Facts in Fiction

Why fiction authors should get the facts straight in their writing.

The vast majority of people who want to be writers want to write fiction. While I don’t have the statistical sources to back up that claim, I don’t think anyone can deny it. There’s something about writing fiction that really appeals to people who want to write — including me. The only reason I don’t write fiction for publication is that I found that I could make a good living writing non-fiction. Making a living as a writer is more important to me than writing fiction.

With all that said, what many fiction writers don’t understand is the importance of getting their facts straight in what they write.

How Deep is Your Fictional World?

When you write fiction, you build a fictional world. The depth of your world — how similar it is to the real world — can vary.

Suppose, for example, that you’re writing a science fiction adventure that takes place on a distant planet that isn’t even very Earth-like. You’re making up the setting and all that goes with it. Is the sky on your planet pink? Are there four suns? Do the people have eyes where our mouths are and four arms instead of two? You’re making everything up. Your world may have nothing in common with the real world. You have license to make everything up as you go along.

Now suppose you’re writing a thriller that takes place in a Wall Street banking firm (if any are left). Wall Street is a real place in a real city. You’re not making any of that up. You might make up the firm and its customers. You’ll probably make up the characters and plot. But you’re still constrained by what’s real in your world. In New York, taxis are yellow and police cars are blue and white. (At least they were the last time I was there.) Wall Street is in Lower Manhattan and it’s crossed by Broadway. If you change any of these facts — or don’t get them straight — you’re making an error. (Of course, you could cheat by setting the plot in the distant future, thus adding a SciFi element to it. But do you really want to do that if it’s not part of the story?)

In many cases, you can ensure the accuracy of the facts in a piece of fiction by a lot of Googling or perhaps even a visit to Wikipedia. Other times, you need better resources — possibly even an “expert.”

I bring this up for two reasons:

  • I was recently asked a question by a writer about how a helicopter works. He wanted to get his facts straight.
  • I am repeatedly distracted by errors in facts in novels by authors who really should have the resources to get their facts straight.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Question from a Writer

The other day, someone posted the following comment on my post titled “How Helicopters Fly“:

I am writing a novel in which a helicopter goes out of control and starts spinning. How would a pilot pull out of a spin? Gyrating.

This is a good question — kind of. It’s good because the person who asks does not understand the technical aspects of what he wants to include as a plot point. He realizes that he lacks this knowledge and he’s actively trying to get it. Great!

Unfortunately, it’s not a question that can be easily answered — even by someone who knows what the answer might be. (And I’m really not sure why he included the single word “Gyrating” at the end of his comment. What does he mean by that?) My response to him tries to get this point across:

It really depends on how the helicopter got into that spin. Normally, the rotor pedals will stop a spin, but if the tail rotor’s gone bad (or chopped off), the pedals probably won’t help. Sometimes flying straight at a high speed can keep you from spinning with a non-functioning tail rotor.

It’s not at all like an airplane. You don’t “pull out of a spin.” You prevent yourself from getting into one; if you start to spin, you use your pedals to stop it before it gets out of control.

A better way for him to approach this problem would be to sit down with a helicopter pilot or instructor and ask him/her what might cause a helicopter to start spinning and how a pilot might recover from each cause. He can then fit one of those causes into his plot and have the pilot stop the spin.

But he shouldn’t stop there. After writing the passage concerning the spin and recovery, he should pass over those manuscript pages to a pilot and let him read them. Does it ring true? Is it feasible? Are the correct terms used? Doing this will ensure that the passage is error-free.

Errors in Best-Selling Fiction

As a writer and a helicopter pilot, I’m especially sensitive to helicopter-related errors in popular fiction. A while back, I read a Lee Child book that included scenes with a helicopter. It was full of errors. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The helicopter was in a fuel-critical situation. The author stated that it was better to be lower than higher if the helicopter ran out of fuel. (The exact opposite is true; you want to be higher if your engine quits so you have more options for autorotative landing.)
  • The helicopter pilot is killed by a character breaking his neck. The author has the helicopter pilot land on dirt before he kills him so it looks like he broke his neck when the helicopter crashed-landed when it ran out of fuel. (But the helicopter didn’t crash. It landed upright on its skids. If it had been a “crash landing” — even on its skids — the skids would have been spread and the helicopter would have had other signs of a hard landing.)

