Why even fiction authors should get their facts right (We’re looking at you, Jennifer Close)

I spent eight years living “down the shore”—that’s a term many people from New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania use when referring to the Jersey Shore. I lived two blocks from the beach in Ventnor, one of the best places I’ve ever lived.

Even though I didn’t grow up in South Jersey I still consider it home.

So, I was excited when my old town came up while reading “The Smart One” by Jennifer Close“. Even though Close referred to it as “Ventnor City,” I wasn’t going to be put off. After all, that is the town’s proper name—even if no one calls it that.

But it became a big deal, as Close got nearly every other Ventnor detail wrong.

Close described the boardwalk with its shops and games. The family in the book played skee-ball. One of the girls had her hair braided. The characters also spent time in a T-shirt store on the Ventnor Boardwalk.

But here’s the thing: None of this could have happened. Because while there is a boardwalk in Ventnor, there aren’t any stores on it to speak of. None. Not one.

The Ventnor Boardwalk sits alongside houses and the occasional condo—but no shops. The town’s boardwalk connects to the Atlantic City Boardwalk, where you certainly will find those sorts of businesses—but the two towns are markedly different.

Interestingly, Atlantic City itself led to Close’s next mistake.

At one point in “The Smart One,” the family decides to head to Atlantic City to hit one of the casinos. Since Ventnor and A.C. border each other, this seemed reasonable. There were many, many nights I visited A.C. when I lived in Ventnor.

Close, however, writes that the family chose its trip to the Trump Taj Mahal because it was literally the only casino they knew. But that’s ridiculous. If the family had actually owned a Ventnor shore house for 30 years, as described in the book, it’s simply impossible that they wouldn’t be aware of a single other casino.

Here’s why:

1. There are literally dozens of casino billboards located up and down the Atlantic City Expressway, the main route to and from the Atlantic City area for anyone traveling from Philadelphia, where the family in the book lived. It’s just not feasible that every last family member would have failed to see even one such billboard.

2. What’s more, if you’re standing on the boardwalk or at the beach in Ventnor, you can actually see about eight of the Atlantic City casinos, which, again, are only about a mile away.

I realize, of course, that this sort of thing might not be that big of a deal to other readers. But Close’s mistakes were distracting, and as a result, essentially ruined the rest of the book for me. If Close hadn’t actually named the town—if she’d just written that the family vacationed at a nondescript place on the Jersey Shore—I wouldn’t have even been bothered by it.

But I lived there. She got the facts wrong about a placed I called home, and the picture at the top of this post proves it. I took that shot recently, while standing on the Ventnor Boardwalk. No shops on that boardwalk. The buildings in the foreground are apartments. And the buildings in the background to the right, with all the lights on them? Those are the casinos.

If authors are going to use actual places in their work, they really should know enough about them—either through first-hand experience or research—to make their writing at least somewhat digestible.

What are your thoughts?

19 Comments on Why even fiction authors should get their facts right (We’re looking at you, Jennifer Close)

  1. Research is necessary even if you are a fiction writer. While your case may be specific to someone who has lived at or near the Jersey Shore, what else didn’t the writer verify. While these examples may be extreme, without research perhaps the writer might have a character taking a medication that didn’t exist, driving a car that wasn’t designed yet, naming a child for a famous singer that wasn’t born yet, or any variety of possibilities. Even if the area the action takes place in isn’t named, every region has idioms, foods, fashions, etc that are indigenous to that area. Fiction may be fiction, but it should still be believable.

  2. There are roughly seven billion people in the world who have never even heard of Ventnor — until I read this post I was one of them — and only a few hundred thousand who have. If Jennifer Close believes it’s more important to entertain the larger group than to worry about the sensibilities of the smaller group, who are you to criticise?

    Seriously, fiction is created for entertainment purposes. If you’re reading it in search of information then you’re doing it wrong, and putting yourself at risk of making terrible mistakes. The world is already full of hare-brained people who believe they can learn facts from story books, largely because they’ve been misled by critics like you into believing that fiction ought to be true. Cleaning up after their messes is a major and expensive problem. Writers of fiction have no more obligation to tell the truth than writers of pop songs, and the sooner that becomes generally acknowledged, the better.

