It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

You don’t know… what you just went and looked up


There’s an excellent review of Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey on Martin McGrath’s blog here. Of Blood and Honey is an urban fantasy set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and it’s been widely praised. Martin finds much that’s troubling in the book regarding its setting – details which ring untrue to someone who grew up in the time and place in question.

And then there’s the Hugo Award-winning Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis, whose claim of historical accuracy has been met with howls of derision on this side of the Atlantic. Not to mention the historical blunders perpetrated in earlier novels, such as those in Doomsday Book outlined by Adam Roberts here.

How much trouble would it have taken Stina Leicht to discover that the Royal Military Police wear red berets – and not the Parachute Regiment, who wear maroon berets? Or that the British Army has never been referred to as the “BA” by anyone? BA is an airline, of course; and it was founded in 1974, three years before the time during which Of Blood and Honey is set.

How much trouble would it have taken Connie Willis to discover that the Jubilee Line of the London Underground was opened in 1977, in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, and so wouldn’t have existed during World War 2? Or that people burned wood and not coal in their fires in 14th Century England? Or that no one has used the phrase “trunk call” in the UK since the 1970s?

True, most readers will either miss these errors, or let them slide. Providing the mistakes don’t pull them out of the story, many readers don’t much care. But there are those who will notice – and they will not only be unimpressed, they might be also be offended.

Without drifting into a discussion on cultural appropriation or First World Gaze (to coin a phrase), I believe a writer has a responsibility to their readers, and to themselves, to get the details right. Writers need to strive for verisimilitude (not authenticity). Research is vital in all areas – not just setting, but also science; technology; language… Anything which exists in the real world and which affects the story in any way, no matter how seemingly trivial.

In these days of the Internet, there’s no excuse. Readers can go and look something up online – and frequently do. Wikipedia has made expert knowledge available and convenient for everyone. Writers should not only be prepared for that, they should armour their writing against it. The old days of genre writers getting away with the most egregious bollocks because they didn’t know better, because their readers were unlikely to know better… they’re over. There is no excuse for sloppiness. Writers must fact-check. Everything.

Because they’ll look very, very foolish if they don’t.

12 thoughts on “You don’t know… what you just went and looked up

  1. Unfortunately, so will their line editors who let such things slip through in the first place.

  2. Sadly, Ian, I can’t disagree with any of that. The only caveat I’d add is that good as it is for getting you into the right ball park your research has to go beyond Wikipedia, but we all know that, right?

    Oh, and you’ve got variant spellings of Stina Leicht’s name in the first and third paragraph. I recommend researching the correct spelling!

  3. Absolutely right, Ian. I get narked when film-makers get things wrong in terms of trains, etc. when these are 100% CGI constructs, such as the RAF using the wrong type of helicopter in ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, or basing most of the locomotivess in ‘Hugo’ on German engines made, for some reason, to look Swiss in a film set in 1930s Paris. Perhaps that’s just my inner nerd talking, but that is a voice that needs listening to.

    But – but – there is another point to this. Sadly, i suspect that there is something of a cultural bias in all of us. US writers will tend to look up US or US-based sites; British writers British sites. And don’t begin to think about non-English language sources. Last year, I was doing some research for a video shooting script and it required some details on sugar beet railways in Poland. I don’t have any Polish, and didn’t know anyone with Polish language skills I could contact quickly. The English-language sites I was able to find were sketchy at best. Fortunately, i have an extensive research library of my own, and I was able to source English printed articles from 20 – 30 years ago (supposedly when such things were regarded by the Polish authorities as state secrets!) that, together with what I’d been able to find out on the ground whilst doing the principal photography gave me all the information I needed.

    Not only is not everything on the Internet, but of course there is the question as to whether what’s on the Internet is accurate. In ‘A fire upon the deep’, Vernor Vinge referred to ‘The Net of a Thousand Lies’, and with good reason! When I’m researching, I like to have facts verfied by at least one other source; if it can’t be so verified, I’ll use it if I have to and if it seems consistent with the rest of the body of knowledge I’ve been able to unearth, but with a degree of scepticism. Sadly, a lot of what is out there is inaccurate or incomplete.

