could make a difference as to how busy a church is if your character is entering or passing a church.
A reader knowledgeable about the topic or items can pick major details apart. Medical analysis is troubling, even if you do the research. Consider limiting the information and allow for some vagueness in your medical descriptions if you are not a medical professional.
“He lingered in a lethargic state for days,” covers a multiple of conditions without having to spell out the diagnosis.
If your character is defined with a specific medical condition because of illness or a horrific injury, then you will need to search several web sites and compare the information to best serve your story.
Randy, in my first novel, Hawk Dancer is terminally ill. I purposely did not name an illness or condition because I did not feel confident at the time I would be able to write about it with accuracy.
There are some house calls regarding Randy. I chuckled when I grasped the need to explain what a house call was to a high school student in 2000. Doctors making house calls were common in the 1950s, but slacked off since the early1960s to where it is essentially unheard of today. Look for terms specific to each generation or decade. A calling card of the 1960s and 70s does not imply the same thing in the 1990s. One is a business card in one era and a pre-paid phone card in another.
A doctor’s house call was not a simple social visit, as those born well after that era might understand the now seldom used term. (What is a floppy?)
Consult a friend or acquaintance expert or experienced with aspects of your story. The protagonist, Randy, is a very short person. The wife of a doctor supplied me with measurements and weights of a
child who would be at the lower margin of average at various ages. The answer is different at ages five, seven, twelve and eighteen.
My first novel states that T. Douglas stood six foot one and was age 27 when he arrived in Birch Clump in 1978.
I have a need to make him about two or three inches shorter at age sixteen for an upcoming story about him. My research shows that most males reach their maximum height at or in their sixteenth year though some do not stop growing until seventeed or eighteen, less so to nineteen. Average gains are less than one inch from 16 to 18. A two-inch gain is not unheard of. A three-inch gain is pushing it, but not dismissed. I feel I can shave him down to five-
eleven and maybe five foot ten inches in his first quarter of age sixteen, but I cannot change what has been published about his final height. I am considering five feet, ten and half inches for the story of his sixteenth year.
First time authors are at risk without research and plenty of cross-referencing. Laws have wide variance from state to state. Some things illegal in one state are legal in others.
Statutes of Limitation: Thieves mug and rob Amos Crow in one of my stories, Fishing Hole. That is a three-part mystery. I am planning a follow-up that identifies one of the assailants seven or more years later. My chief fact-finder lives in Wisconsin. The crime took place in Michigan. The statute of limitation for assault and battery and for theft varies in each state. Oddly enough, the physical assault carries a shorter statute of limitation that the robbery of a cheap watch and three dollars in both states. A prosecutor is not likely to waste time and taxpayers’ money to prosecute for the watch and three dollars years later.
The victim believed the assailants, who he never saw, used a gun, and there is no mention of a gun in his original report. Aside from a confession, I doubt investigators can come up with sufficient evidence of an armed robbery.
Federal treaties with Native American Tribes and Tribal Bands are very complex. Modern court challenges, individual state and tribe negotiations means that what is understood in 2010 might not have been resolved or considered in 1995 or 1978. Agreements and treaty vary sharply by state and tribe. This plays an important role on Religious Freedom issues for Native American Indians in my novels.
Stories on fishing and hunting rights change over time. My novels address serious concerns on out-of-tribe adoption issues.
- Is it illegal to drive on the sidewalk? – It probably is, generally speaking, but not in all circumstances.
- Is it legal for two men to step outside in a mutual agreement to fight each other? – It is imprudent, but probably legal. The results may not be legal. (Writing a Fight scene.)
- Is it illegal to smoke under age 18? – This varies from state to state, but selling tobacco products to a minor is illegal.
Biases and Prejudices
Institutionalized discrimination and longstanding assumptions are difficult to identify to the point an author may not know research is needed for certain issues. This can be damaging to an unaware author and his or her book once published.
Here is a short list of certain erroneous assumption I found when authors shared portions of their manuscripts with me. Fortunately, they were able to make adjustments while their work was still in progress.
- Catholics worship Mary
- Middle East immigrants to the USA receive $50,000 to start their own small business.
- Asians show more respect for their elders than Americans do.
- Most Americans place their parents in nursing homes and forget them.
- Native Americans do not pay taxes.
All of those assumptions have limited basis for some people to believe are factual. None of them is true. A Google or Bing search will bring up a number of sites concerning each claim. I would suggest examining even those sites that boldly insist the false accusations are true to have a better insight as to how and why some people are unbendable when it comes to racial or religious prejudices.
Thank you for visiting.
I hope you find my other articles on fact-finding for fiction authors useful. There are other great articles from Word Press writers on fact-finding and on other excellent websites.
Click the “Critical Research” button at the top of the page for a drop down menu of other articles I posted on “Fact-Finding and Research for Ficiton Authors.”