People who’ve never written a book before may have romantic ideas about how the process works: you sit at an antique desk in a serene space flooded with natural light; you sip a cup of herbal tea; you ruminate a bit, gazing off into the middle distance with just the hint of a smile on your lips; and then the ideas pour out of you in a cascade of creativity so bountiful, someone should really bottle the stuff.
Now let’s talk about how my writing process goes. Substitute a fluorescent bulb for sunbeams, a scarily unergonomic IKEA desk for the wooden rolltop, and a vodka rocks for the teacup, and you’re getting warmer. That’s on a good day, of course. On a bad day, you’d also need to replace the at-best-intermittent clickety-clack of my keyboard with an image of me staring gloomily at some obscure web page about native trees in state parks, or 1960s commercial architecture in Austin, or pictures of small-town high-school football players.
Why the long face? I blame fact-checking, an arduous but essential responsibility for any writer who wants to be taken seriously.
At its core, fact-checking is an interesting study in mind over matter, as it calls into question what our brains have been conditioned to think is correct versus what actually is correct. Here’s a quick example: “dumpster.” Looks okay, right? Makes you think of a big metal bin where people deposit their trash, and then you move on down the page to other, more pleasant visuals. But hold up—you just made your first fact-checking error, because “Dumpster” is actually a trademark and therefore must begin with a capital “D.” How about “laundromat”? How about “jacuzzi”? How about no? Both of these are trademarks, too—so if you ever find yourself in a jam and need to use your Jacuzzi as a Laundromat, at least you can congratulate yourself for knowing how to properly capitalize these terms when you’re stuck in the hospital with staph.
This kind of minor formatting consideration is only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to fact-checking, though. Once you get in the habit of doing it, you’ll realize just how many seemingly insignificant details need a thorough once-over. There’s a reason why good magazines and newspapers have full-time staffers devoted to this pursuit, and why I, as an editor, have to be vigilant about confirming the accuracy of each special term and proper noun and time frame and statistic and report title I come across while I’m reviewing a book manuscript—even when I’m fairly confident I already know the answer, and even when it feels like drudgery.
When I’m working on my own book, I admit I find it tempting just to let my imagination run wild and make up a bunch of stuff to support my plot and my characters, but my novel is about a very specific time frame and place: South Texas in the 1940s through ’70s—a setting in which I’ve never lived. Therefore, I have a responsibility, both to my aspiring-author self and to prospective agents and publishers, to ground my fictional narrative in a geographically, temporally, and culturally precise setting.
Let’s look at one brief scene in chapter 34 of my book, in which we encounter my male protagonist lying on his bed, flipping through the latest issue of National Geographic. If I also tell you that it’s January, the middle of this boy’s senior year of high school, and that he was born in July 1949, what would your fact-checking radar home in on in this scenario?
Well, you’ll need to start by doing some basic math. The boy will have turned eighteen over the summer before he started senior year, so that means this wintertime interlude takes place in January 1968. Monthly magazines’ printed publication date is typically the month after they’re mailed, so this particular National Geographic would be the February 1968 issue. That means it’s time to go to Google Images to search for jpegs of back-issue Nat Geo covers. Aha! February ’68 features a great white shark, accompanied by the headline “Sharks: Wolves of the Sea.” Now you’re getting somewhere. But, of course, this character is reading the magazine, not just looking at its cover, so now you’ll need to revisit Google Images to find more jpegs of the interior of this issue, whereupon you’ll discover the byline of a Nathaniel T. Kenney, author of the cover story, and select a tiny excerpt from his article for my character to be reading at the instant when the reader comes upon him.
See how easy it is to tumble down the rabbit hole?
In a later chapter of my book, this same magazine buff moves to Austin. It’s July 1968 when he arrives in the city by bus. This is another outwardly innocuous event, but in reality one that requires a surprising amount of research. For starters, I had to find out the name of the bus depot in downtown Austin that year: the Continental station. Then I looked at pictures of the Texas State Capitol building for a while, since my character has a great view of it as his bus pulls in. To understand exactly what he’s seeing, I first had to understand that the Texas State Capitol is 308 feet tall, so its dome (made of a special “Sunset Red” granite, which I also looked up) would have towered over the surrounding skyline at the time. When I discovered that the dome is topped by a statue of the goddess of liberty holding a lone star, I knew I’d struck upon something for my protagonist’s girlfriend to ooh and aah over as she looks out the bus window, and something that could double as a symbol of hope for these two characters as they begin an exciting new chapter of life. And that’s all before the guy who picks them up at the depot takes them on a seven-minute drive that leads me into yet another minefield of fact-checking legwork.
For some, this kind of information gathering is satisfying, like a treasure hunt, and I get that—I’m nothing if not detail-oriented, and I can’t stand sloppiness in any form, especially narrative. But sometimes all I want to do is create my own version of a “Once upon a time…” story—and I’m pretty sure the Brothers Grimm didn’t have a fact-checking department to investigate whether the windowpanes of the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” were made of raw or refined sugar. Then again, maybe that’s just because Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet.