Jimmies or Sprinkles? Getting the Details Right in Fiction

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I’m just back from a beach vacation where I learned something new – in my hometown those little sugary doo-dads you sprinkle on your ice cream are called sprinkles but at the beach they’re called jimmies. I took note because I’m playing with the idea of a book that happens at the beach. As a reader, I know that any anomalies (such as sprinkles where there should be jimmies) can ruin the reading experience. And as several authors I know can attest to, anomalies can also ruin the writing experience since readers can and will send you an “oops” letter to inform you that you have the wrong flowers growing in your character’s garden, have them using the wrong curse words, or painted their ’57 Chevy a color that wasn’t available in ’57. And not only did it ruin the whole book for them, but they also told everyone they know about your mistake!

At first, you may believe that fact-checking is less important with fiction writing than with non-fiction. Not true! Unless you are writing science fiction or fantasy (where it’s equally important to follow the rules for the world you’ve created), one inaccuracy can destroy the entire world you’ve created. If your Oregon character is using Arkansas slang it’s tougher for a reader to lose themself in the story, to fall in love with your characters, to want to share that world with other readers.

If it’s something you’re an expert at such as slang in your region, a job you’ve held, a hobby or skill you have you’re all set. Proof, proof, proof. But what if it’s something out of your realm? Tulips, ancient Egyptian culture, the life of a taxi driver? How do you ensure that your book doesn’t include any glaring errors? Find the experts. I’ve found experts in several places:

1. Academia – College professors can be helpful with specific factual questions. It helps if you know or can obtain an introduction from a friend but sometimes an out-of-the-blue email can result in an answer. Emails seem to be the contact of choice for professors. To help narrow down who you should contact, go to a school’s website and learn what the professor has published recently. Just because they’re a history professor doesn’t mean they can answer your questions about World War II, they may be an expert in the French Revolution.

2. Professionals – Find someone doing the job of one of your characters to learn if you’ve got all the facts, lingo, and timelines correct. Many times there are public relations people for specific companies or professional organizations that are happy to make sure you portray their world correctly. When I needed some basic information on the military world, a public relations officer at Dover Air Force Base and a local Army recruiter happily answered my questions and suggested other people that could help me.

3. Groups – There are groups for everything: gardeners, tattoo artists, Polish-Americans, collectors of beer bottles, Edgar Allen Poe enthusiasts, everything! Another great source that usually is happy to send out a mass email (or include a notice in their next newsletter) to their members about your questions.

4. Non-expert Experts – Want to make sure you have city living right? Run your book by an urban resident. Not sure if your Southern slang rings true? Time to consult a Southern belle. They’re not exactly “experts” but it’s the life they lead. If they don’t know, who will?

In my experience, for more “official” experts the more specific you are, the better. Don’t expect a response if you send a 200 page manuscript to a state police officer with a “Did I get everything right?” Instead, give a broad overview of your book and your key questions such as:

1. Who notifies the coroner?
2. How many people would be at a small town murder scene?
3. Do you really wrap everything in yellow crime scene tape?
4. Do you wear blue booties in the crime scene?

When you’re looking for a more general “Does this feel like Alaska/Irish step dancers/a bakery shop?”, especially for things such as regional or special groups’ details and slang, it seem more helpful to include the entire manuscript ( or at least the section that features this group). Things are less overwhelming if you highlight words, actions, or details that could be wrong (or better expressed by group specific lingo). Ask them to focus on the highlighted sections but to read everything, just in case you missed a key error. Often your non-expert experts are family and friends so they are more willing to take the time to read an entire manuscript. The highlighting reminds them that you don’t just want a “I liked/didn’t like the story” but also their expertise on details about Alaska/Irish step dancers/bakery shops.

Never forget that in fiction writing, even the smallest fact is important. Take the time to get it right. Your readers will thank you…by not sending you “oops” letters.

Jodi Webb is a WOW Blog Tour organizer and has taken a bit of time off from her blog Words by Webb to focus on her YA novel that takes place mostly in her regional area (Hooray! She knows lots of experts.) and partially in the military world (Where she's met lots of helpful experts who call her ma'am.)


Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Jodi,

You're SO right that details can make or break great fiction. Just right details can also really bring a story to life.

Thanks or all the tips and reminders.

Happy writing!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Jodi--Your post was a great reminder. And those "experts" like taxicab drivers and dog-catchers and garbage collectors LOVE that they're being consulted. I recently had to to go to two different fire stations to ask some questions about details I was putting in a story. The fire fighters enjoyed being consultants. And I enjoyed the research...

Thanks for the well-written reminder, Jodi.

T.K. Marnell said...

I agree that the little details are very important. What breaks suspension of disbelief is a funny thing. People will be cool with your hotshot FBI agent getting into all kinds of improbable situations, escaping from impossible traps, and taking the time to bed a few beautiful women along the way. But then they stop at a single line halfway through the book and say, "Wait. Did he just say the murder weapon was a .22 gauge shotgun?" (It would be "caliber"...and I've heard my SO go off many a time on writers who get the two confused!)

The difficulty is when you get so accurate about your regional or historical terminology that it might be confusing to the majority. Then you have to decide whether you'd prefer to receive complaints from the nitpickers who write to explain to you that the 19th-century "high school" would have been referred to as "college," as if you didn't know, or to receive negative reviews from everyone else who says, "This book was so full of inconsistencies! She said the hero had just come back from college, but then she said he was like seventeen and everyone's down on him for not going to university! I have no idea how this crap got published!" Both ends of the stick are unfortunately short.

Unknown said...

I love details and exploring them, expanding my knowledge or the world in which I write.

BTW, I am from Philly and its definitely Jimmies. Most definitely.

But in the 90s a Jimmy-Hat or plain Jimmy singular was something totally different, lol.

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