Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Just the facts, ma’am!

by Lois Winston

Years ago I made a huge geographical error in Talk Gertie to Me, my first published novel. Even though the manuscript had been read by members of my critique group, my agent, my acquiring editor, and the line and copy editors at the publishing house, no one caught the fact that I’d set the Mississippi River on the wrong side of Iowa. It took a reader to point the error out to me within weeks of the book’s release.

His comment came as a shock because I really do remember pulling the Atlas off my bookshelf and checking the location of the river. This was before Google Maps, and unfortunately, the Atlas was small, and my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, thanks to so many hours each day staring at a computer screen. The font was way too small to read. I saw a line bisecting the map of the United States and running down into the Gulf of Mexico. I assumed it was the Mississippi. It wasn’t. I should have noticed that what I thought was the river didn’t come anywhere near the state of Mississippi. I was mortified that I’d made such a dumb mistake and upset that no one had caught it before the book went to press.

Ever since then, I’ve checked and double-checked all the facts and every piece of research I do for my books, especially when it comes to geography. Since that first published book (which has since been corrected for the e-book release,) I’ve also had the good fortune to work with editors who took their responsibilities more seriously and always double-check my research. Readers notice when you make mistakes, and they let you know about them. Few things are more disheartening than receiving an email from a reader who points out you need a remedial course in geography!

However, I’ve come to realize that novel authors are held to a much higher standard than scriptwriters, who apparently have even less of a grasp on geography than I do. Over the past few years I’ve come across countless geographical errors in television shows.

The first time I became aware of this was watching House. That show was set in the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Medical Center in New Jersey. I live in New Jersey. I know the Princeton and Plainsboro areas. And I know that no one would ever hop a plane to get from there to Baltimore for a conference, as House and Stacy did in one episode. It’s only a 2-1/2 hour drive. When you consider the distance to either the Philadelphia or Newark airport and the time needed to get through security, you could be in Baltimore before the plane took off. Why didn’t the writers know this? Unlike me, they certainly had Google Maps available to them at the time.

If you’re going to set a story in a location you don’t know well or even at all, you need to learn about the area. Yet time and again I see television shows where the writers don’t even bother to check out the basics. I recently watched an episode of a show set in Philadelphia. The series, now cancelled, was actually filmed in Rhode Island, and maybe that’s the problem because except for some of the establishing shots in the opening credits and some scenes that take place in the suburbs, there’s nothing remotely similar to Philadelphia in the show’s exterior scenes.

In the last episode of the show, they gave a location where a witness could be found. The two streets they mentioned don’t intersect; they’re actually the same street, the name changing after the street crosses over into another county. On top of that, the area is quite urban, and the show portrayed the home as a quaint cape cod on a bucolic street. I went to college a block from that supposed location. Trust me, there’s nothing bucolic about it!

In that same episode, the camera zooms in on a piece of paper with the protagonist’s address. The writers have her living on 14th Street. The problem, though, is that there is no 14th Street in Philadelphia. What should be 14th Street is called Broad Street. It’s the main intersection that runs the length of the city. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the City of Brotherly Love would be aware of this. Apparently, the show’s writers never took a field trip to the city where they were setting their show.

Someone pointed out to me that perhaps the writers did this deliberately so as not to show an actual address. If that were the case, they could have simply given the building a number that didn’t exist. Few people would be aware of that, but many people know there’s no 14th Street in Philadelphia.

Little things like this bother me. They pull me from the story. So I completely understand why that reader years ago was annoyed that I’d placed the Mississippi on the wrong end of his state. I learned my lesson and work hard not to make mistakes in my books. Maybe scriptwriters don’t have the luxury of time to research carefully, or maybe they figure viewers won’t notice or care. Probably most TV viewers don’t unless they happen to live in the city or state where the story takes place.

Do errors like this in books, movies, and television shows bother you, or am I being too picky? Do they pull you from the story? Do you continue to read authors or watch shows that make mistakes because the story or characters are so intriguing, or do you give up and move on to other authors and shows?
Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Lois is also published in women’s fiction, romance, romantic suspense, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. In addition, she’s an award-winning crafts and needlework designer and an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Visit Lois at, visit Emma at, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers character blog,


Anonymous said...

