Don’t insult the reader with shoddy research

I recently found a new author. He writes Victorian era mysteries that are generally well plotted. The characters are well developed and the stories interesting with intriguing twists.

But there’s one thing that irks me about his books.

There are, frankly, too many silly research flubs that a simple check would have corrected. For instance, he writes of a murderer escaping on a ship (this is mid -1870’s) to Egypt. The protagonist private detective is angry that the man escaped, according to a newspaper, aboard a ship named “HMS” Whatever.

Big mistake!

HMS means Her Majesty’s Ship and designates a Royal Navy vessel; military, not passenger. And it sailed from London’s docklands not a naval base. A small mistake that should have been caught. It has no bearing on the viability of the story, but leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth. What other facts has the author got wrong?

Similar sloppy, avoidable mistakes pop up in others of his books. For example, the protagonist asks his wife if he can give their five year old daughter some “candy”. Wrong! Candy is a North American term; in Victorian England he would ask about giving “sweets”, though back then such things were almost unknown. And he gets a timeline wrong when his wife mentions a book that was her favourite book as a child, except that the book was published only fifteen years prior to the time portrayed, and the woman is in her forties. No way she read it as a child.

The thing is, there was no need for such sloppiness on minor facts. I get the impression that because the author is American and therefore most of his readers will also be American, he feels it unnecessary to double check those minute faults.

That is disrespectful to the reader, in my humble opinion.

Maybe it’s my journalistic background and the demand for fact-checking and checking again that my editors drummed into me over the years, but I shudder when I see such small and easily checked mistakes in books. It’s bad enough in novels, even worse in non-fiction.

I try, in all of my books, to fact check even the smallest details. That’s not to say someone won’t find typos or other mistakes. You will. Unfortunately, even with outside editing, tight deadlines and mostly automated computer age publishing lets typos and errors sneak through. Embarrassing, but hopefully forgivable.

I believe every author has a fiduciary duty to the reader to ensure that as much as humanly possible, the minutia as well as the major plot lines, background info and scenarios are accurate and therefore believable.

Some year ago, I picked up a book by an English author I liked. He is well known and very popular, with millions of books sold. Most of them are really good, but this one is set in New York city the day of the 9/11 attack. A woman discovers a huge crime and flees for her life from the mob. Since flights are grounded in New York she heads to Canada, driving through the day to cross the border where she catches a plane from Toronto to London.,

There were two major mistakes in that scenario. First, ALL flights across North America were grounded. No way she could have flown from Toronto to London that day…or the next…. or the one after!

Second, the author tells us she “walks across” the border into Canada at Niagara Falls. Wrong! It’s called Nagara FALLS for a reason—there’s a river and massive falls there. She cannot stroll across as if at a land border (not that you can even do that), because of the natural features. Land crossings are by bridge and require a car, bus or cab.

Sloppy stuff that the author and editor could have easily been caught. That it wasn’t considered important enough tells me of the disdain the author and publisher have for loyal readers of his books; that they’ll buy junk so long as his name is on it.

Those major errors spoiled the book and the author for me. I have not read one of his books since.

Research is painstakingly frustrating. It takes time and lots of searching from a wide variety of sources, not just Google, to find and confirm everything.

When researching the mid-eighteenth century for my novel on George Frederick Handel, I spent years checking and re-checking facts. What did they wear, eat, act? How did they speak? How did they address, the King, members of the Royal Family, the nobility? What were the societal pressures of the day? Were doctors called doctors? And so on.

I travelled to Dublin in April; the same time of year Messiah debuted there. I walked from the cathedrals to the site of the music hall where Messiah was first performed Tiny details were changed as I learned more. I visited the Handel House museum in London and stood in the room where he composed Messiah. I stood in Handel’s bedroom at the foot of the bed where he died, taking in the authentic colours of the walls and décor as sourced by the museum. Musick for the King is as authentic and believable as I could make it.

It was also fun and interesting. I learned—and passed along—fascinating bits and pieces to my readers. I discovered things that caused me to throw out portions I thought I’d finished, in order to rewrite scenes using the new facts and realities. I think a better story was the result.

I have painstakingly researched historical facts and times for all my novels. It meant incorporating places I’d travelled to; checking historical events like the fall of Constantinople; the creation and role of the Knights Templar; the bizarre fascination Hitler and his henchmen had for the occult; the legends of King Arthur and so many other bits and pieces.

As much investigation as I did for those books, I did even more meticulous research for the Handel story.

It was critically important for me that Musick for the King be even more credible since I was writing about well-known and verifiable historical events and personalities. Ninety percent of the characters in that book were real, historical figures not fictional creations,

I had to get it all right!

My novels are fiction. Research shows respect for the reader when you are dealing with history or foreign lands. But even writing a modern-day novel, to me, demands meticulous research and fact-checking. The reader deserves nothing less.

Yes. It can be frustrating and slow. Yes, it demands attention to detail and constant revisions.

The reader deserves nothing less than your best.

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