Here’s the thing: Facts are a fiction writer’s friend. The more you know, the more facts you gather up in research and travel, the firmer the foundation of your writing.
It’s counter-intuitive, but true. You’re not gathering to regurgitate — that would be stenography. But your expanded knowledge will give strength and authenticity to your writing. It will also let you fly farther in your writing.
Here’s the other thing: If you don’t get the facts right, if your ignorance about something causes you to make a bone-headed error, it will take away from the authenticity of your writing and damage your story. It can be a small factoid error that stops a reader cold and causes them to drop your book and never pick up another one of your deathless prose sagas.
Case in point: A few years ago, I was watching the first episode of a Netflix series — Damnation. Early on, one of the villains, a Pinkerton agent, pops up from under a tarp and shoots the organizer of a farmer’s strike. As the camera focuses on the villain, you can see he is using a 1911 — the time-honored American military sidearm from before WWI through Vietnam, firearms inventor John Browning’s most enduring legacy.
The story is set in 1931. The only 1911s made during that time followed Browning’s original design, which Colt made available to the commercial market shortly after the first production models were shipped to the military in 1912. Colt and the U.S. government’s Springfield Armory made most of the World War I 1911s, with contracts for licensed models awarded to other manufacturers, many of them canceled with war’s end before a pistol was produced.
There were plenty of 1911s available as surplus following the war. Prohibition-era gangsters loved them. That original Colt, called the Government Model, had a spur hammer; a short and simple notched rear sight and a fairly simple front sight. Slight improvements resulted in the 1911A1, but it still had the spur hammer and iron sights.
As the camera zooms in on the villain’s 1911, I see that the gun has a modern, low-profile rear sight and a modern bobtailed and skeletonized hammer common to the many 1911 clones made by today’s manufacturers. It’s an old gun but it’s still a very popular gun, valued for its rugged design and knockdown power.
I’m a 1911 guy. So is the main character of my hard-boiled crime thrillers, Ed Earl Burch. It’s a gun I shoot well, like a lot and know a little about. I spotted this gaffe immediately — something any competent Hollywood gun advisor and prop guy should have known — and it irked me. But I kept watching a second episode. Up pops this anachronistic gun again, in a boudoir scene. I can see it’s also got a modern front sight set up for a tritium insert. Totally pisses me off. I quit watching. If they can’t get this small thing right, why the hell should I suspend disbelief and dive further into this story? I walked away.
Long way around the barn to say that facts are your friends and if you do your research well, they add tremendous power to your story. But if you’re sloppy with the details and don’t bother to do a little bit of research, a small error can stop your reader cold. And cause them to walk away from you. For good.
And don’t think there isn’t a reader waiting to Google your literary pearls and nail you with a gotcha. Been there.
NOTE: Jim Nesbitt is the author of three hard-boiled crime thrillers featuring Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch. Check them out at https://jimnesbittbooks.com