Have you ever read something you knew was wrong and rolled your eyes…then stopped reading? I have. A lot! There are many things I don’t know, so when I write, I make sure to fact-check. I want my readers to respect me as knowledgeable and intelligent. It’s surprising how often we mention facts in nearly everything we write, from emails to blog posts to full-length books. Even fiction frequently refers to real-life people, places, and things. When you get facts wrong, you instantly lose credibility with readers. So make sure you verify your facts!
There are two areas that are critical to get correct:
1. Real people, places, and things.
Fiction example: (Can you spot all the errors?)
When I was twelve, my friend Darren and I went to Wal-Mart to get Halloween costumes for our school party. Darren said he was making his own, and he boasted that he would win first prize! He wouldn’t tell me what he was making, but I saw exactly what he bought. He got a bunch of fish tank rubber tubes, lots of duct-tape, a big jar of B-B’s, some white out, three boxes of kleen-X, bleach, and a red raincoat. When we got to the car, he gave the kleen-X and bleach to his mom, so those weren’t part of it, either. He had four bags, and I had only one. I just bought a ready-made costume—Linus from the movie “The Great Pumpkin.” It was strange because we heard Christmas music already, so I was hearing “You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry” while looking at Halloween decorations. I never guessed Darren’s costume, and he wouldn’t tell me. I had to wait three whole weeks until our school party to see it!
1. Store names. A lot of people work at Walmart, and they know it’s written Walmart, not Wal-Mart. Look up every store or company name. You look ignorant spelling it rong. 😉
2. Products. All of these products were spelled wrong: duct tape (no hyphen), BBs (no hyphen or apostrophe), Wite-Out (it’s a registered trademark name), Kleenex (one word, capitalized, with three “e’s”). Products have trademark names that are written very specifically, so don’t just guess—they must be accurate.
3. Movies. Look up movie titles to make sure they are correct. Also they need to be italicized, not put in quotes. The movie above should have been written: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
4. Songs. Look up the exact title of songs. They are never italicized, but they are enclosed in quotes. The song above should have been written: “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”
Look up every real person, place, or thing: stores, companies, restaurants, songs, book titles, movie titles, plays, paintings, artists, etc. These are facts, so write them accurately.
2. Professions and all of the details involved.
Brayden was panicked. Charlotte, NC rush-hour traffic was extra heavy because of the NASCAR races, and he needed to get home. His wife hadn’t answered her phone in over an hour, when they typically chatted on his way home from work every single day. Something was wrong. If only he could get ahold of her. Was it their daughter? Surely she would have called him! He became so tense that he was sweating bullets and his stomach was a ball of knots.
He finally got to the point where he could exit the freeway and get on the road that would take him to his subdivision. When he got close, he noticed billowing black smoke coming from the direction of his neighborhood over the treetops. In a panic, he passed everyone on the road by driving his large pickup on the shoulder to pull into his subdivision. Then he saw it was his house on fire! Wild flames and smoke were devouring the two-story building completely. A fire truck was spraying the flames with a massive hose, but it seemed ineffective.
He panicked, leapt out of his car, and rushed to a police barrier. He screamed, “That’s my house—let me go!! My wife!! My daughter—she’s only two!!” One policeman grabbed his arm and said, “I can escort you there.” Brayden wasn’t a powerful guy, but adrenaline burst through him, and he dragged the policeman right up to the fire engines shooting water on his home. An intense-looking firefighter in a bright red fire suit with dark eyes and a dark beard ordered him, “You can only stand by us—no farther.”
He saw his wife, struggling in the arms of another fireman, and instantly felt relief that she was OK. But where was his daughter, Elise? He screamed, “Shayla!” His wife turned and saw him, then the fireman let her go as she dodged the fire trucks and equipment to throw herself in his arms.
“Where’s Elise?” He demanded.
His wife was weeping hysterically. “I don’t know! I don’t know! They won’t let me go in.”
He panicked, and tried to run into the house. Before he could reach it, two firemen tackled him.
“My little girl!! My little girl!! Let me go!!” He fought fiercely, but they wouldn’t let him near the inferno. He broke down weeping. The heat was so intense it was burning his face and red-hot debris was falling all around them. The roof suddenly cracked and crashed in, exploding in wild flames. The firemen shoved him to the ground, and as he watched his house collapse, he broke down weeping. He had never felt so helpless in his life. He couldn’t live without his baby girl!
Then a fireman in a red coat and white helmet burst through the black smoke carrying something. It was Elise, wrapped in a blanket, crying and coughing. Brayden and Shayla ran to him, sobbing in relief. The fireman handed her to her parents as they thanked him profusely. Brayden could breathe deeply again. His home was destroyed, but his precious family was safe.
I wrote out a dramatic fire scene, but before I let others read it, I need to verify that my details are correct. I checked with a fire captain in Charlotte, NC, to get the facts straight. Since firefighting protocol is different in every city, I had to speak with an expert in the specific city of my story’s setting.
Here are all the errors the Charlotte fire captain found (wow!):
1. A policeman cannot escort someone to a burning house. They are at a fire scene for traffic control and safety—they don’t get involved in the fire scene. However, if anyone runs towards the fire, they’ll detain or arrest them.