These are absolutely glaring errors to a helicopter pilot. They ruined the book for me. How could I slip into the author’s world when its connections to the real world are so screwed up? If he got this stuff so wrong, what else did he get wrong?

I found more errors like this — although admittedly not as bad — in the latest Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol. I’ll go through them in some detail in another post.

These Are Just Examples from My Real World

These are examples from my world, which includes helicopters. Maybe your world includes flying an airliner or managing an office building or designing computer security systems. Or anything that’s a lot more complex than it seems on the surface. When you read a piece of fiction and the author includes “facts” from your world as plot points — and gets them wrong — how do you feel? Doesn’t it bug you? Perhaps ruin the book for you?

The most commonly repeated advice to writers is to “Write what you know.” Although I agree with this and believe writers should start with what they know, there are often times when they have to stretch the boundaries and write a bit about what they don’t know. I believe they should make an extra effort to get the facts straight whenever they do this. And then go the final extra step in having an “expert” review the final written passages as a fact check before the book is published.

What do you think?

For the last time: NO, Obama is NOT a Muslim

Evidently, even a few folks with functioning brains believe this.

Yesterday, I was shocked and awed when someone I do business with admitted that she thinks Obama might be a Muslim.

I can’t make this stuff up.

This person, who occasionally reads this blog, might be offended by my “How Stupid Are We?” post, where I pretty much said that anyone who believes lies like this is stupid. I hate to offend people I like, so I’m writing this post. I don’t think she’s stupid. I think she’s just fallen into the Web of lies and innuendo woven by the conservatives who want to keep Republicans — even if it means John McCain — in power.

So I’ll say something here that I never thought I’d have to say. (Frankly, I thought my readers were smart and well-informed enough for me to skip a statement of the obvious.)

Obama is not a Muslim.

The whole “Obama is a Muslim” rumor can be traced back to Andy Martin. You can read all about it in — dare I suggest it? — the New York Times: “The Man Behind the Whispers About Obama.” Here’s an excerpt:

An examination of legal documents and election filings, along with interviews with his acquaintances, revealed Mr. Martin, 62, to be a man with a history of scintillating if not always factual claims. He has left a trail of animosity — some of it provoked by anti-Jewish comments — among political leaders, lawyers and judges in three states over more than 30 years.

Is this the kind of guy you want to believe?

Of course, he appeared on FoxNews, which “…allowed Mr. Martin to assert falsely and without challenge that Mr. Obama had once trained to overthrow the government. ” I guess if it’s on FoxNews, it must be gospel (pun intended).

Anyway, all this upsets me to the extreme. I don’t mind people voting for the candidate I don’t support. But I do mind them making their decision based on vicious lies and innuendo — especially those made by a man with a history of lying and accepted by a news organization with a track record of bias.

I want people to know the truth and make decisions based on that.

How Stupid Are We?

Apparently, some of us are very stupid.

I’m shocked and saddened by the spread of evil bullshit by conservative Republicans and the McCain campaign — and the way some of the American public seems to be swallowing it.

It’s all over the Web. I can’t spend an hour reading respectable publications without finding more and more examples.

In a Time Magazine story, “In Battleground Virginia, a Tale of Two Ground Games,” writer Karen Tumulty describes a meeting at a Virginia McCain campaign office:

With so much at stake, and time running short, Frederick did not feel he had the luxury of subtlety. He climbed atop a folding chair to give 30 campaign volunteers who were about to go canvassing door to door their talking points — for instance, the connection between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden: “Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon,” he said. “That is scary.” It is also not exactly true — though that distorted reference to Obama’s controversial association with William Ayers, a former 60s radical, was enough to get the volunteers stoked. “And he won’t salute the flag,” one woman added, repeating another myth about Obama. She was quickly topped by a man who called out, “We don’t even know where Senator Obama was really born.” Actually, we do; it’s Hawaii.

It’s the sheer stupidity of these McCain campaign volunteers that I find most offensive. Rather than learn the truth — for example, where Obama was born — they’d rather spread gossip, rumors, and lies. They don’t care how their candidate wins — as long as he wins.

