Three Reasons Why Writers Need To Get Their Facts Right (or Wrong)

by Wendy A.M. Prosser on Sunday 26 February 2012

Pataskala Public Library

One of my resolutions for this year was to read for at least one hour every day. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot more than I used to since I got my lovely Kindle, so adding this to my daily schedule hasn’t been too onerous a task. I don’t think I’ll ever be a fast reader (my Goodreads 2012 Reading Challenge is a measly 30 books), but I’m enjoying getting acquainted with a bunch of authors I would never have encountered otherwise, and – as everyone swears – the more you read, the better your writing.

The latest addition to my novel count is The Istanbul Puzzle by Laurence O’Bryan,* a conspiracy thriller that has certainly made me think about a potential writing pitfall, and even how to avoid it.

1) Get your facts right to create a compelling atmosphere
Reviews of The Istanbul Puzzle almost unanimously praise the author’s depiction of Turkey’s largest city, the main setting for the novel’s action. It’s clear that O’Bryan knows the place like the back of his hand, and what he doesn’t know, he can invent convincingly on the foundation of that knowledge. I, too, enjoyed the scene-setting, which was full of fascinating detail and – when the story took a darker turn – genuinely creepy. I’ve never been to Istanbul, but I now have a great idea of what I might find there (and what I would rather avoid) should I do so. (Rather oddly, the book concludes with a brief visitors’ guide to the city, including hotel and restaurant recommendations and even the opening times of tourist attractions – a great sell!)

2) Get your facts wrong on purpose to create character
This doesn’t relate directly to The Istanbul Puzzle, but occurred to me when I was thinking about point no. 3, which is…

3) Don’t get your facts just plain wrong
In his acknowledgements, Mr O’Bryan thanks the experts he consulted for their help with the historical and archaeological details of his settings. If only he had consulted a doctor or scientist, too! I don’t think I’ll give away much of the plot by saying that the author clearly doesn’t know the difference between viruses and bacteria, or that viruses never respond to antibiotics. When I read these “facts”, I was immediately jerked out of the compelling, beautifully crafted world he had worked so hard to create. If the faulty information had been delivered by some random layperson who would likely not know how antibiotics work, that wouldn’t have been an issue. Indeed, what characters don’t know defines them just as much as what they do (hence point no. 2). But in this case, the virus/bacterium error was in the head of a character who should have known better, and when I came across it, I was joltingly reminded that I was only reading a story.

Of course, I only noticed the problem because I have a background in biology, and in my “day job” as an copyeditor I’m paid to spot such mistakes. But slips like this can make readers wonder what other facts might wrong.

Don’t get me wrong – The Istanbul Puzzle was a great read with characters I cared about and a thrilling plot. It just happens to also be a handy example of how, with so much information so readily available to writers these days, there really is no excuse not to check your facts when describing real places, people, events – or even science!

*The cover image reproduced here is a link to my Amazon Affiliates account, which means that if you should purchase the book through the link, a teeny percentage of the price will go towards supporting this blog. You will pay no extra, of course, and Mr O’Bryan won’t lose out either. Just Amazon. Promise

Image ©Kenn W. Kiser


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