On Fact-Checking and Inaccuracies: a guest post by Anne Coray

Anne Coray’s poetry collections include Bone Strings and the forthcoming A Measure’s Hush. She is coeditor of Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment, and coauthor of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

Sometimes we get lucky. Someone points out an inaccuracy in our writing and we come up with a clever way of justifying our mistake. My favorite example of this comes from Ellen Bryant Voigt. This is from an old issue of AWP:

“I can tell you a story about that frog poem. I had a call one day from the editorial staff of The Atlantic—she said, ‘You know, we’re running this poem of yours, and I need to ask you about the end of it. At the end the frog ‘fills her throat with air and sings,’ right? Well, I saw this National Geographic special last night and it said the females don’t sing.’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Isn’t the frog in this poem female?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Then how does she sing at the end?’ and I said, ‘It’s a miracle.’ And then she said, ‘Oh, all right. I was just checking.’”

I’ve been lucky too. When I shared my soon-to-be-published-in-book-form poem “Strand” to my brother Craig he said, “Wolf spiders don’t spin webs.” What? I thought. Panic. Cringe. (The poem had recently appeared in The Southern Review.) Still, what a relief it was to find a reference stating that one genus of wolf spiders does in fact spin webs. Whew.

A couple of other times I’ve been less lucky. In one poem I incorrectly identified a cliff on the west side of Cook Inlet as having a limestone composition. I learned later that it’s composed of siltstone. Another time I mistakenly claimed that botflies had worked their way under caribou hides (I was focused on alteration within the line)—in fact, it is the warble fly, not the botfly that does this. Botflies attack the nose. Fortunately these two poems appeared in journals with an even smaller, most likely, non-Alaskan readership.

Publication in literary journals is somewhat forgiving. Writers can emend these kinds of errors if the poem goes on to appear in book form. But I learned some tough lessons: 1. If you’re not sure about something, ask, and 2. Never assume anything.

Unfortunately, factual errors in books, poems, or essays set in or referencing Alaska appear with such frequency that it has almost become a joke. Well-established writers are not immune. James Dickey’s poem, “For the Last Wolverine” includes a spruce tree dying in the sub-Artic (sic) sun, and the wolverine “with an elk’s heart in his stomach” (perhaps the wolverine just returned from a hunt on Afognak?); T.C. Boyle’s Drop City (Viking: Penguin) set in the Interior, references saloons, a fisher, a rabid skunk. Then I read the 49 Writers May 6 online book club discussion of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide that mentions Vann’s inclusion of black widows, sheriffs, a lizard, and a chipmunk. (Vann replied that, “re black widows, I know they’re not in Alaska, but they actually have been several times, including found alive in Nome, and our neighbor in Fairbanks was bitten by a spider or spiders in the attic in an old shoe and sick for a month, and I was told it was a black widow, so I think it was. I also think it was a lizard on the docks in Ketchikan, brought up by a boat.”)

I’m not convinced. Species should not be portrayed as indigenous to Alaska if they arrived via boat or in someone’s suitcase. My point is not to pick on Vann—as I said, I too have erred, even as a lifelong Alaskan. The thing is, we should try our damnedest to minimize inaccuracies. For a writer, they’re embarrassing. For a reader, they’re annoying. When we run across these mistakes, our pleasure is diminished and we lose confidence in the writing.

Since the only place I’ve lived long-term is Alaska, it’s quite possible that I’ve read books or poems set in places around the world that contain all kinds of factual misinformation. Yet it seems that Alaska is particularly susceptible.

How to rectify this problem? I proposed to Andromeda and Deb that they add a fact-checking page to their website. Anyone could ask a question and anyone could reply. As a courtesy, questioners might offer a donation to 49 Writers for this service. Heck, maybe Viking: Penguin, and other big publishers could tap into it. (I hear the big guns pay their fact-checkers, sometimes more than their writers.)

I think we’d all be a little happier if our state was represented as realistically as possible. Or we could take a totally tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole business, beginning with lines like: “I’d just returned from Kotzebue, a quaint Tlingit village named for one of the local chiefs, Otter von something or other…”

What are your thoughts? Please share.