And frankly, McCain’s not much better than his volunteers.

FactCheck.org, an independent, non-partisan organization with the lofty goal of checking the facts in public statements to expose the falsehoods, has been having a tough time keeping up with the bullshit hitting the airwaves and the Web this election season. While it has exposed some falsehoods and misleading statements made by the Obama campaign, the vast majority of false claims appears to be coming from the McCain side.

In ““He Lied” About Bill Ayers?,” FactCheck.org staff write:

In a TV ad, McCain says Obama “lied” about his association with William Ayers, a former bomb-setting, anti-war radical from the 1960s and ’70s….We find McCain’s accusation that Obama “lied” to be groundless. It is true that recently released records show half a dozen or so more meetings between the two men than were previously known, but Obama never denied working with Ayers.

In “Dishonorable,” FactCheck.org writes:

The McCain-Palin campaign released the ad, titled “Dangerous,” and said it would be televised nationally. It recycles a misleading, 14-month-old charge that Sen. Barack Obama disrespected U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan by accusing them of “just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.” It also misrepresents votes in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq as being votes “increasing the risk on their lives.”

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins wrote a brilliantly sarcastic piece titled “Dear Old Golden Dog Days,” where she laments the passing of the early days of the campaign. Of McCain’s current campaign ads and the current Republican strategy, she states:

Now they’re all about the Evil That Is Obama. The newest one, “Ambition,” has a woman, speaking in one of those sinister semiwhispers, saying: “When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied.” Then suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, she starts ranting about Congressional liberals and risky subprime loans. Then John McCain pops up to say he approved it. All in 30 seconds! And, of course, McCain would think it’s great. For the first time, the Republicans appear to have captured his thought process on tape.

The Republican campaign strategy now involves sending their candidates to areas where everybody is a die-hard McCain supporter already. Then they yell about Obama until the crowd is so frenzied people start making threats. The rest of the country is supposed to watch and conclude that this would be an enjoyable way to spend the next four years.

One of the 212 commenters (so far) to the piece, Walt Ingram says, in part:

I don’t know if Sarah Palin is really mean spirited or if she understands what a disservice she is doing to the country. I do know however that she is drunk with the euphoria of cheering crowds and the power she has to excite and fire up the anger and hate within her crowds. She wants to get people to believe that Obama is “un-American.” Unfortunately some people are taken in.

The rest of his comment is certainly worth reading, as are the other “Editor’s Selections” comments for the post.

The McCain campaign is apparently able to whip up crowds to a frenzy of hate. As reported on CBSNews.com in “Kerry Condemns ‘Hate-Filled’ Language at McCain-Palin Rallies:”

“The reports are piling up of ugliness at the campaign rallies of John McCain and Sarah Palin,” Kerry writes. “Audience members hurl insults and racial epithets, call out ‘Kill Him!’ and ‘Off With His Head,’ and yell ‘treason’ when Senator Obama’s name is mentioned. I strongly condemn language like this which can only be described as hate-filled.”

The Kerry making this statement is John Kerry at a fundraising appeal for the Obama campaign.

CNN.com also reported on the change in McCain’s rallies in “Rage Rising on the MCCain Campaign Trails“:

With recent polls showing Sen. Barack Obama’s lead increasing nationwide and in several GOP-leaning states, some Republicans attending John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign rallies are showing a new emotion: rage.

The article goes on to report multiple cases of McCain-Palin rally attendees shouting racial epithets, calling Obama a “terrorist” and yelling “treason” when his name is mentioned, and booing McCain when he assures them that Obama is a “decent person.”

This topic even came up on NPR’s Diane Rehm show on its weekly News Roundup. The 10:00 AM segment for October 10 became heated when Diane and her three guests, Eleanor Clift, Matthew Continetti, and Juan Williams discussed how Republican rallies are generating hate toward Obama. Ms. Clift stated that the McCain camp was “flirting with very dangerous rhetoric” and voiced her concerns about vocalizations of “Kill him!” at rallies. (You can download the segment here; the discussion begins at 27:40 minutes.)

