The title of this blog post may sound a bit like an oxymoron – how can fiction be fact?
I recently edited a manuscript where the character was sunbathing on a sunny winter’s day and got sunburnt. I happen to have grown up in the area where the novel was set, so I knew that there is no way I would be outside in my bathing suit in winter – even on a sunny day – and there is also no way I would get sunburnt if I was.
This is probably not the most serious of errors, but it did do what a writer doesn’t want their reader to do: take me out of the story and wonder about the other facts.
What if the error was more obvious? For example, the teenager in the book used her mobile phone… in 1985? Or that the book was based on an event that happened in 1985 which didn’t actually happen until 1988?
It would be easy to assume that the small details don’t matter, as most readers of your book wouldn’t know whether, for example, a particular village is on the north or south bank of the river, or whether the tool the character is using is the correct one for the job. But for the one or two readers who may have grown up near that village, or knows about tools, it will throw them out of the story, and worse, annoy them so they don’t want to continue reading.
But even if your setting is completely fictional, you can’t make up anything you like. There still needs to be an element of believability; your characters should be set against a backdrop of reality.
What to check
This is not a time to go with your gut. Your gut may be wrong. Check it!
Who is responsible for checking the facts?
When self-publishing, it is first the writer’s responsibility to check facts. This is also in the writer’s interest – no one wants to rewrite large portions of their book in order to accommodate a change in a fact picked up at a later stage. Researching and fact checking is an important part of the writing process, and ultimately the responsibility of the factual correctness of the book rests with the writer.
Copy-editors are not responsible for the factual correctness of a manuscript. However, a copy-editor may do some basic fact-checking as part of their service of names, places and other easily checked facts. If an error is found, the copy-editor may mark that it needs to be checked (and they may make a suggestion of what to change it to), but it is up to the author to check and correct. Copy-editors are not experts in all areas and will not always know if a tool is being used incorrectly or the local policeman’s uniform should have been black, not blue. So unless it is part of the agreement, and is included in the budget, then copy-editors assume that the author has already carried out a thorough check of the facts.
If you are publishing through a traditional publisher, then fact checking is important before it goes to the publisher. Fact checking has not always been standard practice with publishers (though some publishers may do it).
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. Her business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers, whether business, or non-fiction or fiction books. For more information or enquiries, please see her website: www.clearlingo.co.nz.
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