I grew up in Seattle where there are many native tribal names of cities, rivers, etc. I hate to listen to BOT and hear them mispronounced. Best, Ann

Suzie Tullett said...

Anything historical and I'd have to research and research again... history is so not my subject! When it comes to places, I always do a field trip. Like you, I'd hate to think I'd gotten something wrong x

Kathleen Kaska said...

Enjoyed your post. The same thing happened to me in one of my mysteries. It involved food. A fellow writer pointed out that the food item I'd mentioned was not label as such until two years later. My stories are set in the early 1950s. I'd checked all other products, clothing, cigarettes, songs, etc, but this one slipped by me and all my readers.
I also just read a new book by a very, very famous, successful author whose name I won't mention. He mentioned a hurricane that occurred in 1971; I knew first hand, living on the Texas coast, that that particular hurricane hit in 1961, the same year my sister was born. She has the same name as the hurricane, although she wasn't named after the storm.
I also remember watching the TV show Dallas. In one episode the writers had someone driving north from Austin to Dallas. One the way, they drove through San Antonio, which is south of Austin.

F. D. Davis said...


Being a nurse medical mistakes bother me. But the rest of it I give writers or books, movies and television a wide berth. Literary license, I'm all for it. I use it all the time.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ann, Suzie, Kathleen, and F.D.

Kathleen and Suzie, that's why I don't write historical fiction. It's hard enough getting everything right when you're writing contemporary.

F.D., I think it's a matter of a reader's own knowledge. Medical mistakes bother you because you know better. Readers without your background probably wouldn't even know a mistake had been made, just as I wouldn't have known mistakes had been made in both TV shows if I didn't live in the areas where the shows were set.

Rayne said...

Lois, this is very interesting. Yes, errors is books, movies or TV shows bother the daylight out of me. As do typos and grammatical errors. One of the latter that gives me the screaming willies,something journalists and the man in the street is guilty of is taking about he/she as "that." It's like chalk on blackboard when I hear "she that said," when it should be "she who said."
For most things I tend to look at these errors as artistic license. It's too bad it happens, but we're humans first, writers second. It's human to err so give yourself a pat on the back for having tried your best.

Nicholas Genovese said...

I read Talk Gertie to me when it first came out and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I must say that I did not notice the Mississippi River error when I read the book, probably because I don't live near the location. I live in New Orleans where the Mississippi River passes right through the city.

Unknown said...

One of my bigger pet peeves since I write historical fiction/romance and work very hard to make sure things are accurate.

First pet peeve: the use of the word "okay" in Britain prior to 1940. If the character using it is an American, I cut 'em some slack because it was sorta used in some areas prior to the Civil War.

Second pet peeve: As an L&D nurse in a previous life (with ICU experience), I notice medical stuff. I can't quibble with period specific remedies but things like the mechanics of pregnancy, labor, and delivery haven't changed since the dawn of time. And if I see another author tell me an opiate addict has dilated pupils I think I shall scream.

Assorted pet peeves: Having someone riding a stallion and three pages later the same person, on the same journey is riding a gelding. Telling me Scotland Yard is involved prior to 1829.

Thank you, I shall step down off the soapbox now.

Lois Winston said...

Rayne, I think we all have our pet peeves when it comes to grammar. Mine is people who use the nominative case in prepositional phrases. They'll say, "between you and I" instead of "between you and me," thinking it makes them sound more intelligent when it actually does the opposite.

Nick, thanks for loving Gertie! Have you read the sequel, ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR GERTIE? It's a mystery novella.

Laura, a few years ago I learned that Thomas Edison actually coined the word "hello" to annoy the hell out of Alexander Graham Bell when the two were working on the invention of the telephone. Bell was very religious, and Edison was anything but. So now whenever I read an historical novel where one of the characters says, "Hello," I know the author hasn't done her research.

Unknown said...