It seems to me that the McCain campaign isn’t doing anything positive to improve its chances of winning the election. Instead, it’s polarizing the public, driving a wide wedge between the believers of this “dangerous rhetoric” and the thinking public who know better. It’s dividing the nation.

What good will that do us, especially in these troubled times?

How can the McCain campaign continue with this policy of personal attacks against Obama, attacks designed to scare voters and fire them up to a hateful frenzy? How can this possibly prove McCain to be “presidential material”?

And can people really be stupid enough to believe the Muslim, terrorist pal claims?

I guess folks like these can — the craziness starts at about 2 minutes in:

eBooks

Some thoughts from a writer (and reader).

Earlier this month, I wrote a post that briefly touched upon my experience as an author finding my copyrighted books freely distributable on a pirate Web site. (Refer to “Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part I: Why Copyright is Important.”) The post generated some comments that made me think more about the electronic versions of my books that my publishers sell: eBooks.

About eBooks

An eBook is an electronic book. While some eBooks are published in electronic format only, others are published in print and then are followed up with eBook versions of the same book.

Sometimes both print and eBook versions of a book are put out by the same publisher. This is common with modern-day titles. But there are also a number of eBook publishers out there who take older titles that are still in copyright and make arrangements with the publisher or author to create and sell eBook versions. And, of course, anyone can take an out-of-copyright book, like the works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe — the list goes on and on — and publish them anyway they like: in print, electronically, or even tattooed on someone’s leg. Project Gutenberg came into existence by making out-of-copyright works available to the world and that’s what you’ll find among its thousands of titles.

eBooks are available in a wide variety of formats, from plain text to PDF to Windows Help Viewer format. They can include or exclude illustrations. They can contain hyperlinks to make it easy to move from one topic to another. They can be printable as a single document or by pages or sections.

My first involvement with eBooks was way back in the 1990s when I used a program called DocMaker on the Mac to create my monthly, freely distributable newsletter, Macintosh Tips & Tricks. I later moved to PDF format. 10 Quick Steps, one of my publishers, publishes all of its books as PDFs optimized for onscreen reading. I later published some of my own eBooks in the same format.

eBooks and Copyright

eBooks are usually sold with the same licensing used for software. One copy, one user. This is pretty basic stuff. Although I admit that I’ve never read an EULA for an eBook, I assume that if an buyer is finished with it and wants to give his/her only copy to someone else, he can. After all, that’s how books work. And, as someone who has legally transferred ownership of software by selling it (after removing the original from my computer), I’m pretty sure eBooks have a legal second hand market.

Unfortunately, due to their portable nature — pop them on a CD or compress them and send them in email or leave them on an FTP server for others to download — they are often the victim of piracy and copyright infringement. People put eBooks — whether they obtained them from legal means or not — on pirate Web sites, FTP servers, or other file sharing systems for free or paid download to anyone who wants them.

As this problem becomes more and more widespread, readers begin to think that there’s nothing wrong with downloading and sharing illegally distributed eBooks. They begin looking to illegal sources of eBooks rather than legal sources, hoping to save $10 or $15 or $20. They justify their participation in this illegal activity by saying that “knowledge should be free” or that the publisher makes enough money or that eBooks cost nothing to produce. And soon this affects the sale of both printed and electronically published books.

Who Suffers?

Are you an author concerned about illegal distribution of your eBooks? You may be interested in the new Authors Against Piracy group I’ve started to discuss the issue and share solutions. It’s a private group, so you’ll need an invitation to join. Contact me to introduce yourself. Be sure to identify your most recent published work; the group is open to published authors only.

The real victim of this is the author, who often makes less than a dollar for every book sold.

Most authors these days can’t afford to just write for a living. Some of them have regular day jobs. Others are consultants or speakers or programmers or some combination of those things.

About 95% of my net income comes from writing books and articles. My helicopter charter business, which is still in its infancy, eats up all the cash it brings in. (Helicopters are extremely costly to own and operate.) And between writing and flying, I simply don’t have time to do anything else to earn money.

So when I find my books being illegally distributed on pirate Web sites, I get angry. Can you blame me?

Is It Worth It?

