T-shirts, Tabasco, and Air Ducts

Every time I edit a writer’s work, I wonder if they realize how critical facts are—even in fiction. You can write about anything you want, but once you introduce something that currently exists or has existed, it is factual. That means accuracy is mandatory.

I’m sure you know that cities, countries, historical figures/dates must all be spelled and punctuated correctly, but so does every restaurant, store, song, and especially brand names of items, objects, food, etc. Even common expressions need to be correct.

Here’s a made-up example with a ton of errors packed in. Can you spot them?
The navy seals were waiting, munching on french fries and tabasco Hot Sauce poured in styro-foam cups.
Jack’s eyes watered. “Hey, gimme a kleen-x!”
“Aw, you big baby. Use your tshirt! Need some chap stick for your runny nose, too?”
“Hey, let’s Fed-ex him to Washington DC!”
“Oh, For Petes Sake, leave me alone. Or send me to Shangrila.”
Rob opened his back pack. “Here, dude, peanut m&m’s.”
“Thanks, I owe you a Six Pack.”
“I’d rather have your Smith and Wesson!”

Did you catch ALL of these errors?
The Navy SEALs were waiting, munching on French fries and Tabasco hot sauce in Styrofoam cups.
Jack’s eyes watered. “Hey, gimme a Kleenex!”
“Aw, you big baby. Use your T-shirt. Want ChapStick for your runny nose, too?”
“Hey, let’s FedEx him to Washington, D.C.!”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, leave me alone. Or send me to Shangri-La.”
Rob opened his backpack. “Here, dude. Peanut M&M’s.”
“Thanks, I owe you a six-pack.”
“I’d rather have your Smith & Wesson!”

I have seen errors like these in literally every manuscript I’ve edited. In fact, the more familiar something is, the more you need to be sure you’re using the official spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. You can use Wikipedia to find out pretty much anything. Official websites for every topic can be found using basic search engines. Professional writers make it an ingrained habit to look up every fact.

Check ALL of these for capitalization, punctuation, and spelling:
* Brand names (Post-it, Jell-O, Xerox, Pop-Tarts, Wite-Out, Crock-Pot, etc.)
* Common expressions (Class 1 misdemeanor, U-turn, joyride, uh-oh, tie-dye, high-tops, hodgepodge, etc.)
* All titles and positions (U.S. Attorneys, the Marine Corps, Navy SEALs, the navy, Special Ops team, etc.)
* Names of current and historical people
* Titles of books, movies, songs, poems
* Names of cities, towns, countries, landmarks
* Dates of historical events (even recent events)

Be very careful to never misrepresent THESE facts!
When writing about anything in a field you are unfamiliar with—science, medicine, the military, technology, criminology, politics, first responders, etc.—don’t guess! And definitely don’t rely on TV or movies as resources. My firefighter brother-in-law laughs at the absurd idea that air ducts are large enough for people to crawl through, yet how many times has this been portrayed?

Be very careful with the forensics of killing or wounding people: the angles and type of weapons, positioning of all the people and objects around the crime scene, blood splatter patterns, marks on the body, decomposition—every detail must be authentic. My mom worked in the medical profession for years. Once when I was editing a historical story, I asked her about the details the author wrote of burying a dead body in an unusual setting. She said, “Oh, no—that will never work!” After explaining the effects of intense heat and decomposition and body fluids and all kinds of gross things that occur with a dead body, she helped the author create a truly realistic scene in burying the body in that unique location with only the available resources of the time.

I personally have problems with ridiculous technology scenarios. I used to be a computer programmer, and I’ve read scenes in published books that made me yell out loud, “Oh, come on!” I lost all respect for the author instantly, and I couldn’t finish the book—the absurd technology aspects ruined all believability of the story for me. There are numerous examples I could cite, but the important thing is to know that savvy readers will notice the inconsistencies and errors that you don’t verify.

Consult professionals to learn the exact terminology, techniques, equipment, procedures, etc. for every scenario of your story. There will be readers who are personally familiar with these fields, and they will completely discredit you when you depict facts wrong. You don’t want to be laughed at, perceived as unintelligent, (or worse) have your errors broadcasted to the world in a bad review.

Savvy Writer Tip:

Facts are critically important in all writing—even fiction. Look up every factual term (especially brands names and familiar phrases which are typically overlooked) and ask professionals about specific details in fields you are not a true expert in. Your credibility and reputation are on the line! (As well as your book sales.) There are resources everywhere, so be diligent to use them. Your goal is not only to write captivating material, but also to be an accurate and respected writer! 🙂

P.S. If you want to read a famous professional’s take on this topic, read Kristen Lamb’s blunt and hilarious (and serious) blog on reasons why readers will stop reading books in utter frustration: Read and learn!

2 thoughts on “T-shirts, Tabasco, and Air Ducts”

  1. Amen and amen! I used to edit for seminary papers, theses, and dissertations, and I found out very quickly that I had to pay as much attention to the foot/end notes as much as the body of the work. I had a LOT of international clients, but the native English speakers were as bad in many cases. Smh.

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