There appears to be a theme developing this week, and I'm nothing if not a sheep (baaa) so allow me to continue the thread. My system of research is roughly akin to loading a shotgun with bird pellets and firing away: I'm all over the place. Although I love doing it, research has never been my strong suit (one of the reasons I shy away from historicals, and have the utmost respect for writers like Clare who are brave enough to tackle them). And yet I do attempt to make my books as accurate as possible, from the description of a corpse that's spent three weeks in sea water to the nitty gritty of jurisdictional issues in law enforcement (not to mention everyone's personal favorite, weapons accuracy. Repeat after me: Glocks do not have safeties).
So I spend a few months prior to each book diving into a series of books and websites, some of which relate directly to what I'm writing about, some of which I stumble across along the tangential trail that my creative process invariably takes. Since I don't work from an outline, instead "flying by the seat of my pants," the synopsis that I submit to my editor always turns out to be laughably inaccurate by the end. The research always takes the book in new, strange directions.
Like everyone else, I make liberal use of travel books, Google Earth and for my latest thriller, sites as varied as the Southern Poverty Law Center, anarchy/bomb making sites, and neo-Nazi recruiting sites. I'm pretty sure those visits have landed me on a watch list somewhere.
But here's where I draw the line on accuracy. In Boneyard, I needed a quarry. And not just any quarry: a limestone quarry, right off a main road that exists in Western Massachusetts where the book was set. So you know what? I put one there. Then I moved an abandoned Civil Defense bunker three towns over to suit my purpose. The rest of the book is completely accurate, as far as I know.
When you set a book in a real location, and mess around with geography in this manner, you expect a certain amount of critical emails. So you can imagine my surprise when the only complaints I got were as follows:
I've enjoyed reading your book but I am disturbed about one error. It's on pages 187 and 188.
If you are going to incorporate a bird into your story, please check it and spell the name correctly.
It's "Kirtland's Warbler" not "Kirkland's Warbler."
Yikes. Now, I went back and checked my notes, and "Kirkland's Warbler" came directly from a New York birder who swore that would be his dream sighting (so wouldn't you assume he'd get the name right?) A search produced the name with that exact spelling- and, when I double-checked, an alternate spelling with a "T." The fact that this apparent error "disturbed" someone enough to limit their enjoyment of the book was, needless to say, somewhat disconcerting. But no mention of that imaginary quarry and relocated bunker.
Well, I told myself, you can't be right 100% of the time. Then I got another email:
Anyone sensing a wildlife theme here? Went back to double-check and it turns out that my intrepid hiker is correct. I'll confess, my knowledge of wildlife is somewhat spotty. To me, a bear is a bear, and I'd prefer not to get close enough for a true color test. It hadn't even occurred to me to investigate this. I knew there were bears in the Berkshires, even saw one once when I lived there (and to this day I'd swear that the overall appearance was brown. Although I was heading fast in the opposite direction, so it's hard to be sure).
So the moral to the story is you can research until your eyes bleed, but somewhere in those 100,000 words there's bound to be one or two inaccuracies that neither you, your editor, copy-editor, agent, or 10-12 Beta readers will catch. And someone will find that mistake disturbing.
Fake quarries, though? Use them at will.