    There’s a whole section of the library called ‘non-fiction’ for people who actually need or want to learn stuff. If you select your reading matter from the other side, then you have no right to complain about its lack of veracity.

  3. Common Sense // July 13, 2013 at 6:21 pm //

    I agree wholeheartedly! I’m about 22% into an ebook that has had at least 3 major error in fact so far. 1) When a service member is killed, you don’t get a phone call, you get a personal visit to your door by a team. 2) The word “rye” was used when the author meant “wry”. 3) When service members are on patrol in Afghanistan and several people are coming toward them, and some of the team goes forward to search them, One of them doesn’t then do the suicide bomber thing after all but one of the team has walked by. Otherwise, what would have been the point of the search?

    If you’re going to base your story on Navy SEALs (or Rangers, etc.) then do your research and get your facts straight.

    Another location error that drove me nuts was a car chase on “steep mountain roads” where the car being chased had had it’s brake lines cut. The problem is that the author placed the scene 30 minutes SOUTH of Denver, where there are NO mountains, let alone steep ones. Does the author think that Denver is actually IN the mountains instead of on the plains to the east? All the author had to do was look at a map.

  4. I agree that authors should make an effort to get their facts right about locations. That’s one of the reasons I set my books close to home. I’ve visited most of the locations (except for those in nastier parts of town). It adds a level of realism that many readers enjoy. And if a reader doesn’t care? Well it doesn’t hurt anything to get your facts right.

  5. I’m reminded of the story Elizabeth Moon told once about a young writer who described a horse “lapping up” water. (They don’t. They put their muzzles in the water and suck it up.)

  6. It’s fiction. The city in the book isn’t the real city. For example, my university writing professor began his first novel The Lost Country from 1958 with an author’s note that explained the Charlottesville of his book is a town of his imagination and readers familiar with the real town should accept the anomalies. I’ve seen other authors say the same thing and I’ve always thought it a bit coy, but there is a good reason authors do it.

    The alternative method is to invent a place entirely a la Ed McBain so readers won’t complain that the character can’t legally park hid car on the left side of the street in afternoon on this block.

  7. I currently live in Ventnor, right on Little Rock between Atlantic and Ventnor Avenues. I have lived here for ten years and before that lived in Somers Point. I agree the idea of a local only being familiar with a casino on the marina is ridiculous, And Ventnor differentiates itself from Atlantic City by forbidding all businesses (save for a few restaurants within the condo/apartment buildings themselves) from plying their trade on the Boardwalk, as well as strict noise laws throughout the town. (Indeed, from Jackson Avenue (#4800), the southern border of Atlantic City and the southernmost Boardwalk casino, at about #3700 Boardwalk, there are no businesses at all).

    However, I can say in the past decade or so all my mail, all my shopping/internet deliveries, etc, have been addressed to Ventnor City, not Ventnor. Thus, when I give my address anywhere, I have gotten into that habit as well. Even when I fill out forms online and attempt to just enter “Ventnor”, the form auto corrects to Ventnor City.

    Anyway, I agree with you. With Google Street View and so many other sources available, this sort of thing is inexcusable. I recently read a story about the area that mentioned the “Margate Boardwalk”. Locals will know what is wrong with that statement!

  8. I’ve read oodles of books by US authors that get even basic facts about the UK wrong when they set their books here. It does create a certain amount of discord, but then it is only a story, as the word ‘fiction’ implies. If I want realism I open the door and go outside.

  9. Ah, but here’s the rub. You’re discussing how to be a good fiction writer. This lovely, red-headed, Chicago-raised Jennifer Close (I went to her website) knows how to be a successful one.

    Good writers research carefully. They get their facts right, as you point out. They build complex and interesting characters and spend hundreds of hours sweating over the details. In short they know what they’re writing about.

    Successful writers often aren’t like that. They pay little attention to what they’re writing about and spend their time understanding their readers.

    They know it matters little what coastal New Jersey towns are actually like. What matters is what their readers in Des Moines and San Francisco think those towns are like. They cater unabashedly to their readers’s ignorance, prejudice and desire. They tell them precisely what they want to hear. The average reader elsewhere in the country knows nothing about Atlantic City casinos other than perhaps the Trump Taj Mahal, so that’s all this New Jersey family knows.

