Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How Birds and Bears can Ruin a Book

by Michelle Gagnon

There appears to be a theme developing this week, and I'm nothing if not a sheep (baaa) so allow me to continue the thread. My system of research is roughly akin to loading a shotgun with bird pellets and firing away: I'm all over the place. Although I love doing it, research has never been my strong suit (one of the reasons I shy away from historicals, and have the utmost respect for writers like Clare who are brave enough to tackle them). And yet I do attempt to make my books as accurate as possible, from the description of a corpse that's spent threeglock weeks in sea water to the nitty gritty of jurisdictional issues in law enforcement (not to mention everyone's personal favorite, weapons accuracy. Repeat after me: Glocks do not have safeties).

So I spend a few months prior to each book diving into a series of books and websites, some of which relate directly to what I'm writing about, some of which I stumble across along the tangential trail that my creative process invariably takes. Since I don't work from an outline, instead "flying by the seat of my pants," the synopsis that I submit to my editor always turns out to be laughably inaccurate by the end. The research always takes the book in new, strange directions.

Like everyone else, I make liberal use of travel books, Google Earth and for my latest thriller, sites as varied as the Southern Poverty Law Center, anarchy/bomb making sites, and neo-Nazi recruiting sites. I'm pretty sure those visits have landed me on a watch list somewhere.

quarry But here's where I draw the line on accuracy. In Boneyard, I needed a quarry. And not just any quarry: a limestone quarry, right off a main road that exists in Western Massachusetts where the book was set. So you know what? I put one there. Then I moved an abandoned Civil Defense bunker three towns over to suit my purpose. The rest of the book is completely accurate, as far as I know.

When you set a book in a real location, and mess around with geography in this manner, you expect a certain amount of critical emails. So you can imagine my surprise when the only complaints I got were as follows:warbler

I've enjoyed reading your book but I am disturbed about one error. It's on pages 187 and 188.

If you are going to incorporate a bird into your story, please check it and spell the name correctly.

It's "Kirtland's Warbler" not "Kirkland's Warbler."

Yikes. Now, I went back and checked my notes, and "Kirkland's Warbler" came directly from a New York birder who swore that would be his dream sighting (so wouldn't you assume he'd get the name right?) A search produced the name with that exact spelling- and, when I double-checked, an alternate spelling with a "T." The fact that this apparent error "disturbed" someone enough to limit their enjoyment of the book was, needless to say, somewhat disconcerting. But no mention of that imaginary quarry and relocated bunker.

Well, I told myself, you can't be right 100% of the time. Then I got another email:

brown bear I am a hiker and just to let you know that there are no brown bears east of the Mississippi River. Black bears are in the north east for sure!

Anyone sensing a wildlife theme here? Went back to double-check and it turns out that my intrepid hiker is correct. I'll confess, my knowledge of wildlife is somewhat spotty. To me, a bear is a bear, and I'd prefer not to get close enough for a true color test. It hadn't even occurred to me to investigate this. I knew there were bears in the Berkshires, even saw one once when I lived there (and to this day I'd swear that the overall appearance was brown. Although I was heading fast in the opposite direction, so it's hard to be sure).

So the moral to the story is you can research until your eyes bleed, but somewhere in those 100,000 words there's bound to be one or two inaccuracies that neither you, your editor, copy-editor, agent, or 10-12 Beta readers will catch. And someone will find that mistake disturbing.

Fake quarries, though? Use them at will.


  1. Thanks for continuing the research theme, Michelle. Lynn Sholes and I have been caught a few times by sharp-eyed readers--once by using the wrong color on a guided missile. But our biggest blunder was an innocent mistake made in our second thriller THE LAST SECRET--it's right there on page 20. Here's a hint: seat belt. And yet, no one called us out on it. We realized it ourselves after the book hit the shelves. So, just keep your head down, write your best story, and try to get everything right. Otherwise, you'll probably be hearing from the customers.

  2. It's always the little bits the readers find and blast you over. How about a bird eating seeds when in fact they eat bugs. I had one anal compulsive reader with no life outside picking through my book to tell me how many times I used the word had when writing in the past tense. She had often thought... etc. She said it was incorrect and told me how many hads I had, and I wrote her back telling her I counted three times and got two more each time than she "had" found. I always smile when I think about her going back in and recounting the "hads." I know she did.

  3. I once had a reader tell me I needed to research more about Scotland, because I hadn't included detail on the local flora and fauna. None of which was germane to the story. If you want a nature book, read a nature book, not a YA paranormal.

    And I'm quite familiar with Scottish flora and fauna. Being Scottish.

