Are you one of those readers where it ruins a book for you if the author is factually inaccurate? Does it have to be gross negligence? Is incidental inaccuracy moderately OK?
Turning that around from out side: how much fact checking is enough?
As a writer, I can vouch for one thing: 100% fact checking is a massively time-consuming undertaking. But as a reader, I’m pretty harsh when a writer screws it up badly. Seems contradictory, I know. And yet.
A few years ago, I wrote a scene about a feast that took place in the early 6th century Britain. They were feasting on wild game, barley bread, leeks, potatoes, and a homemade alcoholic brew. A very knowledgeable editor told me that potatoes came from the Americas and weren’t known in Britain until much later. A fact that I didn’t even know that I needed to check!
Fast forward to this summer. I was taking a vacation from writing–and pretty much everything else–on a cruise up the Alaskan coastline. A near-perfect vacation thus far, despite the fact that I’d hurt my back the week before and was not up to my usual adventuresome antics. And then came the whale-watching outing we’d signed up for.
First of all, it was a perfect day. In Alaska, those aren’t all that common–overcast had been the rule up to then. And we were pretty excited that we’d stumbled across a couple of finback whales feeding, although other than being whales, finbacks aren’t known for their entertaining antics like some of the other Cetacea. Bald eagles soared overhead, adding to our delight.
And then we stumbled into maybe a dozen and a half Orcas.
A couple of them, clearly aware that we were watching, put on a show for us. Leaping almost clear of the water less than 50 yards from the boat, falling back with a suitably impressive splash. The others continued their feeding, committed to their policy of mutual inter-species indifference.
Watching them reminded me of a thriller I’d read a few years back, where Killer Whales were featured in the opening scene. Some divers were exploring a pool in a hole under an icecap when they came across a pod of them. The whales eagerly killed all of the divers and swam about looking for more. This despite the fact that an attack by an Orca on a human in the wild have never been recorded. That wasn’t the only gross inaccuracy in the novel. I was so disgusted I took time to seek out the author’s address and write him about how bad his grip on the facts was (he didn’t reply). Needless to say, I’ve never bought anything else by him.
So in one sense, I guess I didn’t totally get away from the responsibility of a writer. Even on a whale-watching trip.
Not long ago I read a novel where a villain threatened the hero by cocking a machine pistol. Seriously? “Well (the chastened author asked), how many people know that a machine pistol isn’t cocked like a regular pistol?” Of the subcategory who read books where machine pistols are involved, I’d say a sizeable percentage.
So how much fact checking is enough? Here’s my advice: if you want a dedicated readership who will buy your next novel, and you have no idea what you’re talking about, check it all. Or at least ask someone familiar with the topic to read and comment. Don’t just make it up and assume.