    As for Connie Willis – well, ‘Blackout’ is still on the TBR pile, though my personal theory (supported by some asides I’ve spotted dipping into the text, though I might just be seeing what I’m looking for) is that the ‘Jubilee Line’ of the Underground in the novel exists in an alternate time-line where it was so named for the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 (as indeeed two of the main-line railways marked it in ‘our’ reality).

    • The days of the internet being characterised chiefly by “lies” are long past. These days you only hear that sort of thing from people who don’t use it and don’t understand it. Wikipedia is now known to be the most accurate encyclopedia there has ever been.

      Of course, good research protocol means not relying on a single source anyway.

      (And books are not always right anyway – see my review of Two Sides of the Moon on in which Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott wrongly attributes “if you can’t be good, be colourful” to Neil Armstrong and not Pete Conrad. Scott knew both men, but still gets it wrong.)

      AFAIK, none of Willis’ time-travel books are set in alternate histories, though I’ve heard some people claim it as a justification for her mistakes. Besides, it’s unlikely a new underground line would have been opened in 1935, as the Underground was still in the process of integrating all the separate privately-owned underground railways into the new London Transport.

  4. The trouble as always is you don’t know the things you don’t know. This week I read a book set in Dublin where they look for house number 1427, the week before i read a review of a book where a London apartments address was given in the american format. On occasion the Author has little to do with it. Consider Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the author is from England but it abounds with damaging Americanisms, I suspect many of these are the result of over enthusiastic proof readers.and removing unusual vocabulary and grammatical forms. never realising doing so crushes a thousand regional, cultural and class indicators.

    • I would hope the author gets the proofs to read as well. After the publisher’s ones have had a go I would have thought.

      • Once an american publisher decides to americanise, the Author has little say.

        • Changing words to American spellings has nothing to do with research. Perhaps they might demand some words are used with their US rather than UK meanings – it really annoys me in US TV programmes or books where Brit characters use “momentarily” to mean “in a short while” instead of “for a short while”. But the responsibility for a character speaking English correct to their origin has nothing to do with editors.

  5. I have a lot of sympathy for your post Ian.

    I think some of the biggest, most memorable, errors that I’ve seen lately occur in TV. For example. If you watched Series 2* of Heroes it has a section set in Cork. I don’t know how many Americans have been to Cork but the howlers in those episodes were so funny I had to get my Irish friends to watch:

    Cork has a massive (USA style) cargo port. It does have a port but it’s really not miles and miles of shipping containers.
    All pubs are owned by “ba gosh and begorra” Irish crooks – (who might be IRA)… in Cork. Though this might be more believable if we were talking about the taxi drivers.
    When the police turn up – they are all armed. I don’t recall seeing very many armed cops in Cork.

    I could go on – it was genuinely hilarious.

    *(I don’t like the American ‘season’)

    • They’ve been showing Murder, She Wrote on ITV3 and I’ve sort of got hooked on it. It’s astonishing how little research the programme makers bothered doing. They get everything wrong. If the episode is about a boardroom battle, they clearly have no idea how companies work. And every small town in the US has exactly the same corner sheriff’s office.

      • Murder, She Wrote has a famous Irish episode as well.

        There’s one time that I remember seeing an apology from an author and thinking that his error didn’t bother me. Ken McLeod put up on his blog that he got a couple of locations wrong in The Restoration Game. Nothing major, just a couple of mislabelled streets and he put a theatre in the wrong place. None of this was important to the story. The one thing that did bother me (and honestly he’s not the only writer from Edinburgh to get this wrong…) was his depiction of the Rock/Goth scene. It’s not that cool. It really isn’t peopled by folk that interesting… those sentences in that book really ground my gears. But still, it’s such a great book that I got over it.

        I think what really irritates me in stories is that if you claim any sort of accuracy then you need to get it right. If the publisher’s marketing department is going to promote your library skills then you need to back it up by putting in the time. It’s really important in Non and Historical Fiction (or stories that feature it’s elements).

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