As a long-time crazy dog lady (showing, breeding, rescuing, judging, yada yada) & animal writer, I always cringe at errors having to do with animals, especially the ones that are SO easy to check. Geography & setting, too - I recall a mystery supposedly set near Reno, NV, in which a character fell into cactus in a canyon. Not. We can't know everything, but we can use Google, books(!!), and experts of various kinds to check. Example - in Drop Dead on Recall, I had a character use an epi pen - incorrectly. But I sent the passage to a friend who is an M.D. and she straightened me out.

Good post!

Lois Winston said...

Sheila, one of the problems I've found is that sometimes you think you've researched something correctly, only to find out later that you didn't. Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation on the Internet as well as useful information. Just because something comes up as a top hit, doesn't mean it's accurate information on a subject, and we're often at a loss to know figure out what to believe and what not to believe.

Same is true for books. I was once contemplating a new drug therapy and bought a book written by a well-respecte doctor to learn more about the drug. Later I learned he'd skewed the research to obtain the results he wanted.

Holli Castillo said...

I only write about places I know intimately, and sometimes I still make mistakes. I live in and write about New Orleans, and the errors in the different areas of town seen in movies is appalling, as is the way t.v. and movies portray our dialect. I can always tell when a writer isn't from here because of the nuances someone wouldn't get from researching, but only N.O. people would get them. If I read something about any other region, I don't notice those types of errors unless they are glaring or someone points it out to me. I know I would not have caught the geography error you mention, so don't be too hard on yourself.

Unknown said...

I think everyne knows that THE GRADUATE had Hoffman driving east on the upper deck of the Golden Gate Bridge which was not possible. I lived in San Francisco for 25 years, and a recently published romance novel has a couple drive up to Napa to take a hot air balloon ride that afternoon. No way. To do that we had to rise at six a.m., be at the site by seven and it was all over before noon. Plus Google has articles with details. And let's not even talk about spelling and grammar mistakes in books. Yipes!

Lois Winston said...

Yes, that was a huge goof in The Graduate!

DirtyMartini said...

I agree with you about factual errors in fiction, and I've seen my share...I think the author's credibility suffers when they make factual errors, and nowadays it's so simple to verify things with a couple of mouse clicks...and btw, I've caught factual errors not just in fiction, but even is so-called "respectable" publications like The Wall Street Journal, who happened to write about somebody I knew a number of years ago...

And yeah, I've been guilty myself...a few years back I wrote a story set in 1980, and a character answered the phone by saying "What up?"...well, as we all know, people didn't talk like that back then...if I could go back and add an apostrophe, and a "S" the world would be right again...but, I'll never hear the end of it...


E. F. Watkins said...

Laura, regarding the character who started out riding a stallion that later was described as a gelding...could the horse have had a quickie operation en route??
Horse mistakes also drive me nuts, as when I read a book where a cowboy character was riding a two-year-old filly out on a long trek. Only thoroughbred racehorses are ridden that young -- and he wasn't likely to be on one of those -- because other breeds aren't physically mature enough at that age to carry a rider. I also love it when the writer tries to impress us with how brave a character is by putting him or her on a riding horse that's, say, 19 hands tall--which would be more like an elephant!

Lois Winston said...

Alan, it's not always as simple as a few mouse clicks. The Internet is full of misinformation. Wikipedia is a prime culprit. You can't assume that everything you read on the Internet is factual.

E.F., you gave me a good laugh with your suggestion of a horse operation en route!

ElaineCharton said...

Only if it is something that really pulls me out of the story. I had a similar situation to what you went through,also with my first book. I had a scene set in the middle of February in Boston, a town I grew up in and lived for 32 years. I had a bedroom window wide open in a child's room. This has been thru critique group multiple times, two of us grew up in New England. It also had at least 2 sets of edits before being published. It was a reviewer who picked up on it. Luckily she emailed me privately to point out the error.

r13webb said...

I can usually forgive most geographical errors, especially street names - what I'm reading is supposed to be fiction, after all. Some errors almost completely ruin an author for me, though, such as one park ranger who called a turtle an amphibian.

Phyllis Humphrey said...

How embarrassing! in commenting on factual errors in fiction, I wrote that it's impossible to go East on the upper deck of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, the GGB has no upper deck. I meant the Bay Bridge. Sorry.