  4. Right you are, all. Fortunately, it's only the very few who take time to show us our minor errors. At least they better be minor (I read one book where an agent went into harm's way wearing a Mylar vest).

    I love that Michelle moved things around. I like to, on rare occasions, just make stuff up. If it sends someone to Google, and then back to me with a "huh?", I respond, "This is why it's called fiction."

  5. I guess you just can't please everyone.

    As far as research, I usually go lurking about websites. My only vice is that I'll get distracted if I find some interesting fact and look up more and more on the subject instead of taking what I need and going back to the writing. (oops)

  6. Michelle, your post reminds me about the process of fact checking during copyediting. My copyeditor fact checks almost everything I write, even very small things that I throw in for humorous effect. For example, I called a blouse a "Sky" top after a plunging V-neck worn by the housewives of Orange county, to demonstrate something worn by one character. The copyeditor wanted to know if it is an actual brand. Turns out it is a trademarked brand, and requires a certain capitalization, etc. My alert copyeditors have saved me from many mistakes!

  7. Sometimes you can know too much. A review of my first book, THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD, pointed out what the reviewer thought was an overly convenient coincidence that allowed my hero to get tossed unconscious onto a fishing boat and miraculously be transported to exactly where he was hoping to go anyhow.

    What had happened was that I had based the scenes - and most of the book - on real places that I was very familiar with. And, it just so happened that if someone were to be tossed onto a fishing boat in the harbor at Zhuhai, China, they almost certainly would end up in the vicinity of the island where my hero wound up in the book. That's because that's where the main fishing grounds are that boats from that harbor do go to in real life.

    But the reviewer, and my readers, didn't know that. I knew it well enough that I forgot to explain it.

    Luckily there was enough time between the hardcover and the paperback that I was able to insert a few sentences in a few different places in the paperback edition, that established the reason for the "coincidence."

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  10. Little things my readers/listerners said, after it was too late for me to fix it:

    "That was awesome how you used the Mokken Boat People of Burma, but hey jets don't have accelerators. They're called throttles instead. Oh, and the USS Bealleau Wood doesn't use a catapult anymore."

    "In the knife fight you didn't mention the brand of knife, you realize that if a combat knife doesn't have a blood gutter it will either get stuck in the body, especially the ribs, or will rip the flesh up and make a huge mess all over. I learned that the hard way." I didn't ask him to clarify 'the hard way'...but was tempted"There is no Red Dog Pub outside of Plymouth Royal Marine Base."
    I know, I made it up."I spent many an drunken night the at the Red Dog Pub in Plymouth when I was in the RMC!"
    uh..I assume you're not talking about the same PlymouthI have found that writing military/espionage fiction demands a lot of technical research. If you are going to mention any detail about a piece of equipment or even date/time/place of an event you will be checked by the readers.

    No matter what, something is always going to get buy.

  11. For whatever reason, the line breaks after my italicized commentary in that last post just wouldn't work. Please forgive the apparent poor writing style.

    I am sure a reader will comment on it with a nasty letter about how to use the "enter" key.

  12. Thanks for your amusing article, Michelle. It seems quite a few of us had the same idea this week--accuracy counts!

    It's always good to be able to laugh at ourselves when we make a boo-boo; that way it won't be so hard to pick up where we left off, and then correct our mistakes.

    Thanks for giving me the giggles--I needed that!


  13. I heard Tony Hillerman tell this story once. (He probably told it many times. ... :-)

    The beginning of LISTENING WOMAN has a blind woman out on a desolate plateau with just a teenage girl and an ailing man (and the bad guys, of course).

    Both the girl and the man die. Segue to the investigation.

    No one ever noticed that the blind woman had some how got off the plateau and back to civilization. How?

    Hillerman forgot to make mention in the book. The publisher didn't notice. ...

  14. Michelle - isn't it crazy what readers do actually focus on? SO far no one has picked up anything historical or otherwise by boy did my copy editor make me double check a lot! I figure you'll always make some mistakes and what the hell, if it's fiction, you can have a quarry materialize out of thin air. Ursula's house on Chester square has bay windows but anyone who goes to that square in london will probably soon see that none of the house have bay windows. I think Lord Wrotham's house is also now a wine bar...I keep wondering if anyone notices (or cares):)

  15. LOL, Michelle -- you probably saw a brown Black Bear, which is well, a brown bear :), although not a Brown Bear/Grizzly Bear.

    You get blonde Black Bears, too. I've heard that the fur color might have something to do with the amount of sun or forest cover in a region.

    We don't call them Brown bear in Canada BTW -- they're Grizz up here.

    Loved the bear scene in your book.

    Loreth, (who sees waaaaay too many bears on a daily basis)