On being accurate

I will admit that I’m more anal than the average person. My closet is divided by colour, with sub-divisions by item type. The cans in my pantry have their own shelf as do the boxes and bagged items. And anyone who has seen my cork board knows I might just possibly organize my books to death.

It should come as no surprise then that I’m pretty picky about books being accurate, but I honestly think this is an important thing to do, whether your readers have colour-coordinated sock drawers or not. Here’s why: no matter what genre you write, readers are reading your book because they want to suspend their disbelief. They want to immerse themselves in the world of your characters, even if only for a few hours.

In order for readers to trust you as a storyteller, you have to talk the talk. You need to know the name of the street your main character grew up on. You need to know their favourite food. You need to know who first broke their heart. In fact, the more you know, the more likely the readers are to trust you as the creator of the world.

So why do mistakes matter? I’ll tell you using an example. Say you’re reading a book about a farmer in Illinois. It’s a wonderful book and the detail is so great that you can practically smell the manure. You believe everything the author tells you. If he says the main character is sad, you see him weeping in his oatmeal. If he says he has red hair, you see the red hair peeking out from under his John Deere cap. You’re so completely and utterly immersed that you really feel like you are the main character.

But then the author says that the main character hurt his shoulder during harvest last January and you go, Huh? Even if you aren’t a farmer, you probably know that harvest in Illinois doesn’t happen in January. At first, maybe you just note this as something that will surely be explained by a plot point later. But it isn’t. The author later says that planting started in August but then there were ripe peaches in September. Now, what you’re thinking is that the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You lose your sense of trust in the author and suddenly, you don’t believe that the main character has red hair. Heck, maybe you don’t even believe he is a farmer.

The point in this long-winded example is this: always be accurate. If you’re writing facts, use the Internet so you can check them or find someone who can verify them.  If your character is speaking, say the words he is saying and imagine you are him and that they make sense coming out of his head. If your character is doing something physical, try to do it yourself or find a video of someone else doing it.  

Or, if all else fails, go organize your sock drawer.

Category: On Writing