16 thoughts on “On Fact-Checking and Inaccuracies: a guest post by Anne Coray”

  1. Hi Anne,

    Good to see that not only nonfiction writers and novelists grapple with this issue. I suggest regarding fact checking as an opportunity to learn new things other than those related directly to the writer's craft. I also feel thoroughness is part of professionalism, and, as you say, there's nothing worse for a reader than losing faith in an author's veracity or competence. As a "nature writer," I'm a particular stickler for natural history details. Keeping fieldnotes helps avoiding the often faulty reconstruction from memory.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great post, Anne, and I especially appreciate that you opened the subject by recalling your own mistakes. We all make those cringe-worthy errors — it seems nearly inavoidable — but of course, I share your interest in being as accurate as possible! The factchecking-for-fee page is an interesting idea; I think the main problem is that we usually err in areas where we didn't even think to ask the question. My experience with book editors is they don't factcheck very much. Though I am grateful to a UK book editor who saved me from mentioning a popular song that was not yet in circulation when my fictional character was supposedly hearing it on the radio — just for example.

    Perhaps as a variation on the factchecking page, someone could do a tongue-in-cheek "hall of shame" page of Alaska literary (and movie?) errors. Just reading it would offer a reminder, to those of us who care, to try a little harder with each work, and (perhaps? depending upon one's temperament?) to accept that mistakes will happen despite our best efforts.

  3. Cinthia Ritchie

    Well, as a journalist I know too well the importance of fact checking and the the cringing shame that comes from being too busy, too overworked or just too sure that I'm right to check.
    So yes, in newspapers, magazines and journals, facts are essential to a piece's authority.
    But in fiction and poetry, well, I think we all need to realize that these are stories. These are works of imaginatiion. They are not meant to necessarily paint an accurate picture of a landscape or culture or even the accompanying insect world.
    I remember reporters at ADN gleefully finding Alaska errors in every new book of Alaska fiction that hit the desk and I'd always think: Please! It's a story. Our stories are ALWAYS inaccurate, in one sense or another. It always struck me as petty and mean-spirited and totally beside the point.
    My upcoming book is set in Anchorage, in a trailer park that I've loosely based on an actual trailer park though of course the book's park is imagined. No doubt I will get slack from this. I'll also probably get slack from other Alaska references that I may have not gotten exactly right. This doesn't keep me awake and worried at night.
    There comes a time and place where a reader is expected to suspend judgement and allow herself to be sucked inside this world an author has created. If that world has black widow spiders in Alaska, so be it. It's not accurate and it might ruffle Alaska feathers but it does nothing to diminish the beauty and wonder of the story.
    Don't get me wrong. I'm against messy and shoddy writing, I hate when writers take shortcuts and fudge on research.
    At the same time, though, there comes a point where a writer has to chose: Should I spend my energy making sure every single detail is accurate to the location/time period/climate, etc.? Or do I spend my time making sure the details of the story and characters and emotions, the so-called soul of the book, are authenitic?
    Call me sloppy but I'm more interested in a work's soul than its surface, and if that surface has a few dents and dings but the soul shines, I'd say that that is exactly the kind of book I will read and cherish.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Cinthia —
    You put into words yet another side I was wanting to share also, but afraid I'm come off sounding defensive (or long-winded, since I already shared some of my own opinions)– which is that emotional truth is more important to me than factual truth! I felt that Vann's Legend of a Suicide had pinned down some really dark and difficult emotional truths with great precision. I wasn't as worried about his black widow spiders. (While ALSO conceding that inaccuracies = distractions for some readers.) I do notice a pettiness in some provincial reviewers who comment on the Alaska facts without being as critical about emotional truth, or emotional depth, or innovations in form. In an ideal world, we'd get it all right. In the real world, a character or situation that doesn't ring true damages a work more than a few details about place or species.

    Thank you for this great conversation, careful writers and dedicated readers!

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    "I'd come off — not I'M come off." I wish it were easier to go back in and correct one's typos without deleting an entire comment! (Rather fitting for a conversation about errors.)

    Oh well. This comment space gives me the chance to say: Can't wait to read your book, Cinthia!

  6. This is such a terrific discussion. As a newspaper reporter, I inevitably made mistakes working on close deadlines and I got tired of people calling in to joyfully point out our faults. At the same time, I feel such a loyalty to this place that errors in otherwise well-written pieces can seem almost disrespectful, as if the author didn't take the time to get to know their setting well enough to really write about it. (I haven't had a chance to read David Vann's book yet, so this isn't in specific reference.) I agree with Cinthia and Andromeda that the soul of a piece is what matters, but sometimes the landscape is, and should be, part of that soul. Then I think we are obligated to do everything we can to get it right, with the realization that nobody is perfect.

