Just the Facts

I’ll preface this post by saying I don’t have any fiduciary interest in Google.

Several years ago at a Women in Aviation International conference, I purchased a book about a fictional female pilot “from the dawn of aviation!” I read the back cover blurb and thumbed through the book, and it looked like a good read. So, I bought it and started reading it on the flight back. It was a decent book, and the aviation aspects were accurate–something important to me; I’ve walked out of movies when they got the aviation bits wrong.

About midway through the book, the heroine, after losing a lover in an aircraft accident decides to drive to Newport, RI, from New York City to rethink her career choice. The time period was the early 1920’s, and, at least, I thought, the writer didn’t make the easy mistake and say our heroine flew into Newport’s airport, which didn’t exist then. A few pages later, the writer describes the heroine’s reaching the foot of the Newport bridge and slowing down because the height of the bridge had always intimidated her. Wait, what?

I was lucky that my then-spouse was always supportive and understanding of my obsession with writing. When I got off the plane, did I greet him with an embrace and a kiss appropriate to having been apart for five days? Uh, no. He was born and raised in Newport, RI, and I had heard plenty of stories from his mother about how as a teenager in the late 1950’s, he’d always managed to miss the last ferry from Jamestown Island in Narragansett Bay to Newport. (The Newport Bridge now spans the Bay from Jamestown Island to Newport.) The first words from my lips were, “When was the Newport Bridge built?”

“In the 1960’s,” he replied. “Why?” (It opened on June 28, 1969, by the way. I Googled it.)

I spent the walk to the car and drive home ranting about how that author could make such a stupid mistake. I didn’t bother to finish the book.

Yeah, I’m a hardass about some things, and, yeah, it’s fiction; but when a writer drops you into a real place for a fictional story, shouldn’t he or she try to get it right, dramatic license notwithstanding? In some ways, science fiction or fantasy writers who create their own worlds have it somewhat easier. If your world is completely fiction, nitpickers like me won’t nitpick. No one is going to question the accuracy of the worlds created by J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Well, except maybe fanboys and fangirls who think they know Hogwarts or the world of A Game of Thrones better than Rowling or Martin, respectively.

Google was only a couple of years old when the Newport Bridge boo-boo happened, but the public library system has always been a great source for fact-checking. Or, whatever happened to picking up the phone, calling the Newport city offices, and asking, “When was your bridge built?” It was obvious that, at some point, the author had been to Newport, parts of which still look like it did in the 1920’s, and decided that her heroine should have a reaction to that impressive bridge–forty years too soon.

Because I’m an historian, I’ve always approached my fiction–especially when I write about actual events–as a research project. You know, three sources and the whole bit. If it were allowed, I’d probably footnote. A lot of what I write about happened ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Before Google, I spent a lot of time in the history sections of various libraries where I lived. The bibliography in one book usually gave me a list of others I wanted to read. When I couldn’t find a book I needed in the library, I purchased it. Before Amazon.com, even that was sometimes difficult to do.

Then, along came Google. If I wanted to find out what a rebellious British teenager was likely to wear in the 1970’s, I Googled it. Who was the Secretary General of the UN in 1962? I Googled it. You get the picture. (And I won’t even get started on how Google Earth can put you in a place where you’ve never been.) Just recently, I was editing a manuscript that involves a real event from early 2001. One character has a disability, and, when I initially wrote the MS some six months before, I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if he motored around on a Segway?” So, I wrote it that way. During the edit, though I was reasonably certain of my memory, I decided to Google it. The event in the MS takes place in February 2001. The Segway wasn’t introduced until December 2001. I had my Newport Bridge moment, thankfully before publication.

I once bought an expensive map of Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), so I could write a three or four page car chase scene using correct street and place names and be accurate about one-way streets. Even then, I found someone who had actually been to Belgrade and was familiar with the city to review it for any obvious errors.

Of course, this isn’t to say my writing has no mistakes of this ilk. I’m sure there are lots, but the point I’m trying to make is, with the Internet, research is quicker and easier (just verify anything you find in Wikipedia), and I can eliminate the obvious gaffes. You’d think those Newport Bridge moments would be a thing of the past. Yet, recently I read something which mentioned an area of the country I am very familiar with. The writer’s physical description of this area didn’t jive with my memory, so I went to Google Earth to check it, and my memory of the area was accurate. The story wasn’t. I was able to check that particular fact in Google Earth in a matter of seconds. Why couldn’t the writer?

I mean, I know that in the heat of words flowing, you don’t want to stop and Google what to you may be a minor aspect of a bigger story. I’ve been there, and, darn it, but that Segway sure seemed like a good idea.

Thank goodness I Googled it.

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