In the comments for my “Copyright is Important” post, reader Nathanael Holt asked this question: “Do your digital sales warrant the increased risk posed by piracy?”

This is a really good question — one I had to go to my royalty statements to answer. And, after a quick glance at that most recent 60-page document, I’d have to say no.

For example, one of my recent titles sold more than 2,600 printed copies in the quarter ending March 31, 2007. That same title sold only 2 electronic “subscriptions.” Another title, which is older and which I have found online on pirate sites, had 9 copies of the PDF sold during the same quarter, earning me less than $15.

My conclusion from this: eBook versions of my books aren’t selling very well. And apparently the ones that get out there are going to pirate Web sites.

I’ve e-mailed my publisher’s royalty department to get lifetime figures for all of my in-print titles. I’m hoping the numbers they deliver will paint a more rosy picture. But I doubt it.

I’m an eBook Reader, Too

This is disappointing for me. You see, I’m an eBook reader.

A while back, I was looking for a book about .htaccess. That’s a normally invisible configuration file found on servers. I wanted to modify the .htaccess file for my Web site so it would do certain things for me.

This is an extremely technical topic and one I didn’t expect to find a book about. But I did: The Definitive Guide to Apache mod_rewrite by Rich Bowen. And after a bit of research, I learned that I could either buy the book from Amazon.com for $40 and wait a week to get it or buy it as an eBook in PDF format from the publisher’s Web site for $20 and download it immediately. I admit that the deciding factor was the length of the book: 160 pages. Since I like to be able to look at a computer-related book (rather than switch back and forth between a book and an application onscreen), I could print it for reference.

And that’s what I did: I downloaded the book as a DRM-protected PDF and sent it to my printer. Within an hour, I had the whole thing in a binder and was editing my .htaccess file to my heart’s content, with all kinds of notes jotted in the margins of my new reference book. (That’s another thing: I’m far more likely to mark up a printed eBook than a printed and bound traditionally-published book.)

I also read eBooks on my Treo (when I’m trapped somewhere with nothing to do).

The only reason I don’t buy and read more eBooks to read onscreen is because I think I spend enough time in front of a computer without using one to read, too.

What Does All this Mean?

Well, first I need some solid information from my publisher regarding lifetime eBook sales. Then I need to sit down with my editor (figuratively, of course — we never see each other in person) and decide whether eBook editions of my work are something we want to continue to publish. If we decide to go forward, we need to come up with a solution that will protect eBooks from piracy.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever bought an eBook? Why did you buy that version instead of a traditional print version? Did you like it? What do you think about eBooks in general: pricing, formats, licensing, etc?

Don’t keep it all to yourself! Use the Comments link or form to share your thoughts with me and other readers.

What’s In a Name?

Apparently, a lot.

I’ve been thinking it over for about six months now and have finally made a decision: I need a real name for my Web site/blog.

Maria Langer, The Official Web Site* and WebLog** is not cutting it, primarily because no one follows the asterisks to the footnotes in the footer, which say:

* Read with tongue planted firmly in cheek. (In other words, it’s a joke, folks. No, I’m not so full of myself that I think there are unofficial Maria Langer Web sites.)

** Don’t believe everything you read. (That’s my disclaimer, in case you find something inaccurate. It’s also for the folks who like to say that I’m making claims that aren’t true. Maybe I know that. Now my readers do, too.)

I think the name of my site is turning off people who don’t get it. And I don’t want them to get turned off by a name. I’d rather they get turned on or off by content.

Unfortunately, my imagination is completely tapped out and I can’t come up with any fresh, new, witty names for my site. This is what has taken me so long to make the name change decision. Obviously, if I already had a great new name, I’d just start using it.

Whatever name I do come up with must reflect the fact that the site is a mix of content, with everything from first person accounts of the things that go on in my life to illustrated how-to articles about using your computer or software. Visitors use Macs and Windows, so to include either operating system in the name just wouldn’t be right. Ditto for references to flying or Wickenburg or writing or any one specific topic I cover here. I need a name that’s more general.

I’ve got some ideas that might work, but I’d be interested in getting suggestions from the folks who have been following the site for a while. Use the Comments link or form or Contact Me with your suggestions.

I’d appreciate the help.