Don’t Let Facts Stand In Your Way
There’s a saying in the newspaper industry: don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story. (I always thought it was ironic but maybe that explains why I never made it to the top of the profession.)
However, it’s not just newspapers that sometimes skimp on details like facts – film makers often do it too. Continuity errors are an obvious example. Go online and you can find hundreds of examples – such as the plane in Terminator 3 where the fuselage number changes between shots.
Mistakes like this are common but sometimes the clangers aren’t just down to bad editing/directing but due to insufficient or careless research.
Anyone remember the last Indiana Jones film? (Not the most memorable movie ever made). It’s supposed to be set in the 1950s yet the motorbike being ridden by Indiana’s sidekick is a modern Harley complete with a hydraulic disc brake and the wrong kind of engine for the period.
It’s easy to laugh at films that cock up basic details but some authors play fast and loose with the facts too. The Daily Telegraph ran a great article back in 2009 listing 50 factual errors in Dan Brown’s books. These range from his character Robert Langdon asserting that the Christian communion – eating the body of their god – is taken from the Aztecs to his ‘fact’ that Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, lies “precisely on the north-south meridian that runs through Glastonbury”.
Sadly, these and 48 other details are just plain wrong. The truth is Christians have celebrated communion since at least the 13th Century whereas European explorers didn’t encounter the Aztecs until the 15th Century. Rosslyn Chapel’s longitude is 3:07:13 west, while Glastonbury Tor is 2:42:05 west.
Obviously, petty little points like this haven’t stopped Dan Brown selling quite a lot of books. But it’s one of the reasons quite a lot of people don’t have that high a respect for his work.
And for literary small fry like me getting facts right is important – I can’t afford to have readers laughing at my research. Which is why I was very grateful to my editor Cathy’s eagle eyes while working on a revision of The Vault. She noticed that I’d referred to London Underground tickets as yellow slips of cardboard whereas they’re pink.
She also spotted that the back story of one of my characters referred to him having two fingers chopped off when he was nine but being given a piano for his tenth birthday… Well, hey, I just thought it would be character-building – help him get over his disability! (Okay. I forgot.)
I’ve spotted a few glaring mistakes by other indie writers in recent times. There was a young US author who had her characters use a boat to get from Dublin to Madrid. Well, I’d concede you could go part way but there’s certainly not a harbour in landlocked Madrid!
More recently I read a novel about a degenerate rock band on their first US tour. The drugged-up lead singer pours brandy over an MTV interviewer, threatens him with a lighter, and then douses the couch with more brandy and sets it on fire. Nice bit of drama, right?
Trouble is, anyone who’s ever tried lighting a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding will know it just wouldn’t work! Brandy is 40% alcohol and needs to be heated to almost boiling point before it will ignite. You can pour brandy over me, wave a lighter about and the only thing I’ll be upset about is the waste of brandy!
Facts – they’re troublesome little beasts but unless you’re either Dan Brown or don’t care what your readers think of you, you need to get ’em right if you want your book to be convincing!