Fact-Checking in the Editorial Process
Fact-checking is verifying that the information included in a ms is accurate: World War I took place in the early twentieth century, production of Hummers stopped in 2010. An author (even a novelist) who gets facts wrong irritates and alienates readers, so one of our roles as dev editor is to ensure that basic facts are accurate.
For the most part, we’ll just use our common sense: if a fact as presented in the ms doesn’t square with what we know of reality, we’ll double-check it.
However, an author should not expect you to be a subject-matter expert (unless you are a subject-matter expert and you’ve agreed to take on this fact-checking burden).
When fact-checking, you’ll need to set limit on your own behavior—spending two minutes to confirm a fact versus going down a rabbit hole of research for three hours.
Some mss have more room for factual error—historicals, for example, will have many details that could be wrong. But even when we’re editing contemporary novels, we need to do a certain amount of fact-checking so that inaccuracies don’t make it into print.
Our authors rely on us to help make sure they aren’t making mistakes. For the most part this just means using our general knowledge to alert us when something seems unlikely. It doesn’t mean that we suddenly have to become experts on ship-building just because the ms currently on our desks features a ship-building protagonist.
You may feel that setting a rule of doing no fact-checking at all helps solve the problem but that’s evading one of your responsibilities as a developmental editor. It’s quite common for authors to predicate plot events on things that could never happen, at least not how they describe them. (Throwing an iPhone away doesn’t magically end Apple’s ability to produce a call history, to take a recent example I encountered.)
Some fact-checking is required for you to address such implausibilities effectively.
Fact-checking can be a time sink, so we have to manage our time wisely. But we also can’t just be lazy and say, “This doesn’t seem right; please double-check.” (Nothing annoys an author more than to be asked to check something s/he knows is accurate!)
We have to give a specific, defensible reason why we think the author is in error, and usually that requires a little research. So, that is a time commitment we have to factor into the fee we ask for any project. The real skill is in being able to get the answer you need quickly and move on.
Sometimes we make fact-checking more complicated than it is. For example, suppose you’re editing a ms set in the early Middle Ages that references Vikings in Dublin. You don’t have to research the history of Vikings to verify whether Vikings were in Dublin in this time period. A quick Google search of the term “vikings in dublin” tells us there was a Viking settlement there in the ninth century and that the name “Dubh Linn” was first documented in the eighth and ninth centuries. No further investigation is needed to accept that the story’s protagonist could have hired Viking mercenaries in Dublin.
In some types of historicals, strict accuracy is not that important as long as what happens seems like the kind of thing that could happen. For example, a colleague of mine writes historical romance, and in her opinion, as long as the romance is well-written, readers will forgive some stumbles in accuracy as long as there aren’t glaring anachronisms. But that is by no means universally true. For this reason, some historical writers want to work with editors who can help backstop them—they want editors who have significant familiarity with the time period to help them catch errors they have inadvertently overlooked.
There’s a sort of agreed-upon convention that readers will accept one big coincidence in order for a story to get moving (often it’s an inciting incident) but you can’t keep throwing coincidences at them and expect them to believe it. So a reader will believe Mary, running away from a mugger, hops on the train and just happens to collide with her old friend Bob, who is big enough to scare off the mugger. Things like that do happen, so we’ll accept it. But that’s it. Mary can’t also happen to run into her friend Hilda, who recognizes the mugger and goes with Mary to the police station where the detective taking their report happens to know just where the mugger lives . . . .
The same is true of historical fiction: one historical inaccuracy in the service of a story is generally accepted but readers will not accept a whole crop of them. For instance, I recently read an entertaining Revolutionary War-era novel where the heroine takes command of her father’s ship after his death. It’s a pretty unlikely scenario, although it’s something that potentially could have happened, and the author tries to show how the crew’s acceptance of the protagonist’s leadership is possible. But if the author were then to ignore all other gender conventions of the time period, it would stop seeming believable.
I don’t fact-check in the sense of hunting down references for every statement of fact the author makes. But if something strikes me as implausible for the time period, then I will verify my facts before I ask the author to verify hers.
A related consideration is, “Should a DE point out anachronistic phrases and idioms?”
Historical novels aren’t written in the language of the period in which they’re set, so there will always be some anachronistic word usage no matter what. The English that would have been spoken in, say, the Middle Ages would have been a form of Old or Middle English. In any case, probably half of the words used in the ms (if not more) would not have been used at the time. We certainly aren’t going to expect readers to follow along with an historical novel written in Old or Middle English.
So what we want to do is note word choice that jars the reader—that not only is modern but sounds modern. This is true even if the word actually existed during the time period in question.
In some instances, readers will accept a modern-sounding historical novel as long as that is the style of the novel as a whole. Or they will accept an “old” sounding historical novel as long as that is the style of the novel as a whole. What they generally won’t accept is a pastiche—some modern phrasing mixed in with archaic/old phrasings.
Another concern is to be aware of anachronistic concepts—ideas that people in the time and culture would be unlikely to have. Notions of privacy, individual rights, family obligations, and more vary widely in time and place. A character in sixteenth-century China should not be indistinguishable from a twenty-first-century American.
Overall, I recommend setting specific expectations about fact-checking with your client ahead of time.