  7. Here's one 'fact' that keeps getting misused in Alaskan literature: "Trawler" rather than "Troller." Of course, in Word, Troller doesn't come up. It says, "Do you mean Trawler." I've even had a poetry mentor say to me, "Do you mean Trawler." No, I mean Troller, there's a difference in the boat and the type of fishery. So, does Vann on page 210 of Legend of a Suicide mean "Trawler" or "Troller." I think there are, more likely, a ton of trollers in Ketchikan. I'm not sure if they even have trawlers there. Maybe someone knows?

  8. Great post, Anne. I do a lot of informal editing of manuscripts for friends and the whole accuracy issue is a pet peeve of mine. Not, that I too, haven't made mistakes of fact; but as a life long Alaskan I find myself hyper sensitive to inaccurate depictions of Alaska, especially by non-Alaskans. It destroys the trust of the reader, when something incorrectly depicted or named jumps out at you.

    On the other hand, I read The Cloud Atlas (2004) by Liam Callanan this winter and felt he did a wonderful job depicting Anchorage during WWII and his entire setting throughout the State was amazingly authentic. From what I understand, he has only made short visit(s) here, but I thought he did an excellent job.

    I've had writers object to my attention to detail and wanting to fact check something in their manuscripts, but I've tried to explain to them that it only takes one glaring or even subtle error to destroy the covenant with the reader.

  9. Lynn Lovegreen

    I agree that you need to get your facts right–how to do that is the hard part, depending on how small or obscure your facts are.

    In our group, AKRWA (the Alaska chapter of Romance Writers of America), we are planning an online class, kind of a Mythbusters of Alaska, to help writers get the basics right. It's still in the first stages, but this blog makes me think we may have a marketable idea.
    Cheryl, writing as Lynn Lovegreen

  10. Andromeda,

    I had to chuckle, seeing you obsessing about typos on a blog but not about factual errors in printed books. To me, your ranking of "emotional truth" over "factual truth" smacks of the hierarchy of genres that we've discussed on this blog before. I thought one of the big no-nos of fiction is to undermine the reader's belief in the fictional universe — this can happen through clumsy interjection of the author's voice, through "untrue" characters, or through "untrue" settings. I'm excluding such obvious genres and styles as Sci-Fi and magical realism or satire here but do not believe that protagonists are always more important than settings. (And when used as a plot devices, animals, weather, or landscapes become more than settings.) For me, anything that distracts from the story breaks the spell of the fictional universe.

  11. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Ah, Michael. Well, I know you like to raise hackles, so I won't take seriously your charge that I don't "obsess" over any factual detail. (Ask my editors!)

    Like most serious writers, I do. That's why I spent 2 months crawling through tidepools to write a book about John Steinbeck; and more months crawling through his archives. It's why, when I write fiction set in Europe, I actually go to Europe, visiting every valley and back-alley and historical residence and train station and church that I plan to describe, even though I am writing fiction. Not only do I obsess about facts, I simply love facts, and real people, and real places.

    This is a fun and thoughtful conversation, because there are many shades to what we're all trying to say. I stand by 1) we all try to get things 100% right 2) chances are, we won't hit 100%, no matter our intentions or our expertise, so humility and forgiveness are required 3) I agree that the "vivid continuous dream" should not be needlessly broken by lazy errors 4) I also certainly believe in poetic license, judiciously applied and 5) if the facts are correct, but there is no deeper emotional truth or mustering of details into patterns of truly significant meaning — or "soul" as Cinthia put it — then the facts don't work alone.

    And yes, typos still bother me. Even though they, too, are inevitable — especially on a blog!

  12. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I love the "Mythbusters" of Alaska class concept. Sounds like it would make a great spinoff blogpost/essay as well!

  13. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    P.S. to Michael — you probably shouldn't exclude Sci-Fi from your list of genres that need to be careful with the facts. Every genre has its own conventions, but boy — break the rules of world, especially a serious sci-fi world — and you will hear hisses and boos from those readers as well.

  14. Bang on! I war often with authors who have missed an Alaska point or two (moose moseying down an arroyo, for example) and made some cringe-worthy assertions as well (no salmon swimming up rivers that empty into the Arctic Ocean, said I, way too firmly). For both sides, an Alaska fact-checking page would be great.

  15. For poetry, the rules are different, looser. Tone, voice, and sound come ahead of factual accuracy. A small instance: when the phrase "looping lark-like down" came up in my writers group, a birder suggested that larks are not particularly loopy in their flight. It was a love poem, however, not an ornithological treatise, and I really needed those Ls and Ks.

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