Wendy Janes

Fact in Fiction. by Guest Author @wendyproof

A well-researched novel is a joy to read. I love it when an author seamlessly weaves his or her research into a story. An excellent example of this is Susan Louineau’s The Chapel in the Woods. I enjoyed this book so much, I felt compelled to write a review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/576806766

However, too many facts can get in the way. The research overpowers the fiction. I had to stop reading one political thriller because the author wanted to tell me everything he knew about the workings of the British Parliament from its inception to the present day. I was so lost in the detail that I couldn’t locate the beginning of the actual story.

Equally, a lack of research can also get in the way of telling a good story. If the facts are wrong it undermines the fiction.

These facts include things like the spelling and punctuation of the names of well-known companies, products and people. When proofreading novels I regularly have to remove an extraneous apostrophe from a popular coffee chain, and equally regularly add one to a popular burger chain.

I need the internet to do my job efficiently. Without checking online I wouldn’t know how many ff’s and whether it’s ei or ie for Michelle Pfeiffer.

I often wonder what the internet bods who monitor everyone’s online life must think about me. Driven by the proclivities of the fiction I’ve been proofreading in the last few months, I have recently found myself looking up French fashion designers of the 1950s, automatic pistols and yoga positions. I fondly hope they think I’m a well-dressed, dead-eyed assassin, who can balance on one leg for an hour.

As well as confirming spellings of the names of Renaissance artists, towns in Madagascar and the odd rare cheese, I sometimes carry out more extensive fact-checking and research online. Not to the level and expertise of an editor, but when proofreading I double-check dates and historical references if they strike me as incorrect. It gives me great joy to spot an anachronism or two. Allow me a little fun:

Debbie put the phone down and dashed to her diary. Turning to 10 January 1983, she wrote: “First date with G!!!!” Finally, finally, the man of her dreams had asked her out. Admittedly watching Pulp Fiction at the local cinema wouldn’t have been her first choice, she would have preferred a romantic meal at the new Italian restaurant in the high street, but a date was a date. And it was with Gary!

Not the ideal first-date movie, I’ll grant you, but that’s not the biggest problem for our young couple. They should be more concerned that that particular film won’t be out for more than a decade.

Living so close to London, I love proofreading books set in the capital. They give me an excuse to double-check all sorts of snippets about its history and geography. The London Underground is my favourite obsession – the three maps on my dining room walls can attest to that.

This is why I was thrilled when a few years ago, author Larry Brill asked me and my husband (an even bigger London buff than I am) to help him with some research for his satire on modern media, set in 1760s London. He’d written the story, but wanted some advice on the authenticity of the dialogue and the accuracy of the depiction of London geography.

Part of the humour of this story is generated by the juxtaposition of modern phrases alongside authentic eighteenth-century London language. However, the reader needs to feel secure that the author is in control and is using modern idiom on purpose, rather than in error. As soon as a reader starts to wonder whether a particular word would really have been used at that time, the suspension of disbelief is broken.

We looked for words that might jolt the reader out of eighteenth-century London and undermine the whole wonderful conceit. We debated long and hard about the use of words such as “moniker” and “conniption” (nineteenth century) “doozy” and “ginormous” (twentieth century).

As well as spending a lot of his time in London pubs, the lead character also wanders the streets of London. So we spent many a happy hour poring over old maps to check that his walks along Fleet Street and The Strand would indeed take him to his intended destinations.

We also double-checked the dates for the construction of the now-familiar bridges across the Thames. We were surprised to learn that there weren’t many options for walking over the Thames in 1760s London: only London and Westminster Bridges existed at that time. We suggested to the author that he remove or amend references to Blackfriars, which didn’t open to the public until 1769, and Waterloo Bridge, which wasn’t ready until 1817.

I would hesitate to put myself forward as a professional researcher, but it was heaps of fun and I hope we played a tiny part in helping the author ensure that the reader fully enjoys the reading experience.

In case this has whetted your appetite for this gem of a book, here’s a link to The Patterer by Larry Brill: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18587008-the-patterer?from_search=true

To sum up…

An untrue “fact” or a historical “blooper”, while delighting the sort of person who loves to spot howlers, can spoil the flow for the majority of readers who want to be entertained as well as educated.

Too many facts, however brilliantly researched, can take a good story and turn it into a textbook, or worse – a dreary showing off of the author’s knowledge. A little learning goes a long way.