2. In Charlotte, first there would be three fire engines, a ladder truck, and a a battalion chief in his/her vehicle. If the structure was not contained, it would be classified as a “working fire” (severe) and a fourth fire engine would be sent out, along with a rescue truck and another battalion chief. That’s what would most likely be in front of the house in this scenario.
3. In Charlotte, firefighters wear tan turnout gear and black helmets. Only the battalion chief would have a white helmet.
4. Firefighters do not have beards—they could affect the seal around the masks.
5. Firefighters would not allow a civilian to stand next to them. All civilians need to be away from the fire scene.
6. If a civilian was outside the home when the firefighters arrived, they would take the person across the street—or as far away from the scene as possible—to assess their condition, and then turn them over to the medic/ambulance crew.
7. If the roof was collapsing in, the firefighters would already be out of the house before that (hopefully). The battalion chief would make the call as to when to order all the firefighters out.
8. If a firefighter rescued Elise, Brayden still wouldn’t be able to run up to him. All civilians must stay away from the fire scene.
9. Elise would be taken to the medic/ambulance immediately for patient assessment. She would not be given to her parents first—they would be notified of her condition.
10. Brayden couldn’t “breathe deeply again” because the air on the street would be filled with smoke, ashes, chemical fumes, etc.
11. This is important: even if you know the firefighter is male, you cannot refer to him as a “fireman.” All crew members must be referred to as “firefighters.”
So I made a lot of mistakes that a firefighter or a law enforcement worker or a medic would know. They would immediately discredit me when they read about something in their job that was ridiculous. That goes for any profession. If you haven’t worked that job yourself, you need to verify every single detail with someone who is currently working it. (If it’s historical fiction, you need to do thorough research to be accurate. But there are a lot of historians and historical references to help.)
Let me rewrite this scene and make it believable! I’m also going to tighten up the writing as well. I’ll take out clichés, describe the truck Brayden is driving so readers can visualize it immediately, mention his daughter is two years old right away, name his wife and daughter up front—he would think of them by name, eliminate double and overused exclamation points, etc.
Brayden’s sweaty hands clutched the steering wheel of his silver F-150 pickup. The rush-hour traffic was extra heavy in Charlotte, NC, because of the NASCAR races, and his wife hadn’t answered her phone in over an hour. They typically chatted on his way home from work every day. Why wasn’t she picking up? Had something happened to their two-year-old daughter, Elise? Or was something wrong with Shayla? He almost clipped a car as he pulled off the freeway onto the side road leading to his subdivision.
Waiting behind vehicles at a standstill, he suddenly noticed black smoke pulsating over the trees. Frantic, he swung his truck onto the dirt shoulder, passing everyone, and tore into his subdivision. He tried to turn down his street, but it was blocked by police cars. He looked for the second house on the right—it was his house on fire! Furious orange flames consumed the entire two-story home, thick black smoke writhing in the sky like manic demons. Four fire trucks were parked in front of the house along with an ambulance and other vehicles, and firefighters were shooting massive spray on the flames.
Brayden rushed to the police barrier screaming, “That’s my house—my wife and daughter are in there!”
A policeman grabbed his arm and said, “Stay back! Don’t go near the fire scene.”
He saw his wife, covered in soot, slouched on the sidewalk across the street with their elderly neighbor lady hugging her. He ran to Shayla.
“Where’s Elise?” He shouted.
His wife wept. “I don’t know! I don’t know!”
Terror gripped him, and he tore toward the house, dodging the fire trucks. Two firefighters tackled him before he even reached his yard. “You have to stay back!” More firefighters, their tan turnout gear blackened with ash, raced from the home, some dragging fire hoses.
“My little girl! My little girl—let me go!” He fought fiercely, but their grip was like steel. The roof cracked and then crashed in, exploding in wild flames. The firefighters shoved him backward to the ground. As he heard his house collapsing, he broke down weeping. Elise couldn’t have survived.
Shayla shrieked, “Look! Look!”
Brayden lifted his head to see a firefighter racing out of the smoke from the backyard. He was covered in soot, carrying something. As he came into view, Brayden saw it was Elise—wrapped in her blanket, crying and coughing. The firefighter rushed her to the medic, and she was whisked into the ambulance. Brayden jumped to his feet as Shayla reached him, sobbing. They clung to each other, weak with relief.
“Don’t worry.” A firefighter next to them spoke up. “They’ll let you see her as soon as they do an assessment.”
Brayden coughed in the smoky air, wiped his eyes, and rasped, “Can I thank the firefighter who saved her life?”
The firefighter clapped his back. “I’ll tell him.”
Tears of relief ran down Brayden’s face as he waited, holding his wife tightly. His house was completely destroyed, but it didn’t matter. His precious family was alive.
Savvy Writer Tip:
Writing facts accurately is critical if you want to be taken seriously. Verify the accuracy of every person, place, thing, and profession in whatever you write. If you do, your readers will respect you as a knowledgeable writer! 🙂