    I can give a good example. A few months back I began reading a bestselling novel by a highly successful author. I gave him a pass on his first major factual blunder, spy satellites buzzing around like bees about a Middle-Eastern country. Satellites have to circle the world in orbits.

    But his second major blunder led me to abandon his book in disgust. He had what was obviously a military C-130 take off from the Midwest and fly without refueling to Italy. If he knew anything about aircraft, he’d know that the C-130 isn’t designed for long range. It’s intended to land on short, rough runways. Thirty seconds in Wikipedia would have told him that the aircraft’s range is about 1200 miles. It should have gone down in the ocean just off the East coast.

    But that’s not what his readers will think. For them, military satellites can buzz around like bees. For them, a big and loud military plane must be able to fly almost anywhere without refueling. You can multiple those examples into the hundreds.

    And no, the key to being a successful writer isn’t quite getting your facts, personalities, history, etc. all wrong. But it is getting them wrong in the precisely same way that your readers get them wrong. I’ve thought of writing a book with a title like Write Badly and Get Rich. But to do that, I’d actually have to research and read that sort of writers. I don’t have the stomach for that.

    So at present, I’m doing a series of books on topics I know well because I’m writing from personal experience. Those who cling to illusions won’t like them. Those who want life as it really is, with all its complex blend of joys and suffering, will.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children and Teens with Cancer (out soon)

  10. I have taught writing, and I write a blog on writing and publishing topics. This is what I said in one blog about mistakes.

    “Imagine that a reader gives you a dollar’s worth of trust by reading your book. That trust means she expects you to give her certain things like a good story, interesting characters, and competent craft, among other things.

    Every time your story fails in one of these elements, the reader takes away a bit of that money, and when there is no money left, the reader tosses the book without finishing it and will no longer trust you enough to buy the next book.

    When the reader spots a grammatical mistake, she may take a nickel out of that dollar, or if she really hates grammatical errors, that error may cost you a quarter or the whole dollar.

    Do you really want to risk losing that reader by being sloppy with grammar, research, science, or plot logic?”

  11. Susan Lulgjuraj // July 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm //

    I know there were going to be people who did not agree. I had a conversation about this with some friends, some who agreed, others who didn’t, but interestingly all had a tie to Ventnor.

    I think there is a difference between fiction and fantasy. I read fantasy books with the idea that this is a made up world and suspend belief while reading. When I am reading a fiction book about a relatively normal family in realistic situations, I expect a certain amount of facts to be correct.

    @Sally, the Ventnor City thing didn’t bother me. When I read the town, I was actually tickled. I thought it was cool that scenes would take place in Ventnor. It was everything about Ventnor afterward that bothered me. In one of the discussions I had with friends, we even talked about how the police force is VCPD (Ventnor City PD). It was the stores and not knowing casinos that kept making me shake my head.

    Thanks for the comments.

  12. If the book is entertaining, I really don’t care if its geography is correct. I’m reading a fictional story, not a textbook. While I might question a beach story set in Antarctica…though that actually has some possibilities in the dystopian genre…an imagined business or building doesn’t distract from my enjoyment of a good book.

    My hometown is a frequent background for fiction, and while I enjoy recognizing a landmark here and there, I also enjoy the way the author creates new details of my hometown in her mind. After all, the only reason we read fiction is to see inside the imagination of the author; who am I to police where she wants to go?

  13. I agree 100% with Susan, the author of this piece. If an author is going to set a book in a real place, then the references to that place should be completely accurate. I’m sure that all of you have experienced that little frisson of excitement that comes when an author gets it right about a place with which you are familiar. Because it is a work of fiction does not give you license to mess around with real places. If it is not possible to be accurate, then make up a place and you can say anything you want about it.

  14. I agree that if the author didn’t really know anything about the place she setting her story in, she should probably be more vague and not use an actual city name. And since it’s fiction, she could even make up a place with no problems.
    It would annoy me greatly if an author wrote about my home town with absolutely no idea of how it actually was. However, no author is probably going to write about a small Danish town with a population of about 50 people, so I should be good…

  15. One of my fiction tutors expressed the “dollar of trust” idea thus: Every story, no matter how exotic the locale, takes place in somebody’s back yard. At least one of your readers will be sitting in that back yard when she opens your book. Infelicities of place or plot will take the reader out of the story and into her own mind. Is that the effect you want? (My tutor used the example of a kind of wood used on a pistol’s handle. I know nothing about guns and would not have known that this selection would have made the gun too heavy to handle. But it pulled him right out of the story. Edgar Allen Poe argued that a work of fiction had to have a “unity of effect.” Stopping to consider that the writer does not know what he is talking about regarding pistol handles or boardwalk architecture destroys that unity.