The internet and the reference library are the author’s/editor’s/proofreader’s friend. Authors/editors/proofreaders, do you have any websites or books you use when you research that you’d like to share?

wendy_janes_author.jpgWendy Janes is a successful freelance proofreader for a range of large and small publishers and has been for over a decade. She has a Bachelor of Education degree from Goldsmiths College (London University) and a Chapterhouse qualification in proofreading and copy editing. Her own work can be found in two anthologies; A Kind of Mad Courage and Romantic Heroes , the non-fiction memoir of her grandfather The One and Sixpenny Englishman, and her full length literary fiction novel What Jennifer Knows. For her services, go to her site http://wendyproof.co.uk/testimonials/ and make certain to connect with her on Twitter, . (She in no way proofread this bio.)


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16 thoughts on “Fact in Fiction. by Guest Author @wendyproof”

  1. Great post. I must confess to also wondering what people who monitor internet usage will think sometimes. I was checking a translation of a book on international terrorism, and when I was checking the correct name in Spanish of parts of a grenade and other explosive devices I thought… But surely people would try to hide it if they were up to something. Not sure I have a favourite site, but the internet is a life-saver, although sometimes even checking different sites it’s different to come to a conclusion. (After reading several articles about it I’m still not sure the material one of the coffins they buried Pope John Paul II was made of). Your research sounds fun. I’ll check the book. Thanks Wendy.

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    1. Thanks, Olga. Yes, I hope “the powers that be” understand that those of us who don’t attempt to hide our tracks are authors and editors. And, yes, it’s tricky when there isn’t a definitive answer, but such fun following the trail.

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  2. Oh, I loved this, Wendy! The Pulp Fiction thing made me laugh – when I’m writing I always check to see if a film or a book was out. If I have someone going to the pictures in, say, 2003, I’ll look to see what films came out that year to make sure the film would actually have been at the pictures. This sort of thing is so easy to do, but it amazes me that so many writers don’t bother – and, yes, I think it should be the writer’s job, not the editor or proofreader’s. Recently I reviewed a book set in the 17th century. The author had used words in dialogue that did not enter the language until the 19th and 20th century – if I could look them up to check, why didn’t she??!!

    I did make one mistake when I wrote Round and Round – I had my character watching Sex and the City in 1998 (I think) because I remembered seeing it around then – my husband looked up just to make sure, and found that it wasn’t on UK television until two months after my character was supposed to be watching it, so we had her reading the book, instead!

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  3. So pleased you enjoyed this one, Terry. Yes, the film stuff is really straightforward (and fun) to search, although US and UK dates can vary. Oh, the wrong language can ruin authenticity. I nearly slipped up when an early draft of a short story contained the term “women’s lib” in a scene set in 1962 – an internet search saved the day/scene.
    Glad you were able to swap the reference from TV to book in Round and Round.

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  4. I really enjoyed your post. I write juvenile historical fiction so I have to be extremely accurate about facts. I also include a reference section for each book. I am often surprised at the things that writers overlook. It shatters my reading experience when I find an inaccuracy.

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    1. Really pleased to hear you enjoyed my post. Excellent idea to include a reference section. Many historical fiction books inspire readers to discover more about an era or event.

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  5. Oh, I loved this. I dread to think what data is being collected about me. Having had to do a fair bit of research around drugs for my thriller, The Edge of Sanity, I was fully expecting the Drugs Squad to come knocking. Really useful info, Wendy. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 xx

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  6. Thanks, Sheryl. All your research was definitely worth it – The Edge of Sanity feels so authentic and gritty.

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  7. Lovely article, Wendy, and is another great illustration of the value you clearly add to the process.
    Sometimes I think I get too hung up on fact checking (I’d actually be quite excited if I reached enough readers for someone to spot something), but for my last novel I found myself looking up:
    the months when clematis and daffodils bloom; locations of disused Scottish airfields; who knocked England out of the 2010 (soccer) World Cup; how to spell Michelangelo and Mary Celeste; what time sunset is, in Cambridge, on the summer solstice.
    Happily, I don’t write crime novels so I don’t have to worry too much about bullet speeds and blood spatters! And no, I don’t have favourite sites… although I’m grateful to the hobbyists who create detailed guides for the most bizarre subjects.

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