Check Your Facts, Ma’am

A mystery writer must be sure of all the facts of her story. Not only must she be attentive to the elements of the plot—timeline of the murder, alibis, physical traits of the characters—but every piece of information included in her manuscript must be checked for accuracy.

And I do mean every bit of information. I learned this during the second round of edits for Murder, by George. There was a line in the manuscript about azalea bushes planted over pachysandra. In the margin beside the passage Five Star editor Tracey Matthews placed this comment: Technically, the bushes would be planted IN the bed of pachysandra. With a couple of keyboard strokes and mouse clicks, the azaleas were properly planted.

I told this story when I met with my local library’s mystery reading group in September. That prompted one of the women to mention a moment in All Things Murder, when Veronica is shucking corn. I wrote that she was peeling a stalk. “Wouldn’t it be an ear of corn?” the woman asked. There was a minute’s discussion on corn husks, cobs, and silk before the conversation moved to another topic. The woman was correct; I should have written Veronica was shucking an ear of corn and not the whole stem, which would have been removed before Veronica laid her hands on it at the farmstand. Why I wrote “stalk” I do not know; it must have been in my head for a long time and I thought it was the right description. I was wrong and learned the lesson that fact-checking extends to everything, even information of which I’m certain.

Sometimes my research leads to conflicting information. When I wanted to describe a character as doe-eyed, I thought I should verify my understanding of doe-eyes. It was confirmed: innocent and wide-eyed. However, on a couple of other websites I read the doe-eyed look is usually reserved for people with brown eyes. Really? So anyone can be green-eyed with envy, but only those folks with the most common iris color can be doe-eyed? I ended up ditching the doe-eyed description in protest of the unfairness of it all.

I’ve learned I must also check the facts in the quips and jokes I sprinkle in a manuscript. When I asked my friend Charles to read my latest work, he went above and beyond the call of duty and checked several details in the manuscript. Or I should say proofed. In one passage, Veronica gripes she is going to need a stronger alcoholic beverage than her usual Seven and Seven after meeting with two characters. I didn’t check the proof of her new drink because I thought I was certain it was more potent (based on my observations at family gatherings) than her usual mixed beverage. Charles calculated the proof on both drinks and gave me a thumbs up. Thank you, Charles!

I could go on about ad hominems, evergreen trees, and profit versus revenue, but I’ve taken up enough of your day. I’ll just leave you with this: when you’re not in doubt, check the facts anyway.

Have a great week!

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