    “Well, it’s fiction” is not a good enough reason for me, neither as a writer nor as reader, to suspend the realities of geography, or gun design, or history, or whatever. A writer whose work I have been advised to study and emulate has annoyed me greatly by relocating the Susquehanna River to western Pennsylvania, and calling an ordinary Sunday in May a “Marian festival” and therefore putting the (Roman Catholic) priest in blue vestments. Wrong on both counts. I stopped reading a friend’s published novel (in which I am mentioned in the acknowledgements) because she described the communion wafer as tasting of yeast. Obviously, we’re in my back yard (and I don’t even practice as a Catholic anymore!) — by definition (Canon law, even), a Catholic communion wafer is made with wheat flour and water only. No leavening.

    I read a manuscript in workshop once that described a baseball game. According to the text, the count was “2 and 3.” The writer meant that there were 2 strikes and 3 balls. I pointed out that you can’t have a count of 2 and 3, because balls are always given before strikes. A count of 2 and 3 means the batter is out. The writer shrugged and said, “Who cares. This is fiction.”

    In my own work, I have moved an actual train accident that occurred outside Reading in 1899 to 1863, because it fit my scenario. I’ve researched the possibilities of this, but should this work ever get published, I worry that someone will be able to prove that either trains didn’t move that fast or didn’t travel that particular stretch of track 30-some years before. In my present work-in-progress, I have renamed my fictional Pennsylvania coal regions town, enlarged the lake, and called the wind farm “Spruce Ridge” instead of “Locust Ridge.” I think these changes are acceptable. Probably somebody else won’t.

  16. In the age of Wikepedia and Google Maps etc., there’s no real excuse for not getting the details of real locations right. Yes, for many readers it may not matter, but for a reader who knows the place, the factual errors jolt them out of their immersion in the story. Of course in fiction, you can change the facts, but there needs to be a rationale and an internal consistency.

  17. Creating a fictional town rarely bothers readers since they are reading fiction.

    If, however, you are writing about a made-up town on the tip of Florida, and it’s always snowing, then the reader will have a problem.

    I can always tell when someone isn’t from the American South when they write about it because they get so much wrong, and I’m not talking about geography. Everything from when a flower blooms to attitudes.

    When I read the first “Stookie Stackhouse” novel by Charlaine Harris, I knew she really was from the South because she was dead on about Southern funerals and the nuances of behavior. No amount of research could have gotten it so right.

    As a writer, if you need to change a minor historical event or a minor bit of geography, you can cover your rear by putting in an afterward that explains the changes, but you still risk annoying readers who spot the mistakes.

  18. There is a huge difference between modifying a real city to fit fiction and getting the facts wrong. Authors can invent a deli on the corner of xyz street and have a shoot out where in the real world there is a laundry. Ok, maybe the author could have used the real deli on abc street, but the real owners might not like descriptions of their customers being gunned down. Errors of fact are when the author invents something impossible for the region like the snowstorms in Florida mentioned above.

    So I guess the question is if Jennifer Close crossed over into errors of fact,

  19. I just finished reading a book set in Chicago where several references to iconic landmarks were wrong. Not just locations but their cultural significance as well. Chicago is my hometown and it really bothered me to read these things. I often make it a point to read books set in Chicago or read authors from Chicago simply because I’m a Chicagoan. I feel that if the author is going to put such detail into their writing to add to the story they should go to the trouble to make sure it’s accurate. If not, why put it in? In stead of saying The Green Mill is a great blues club which it is not, it’s known for being a jazz club, say a great blues club on the north side. Or say a great club on the north side called the Green Mill. I have read other books set in Chicago which were fiction and the facts were spot on. You could tell the author lived in Chicago all their lives. Of course I use my city as a reference because I know it so well I can’t speak to any other books I’ve read set in other cities.

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