Dont Assume You Know Look It Up

All of us go through life assuming we understand some things that we really don't. You may think you know how to change a tire, but until you've had to do it on the side of a narrow road in a driving rainstorm, you can't be sure. Similarly, you may think you know all about some factual material that you're putting in your story, but-again -maybe you really don't.

"Gee, but I want to write fiction so I don't have to mess with facts!" you may say.

Nope. Wrong motivation. If you get a fact wrong in your story, somebody is going to notice it. Maybe the editor considering your story-maybe a thousand readers who notice it and complain to your editor after the yarn is published.

In either case, the end result will be similar to what can happen when you don't know how to change a tire beside the road: you might end up feeling like you've been run over by a truck.

Take it from one who learned the hard way. Once, long ago, in the earliest days of my writing career, I was writing a western novel. I gave my cowboy a Colt single-action revolver, a "Peacemaker" model, which he referred to as a thumb-buster.

The novel was set in 1868.

The Colt single-action model I described was not patented until 1872.

My editor missed it. You should have seen some of the irate letters I got from western history buffs -some of whom probably never bought another novel written by me.

An error of fact can not only make you look foolish. It can destroy your readership and your relationship with an editor. You simply cannot guess or assume you know. Even when you are 99 percent sure, look it up\

In one of my writing classes, I hand out a sheet with actions listed, and ask the students to tell me what would happen immediately following each action I've listed, stimulus-response fashion. One of the actions reads as follows:

He shoved the throttle of the plane to the fire wall.

Now, I ask them, what happens next?

Some blithely assume that a throttle on an airplane works like a throttle control on a tractor, or as it did on old automobiles, i. e., that pushing the throttle in will cut the engine to idle. (They may not know what the fire wall is, either, but they usually guess correctly that that's an airplane term for the instrument panel. ) Anyway, not asking me for factual input, they guess-and write something like: The plane's engine slowed.

Which would make the plane slow down if on the roll, or its nose dip sharply if it was in the air.

Unfortunately, that's 100 percent wrong. When you shove the throttle forward on a plane, you speed the engine. What would happen (assuming the engine was running and it didn't backfire or something awful): The engine roared to full power.

Which would make the plane start rolling or speed up if already rolling on the ground, or its nose rise and/or speed increase if in the air.

So guessing in this case-trusting to analogous experience-often leads careless student-takers of this exercise to put down absolutely the opposite of what is accurate. And if you put something dumb like this in your story, you can be sure a lot of people will notice the error, think it's dumb, and assume everything else in the story might be wrong, too. And there goes your readership, and maybe your future as a writer.

Even if factual errors weren't this dangerous, you ought to have more professional pride than to guess. Few people live out of range of a public library. Most librarians will bend over backwards to help you research a point; the harder the search, the more they're likely to get challenged and work with you. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Research can be fun. It's necessary. And-although until you experience this you may find it hard to believe-it can help you come up with lots of great new plot and character ideas.

Here's an example. Once, while writing a novel called The Winemakers, I made several trips to California for firsthand interviews and on-site research in the Napa Valley. During my writing of the third draft of the book, I went back once more to interview a particularly colorful vintner I had missed on earlier visits. At the same time, in the back of my mind was the fact that I wasn't satisfied with the opening of my novel; it lacked tension.

Touring the winemaker's facility, I walked with him behind some large stainless steel tanks where white wine was being fermented at a cool temperature. There were electrical cables on the floor, and the owner cautioned me to step over them carefully. "Those go to a computer that baby-sits the wine and controls the cooling", he told me. "If those get pulled out, we could be in real trouble. "

Bingo! Instantly-because I was there researching something else entirely-I had the opening of the novel as it was later published: a scene where a winemaker enters the winery early one morning, and finds that a saboteur has pulled out the wires.

As you continue your writing career, you may find that there are books or maps or whatever that you go back to again and again. You may decide to begin building a modest research library. Mine includes a huge book of maps of countries around the world; many Michelin and Fodor's travel guides; gun catalogues and blueprints; everything I've ever seen on the KGB, CIA, FBI and similar organizations; two encyclopedias of world history; a guide to popular songs, plays, movies and books on a year-by-year basis since early in the century, and many others. Your needs may be radically different. Whatever they may be, and whether you build your own little library or not, never guess. Take the time to look it up!

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