Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where Have All the Fact-Checkers Gone?

I thought nonfiction would be easy.

When I started Wealth Woman, my book on Kate Carmack and the Klondike Gold Rush, I’d already written a few novels - two published, with a few more in draft. Much as I love writing fiction, you have to make everything up. You have to create whole worlds and people them. Sure, you get to decide what happens when and to whom – but for every good choice a novelist makes, there are thousands of ways to go wrong.

Nonfiction would be so refreshing. So straightforward. The people are who they are. Events happen. I’d only have to gather the facts, then present them in a beautiful and compelling matter.


Take, for starters, the wrangling of those facts. If you’re going to contribute something meaningful on your topic, this requires a ton of work (and no small amount of cash). You have to slosh through multiple perspectives on each person and event, and from these you must fashion the truest version of truth. You can’t make a mistake. You have to get it right. There may be no such thing as a flawless book, but you can’t screw up repeatedly, or you’ll lose the trust of the reader.

Enter the fact-checker. I first learned that novels got fact-checked when Lodestar, an imprint of Penguin, published my first book, A Distant Enemy. The fact-checker pointed out that surely there were no Yup’ik Eskimos alive during the waning years of the twentieth century, when my book was set, who could recall the first time they’d met a white person. After all, the Russians had colonized Alaska way back in the 18th century.

But Alaska is a big place, I reminded the fact-checker (gently – it was my first book, and I didn’t want to be branded one of those difficult authors). Because there were no resources to lure the Russians inland to the tundra where my book was set, white people didn’t reach parts of that tundra until the first half of the twentieth century. Score one for the author: my character got to keep the snippet of dialogue in which he talked about the first time he’d seen a white person.

Considering the multitude of ways in which traditional publishing is cutting back, it’s not surprising that fact-checking now appears to be going the way of the pay phone. To my knowledge, my last few books have been fact-checked only by me. And judging from some books I’ve read recently, so it is for other authors.

Take a book on the Klondike I’ve been reading as research for Wealth Woman. Released by a reputable press that specializes in literary fiction and nonfiction, it’s a lively, well-written nonfiction treatment of what went on in Dawson City between 1896 and 1899; in fact, it’s so nicely done that it’s in production as a Discovery channel miniseries.

It’s the sort of book you’d recommend to your friends, if it weren’t for some really big boo boos. Over and over and over, the author talks about the Chilkoot Pass running through the St. Elias Range. (It runs through the Coast Mountains.) She describes hillsides blooming with wildflowers in mid-April, even before the ice breaks up: fireweed, wild roses. (These bloom in June.) Most grievous of all, when she mentions First Nations people, the author gets the band/tribe affiliation wrong almost every time, which leaves the unfortunate (and I believe unintended) impression that they’re all more or less interchangeable.

My purpose here is not to come down hard on authors, which is why I’m not naming this particular author or her book. I’m from Alaska, and if Missouri is the “show-me” state, Alaska is the “you don’t know me” state: we have something of a reputation for jumping on anyone who doesn’t “get” the details of who we are and how we live – and I’ve never wanted to be one of “those guys.” But we authors need to understand that in this BNWP (Brave New World of Publishing), the fact-checking responsibility most likely lands squarely on us – and in the internet age, when facts can be checked by pretty much anyone, anywhere, the burden of truth has never been greater.

What’s an author to do? Pay attention. Don’t make assumptions. Twist arms to get experts to read your drafts. Crowdsource if you have to.

Fiction, nonfiction – it matters not. What we do isn’t easy, and increasingly, we have only ourselves to rely on, especially when it comes to getting our facts straight.