March 2 – 8: “Do publishers fact-check – or is that the author’s job?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Do publishers fact-check – or is that the author’s job? Join ITW Members Jean Heller, Francine Mathews, Rick Campbell, Mary Louise Kelly, Cecilia Ekback and Jeffrey B. Burton as they discuss the big mistakes they’ve spotted.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


The Bullet by Mary Louise KellyMary Louise Kelly spent two decades traveling the world as a reporter for NPR and the BBC. Her assignments have taken her from grimy Belfast bars to the glittering ports of the Persian Gulf, and from Hamburg mosques to the deserts of Iraq. As NPR’s intelligence correspondent, she reported on wars, terrorism, and rising nuclear powers. Kelly was educated at Harvard and at Cambridge University in England. She lives in Washington, DC and Florence, Italy with her husband and their two children.


Wolf Winter by Cecilia EkbackCecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden in a northern fishing town. Her parents come from Lapland. After university she specialised in marketing and worked for a multinational for twenty years with postings in Russia, Germany, France, Portugal and the Middle East. In 2010, she finished Royal Holloway’s Master in Creative Writing. She is now lives in Calgary, ‘returning home’ to the landscape and the characters of her childhood in her writing. WOLF WINTER is her first novel.


TheLynchpinCoverJeffrey B. Burton’s mystery/thriller, The Lynchpin, comes out February 24, 2015. His mystery/thriller, The Chessman (a serial killer is in hot pursuit of his own copycat), came out in 2012. Jeff is an active member of International Thriller Writers (ITW), the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the Horror Writers Association (HWA), and the International Association of Crime Writers – North American Branch. You can find him on his website, Facebook, and Amazon.


Francine Mathews is the author of 25 novels of mystery and suspense. A graduate of Princeton and Stanford, she spent four years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA, where she briefly worked on the Counterterrorism Center’s investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The New Yorker called her previous spy thriller JACK 1939 “the most deliciously high-concept thriller imaginable.” As Stephanie Barron, she writes the Jane Austen Mystery Series. She lives with her husband and two sons in Denver, Colorado.

Empire Rising by Rick CampbellRick Campbell, a retired Navy Commander, spent more than twenty-five years in the Navy, serving on four nuclear-powered submarines, finishing his career with tours in the Pentagon and in the Washington Navy Yard. On his last submarine, he was one of the two men whose permission is required to launch the submarine’s nuclear warhead-tipped missiles. Rick lives with his wife and three children in the greater Washington, D.C. area, and is working on the third and fourth books in this series, sequels to The Trident Deception (2014) and Empire Rising (2015), due out in 2016 and 2017.

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  1. Do publishers fact-check?
    In my experience, that answer is no and h*** no.
    Line editors who are assigned manuscripts by publishers are picky as all getout about grammar, spelling, syntax, and continuity. And that’s good. But factual errors seem to slip by them like a shoe skidding through bat guano.

    Let me give you a few examples.
    My first novel, MAXIMUM IMPACT, is about the attempt to cover up the cause of a horrific plane crash at Dulles International Airport. The plane was a brand new class of aircraft, like nothing that had been built before. The publisher didn’t send me a cover proof until the last minute, when it was too late for me to point out that the plane pictured there was a Boeing 747. Gah!

    A mega-successful thriller writer, whose name I won’t mention, was sometimes quite careless with his facts, and no one caught the errors – except readers.

    In one book he described field-stripping a weapon, and got it all wrong.
    In another, he described a car chase through Geneva, Switzerland. If the chase had unfolded as he described it, it would have taken place under water, on the bed of Lake Geneva.
    And in a third gaff, he described the massive explosion of a tank farm outside of Reykjavik, Iceland. The only problem was, in real life those tanks hold the city’s supply of hot water, heated by lava pits below, not petroleum. To my knowledge, hot water doesn’t explode.

    I don’t know how to field-strip a weapon, either, but if I needed to do that in a book, I would find someone who could lead me skillfully through the process.

    I’m not saying publishers never find embarrassing errors, but in my experience, it doesn’t happen very often.

  2. Do Publishers Fact Check?

    The answer in my experience is – yes, but only if something catches their attention. My editor and copyeditors have pointed out things that don’t make sense to them, but don’t count on your publisher to check the multitude of details weaved into your novel. That responsibility falls on the author’s shoulders.

    Even more so for me, since I write military thrillers that incorporate tactical protocols that reside in the realm of – if I say so, it must be true. Unfortunately, I don’t get everything correct, particularly when protocols have changed or the tactical systems or weapon capabilities have evolved since I last dealt with them. In most cases, I simply don’t know that I’m wrong and there’s no way my editor, copyeditor, or proofers will figure that out.

    So I rely on subject matter experts. I’m a submarine officer who served on four nuclear powered submarines, yet I have two former submarine commanding officers review all submarine-related scenes to make sure the scenes are accurate. I do the same thing in areas where I’m not a subject matter expert – I provide the relevant scenes to the experts I interviewed, to make sure I had no misunderstandings and everything is accurate. This process has saved my butt many times – they’ve caught numerous errors.

    One thing I learned quickly after publishing my first book, is that some readers are merciless when it comes to technical accuracy. I thought that what was important was writing a great story, and although I put a lot of effort into ensuring the technical details were accurate, I didn’t sweat it. I do now.

    1. Sounds like an excellent system, Rick. Do you find yourself gauging it so you don’t go overboard on technical information? I’ve been hammered by editors for providing too much detail that serves to slow down the story. So now I’ll research the heck out of a topic, and then do my best to distill it into a juicy paragraph or two.

  3. I imagine that publishers of non-fiction place a much higher emphasis on fact-checking than fiction publishers. However, for fiction, the primary burden is on the author, and then you hope the publisher’s editors will fact check anything that appears incorrect. Think of the research that Tom Clancy put into his novels (nuclear submarines, whatnot). I don’t think the content, line or copy editors are going to become the subject matter experts on topics that they assume the author to be the SME on as they need to focus on plot and continuity and grammar and typos.

    I do think an editor should double-check anything that smells wrong, especially since Google is at their fingertips. I read a novel from a major publisher that had the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act acronymed as HIPPA instead of HIPAA. The same novel also referred to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as SOCKS (like what you put on your feet) instead of SOX. I got on my high horse and sent the author an email at his website so they could fix it in the paperback. Glad he didn’t hunt me down and give me a fat lip.

  4. I think the author is responsible – completely, utterly – yes, it’s lonely – for his/her work. Any fact checking or querying that comes from the publisher is a bonus. When I wrote Wolf Winter – the support I got from US and UK editors were mainly on inconsistencies in the text or characterisations, grammar, word choices.

    It was different with the Swedish editors – naturally perhaps as it was their home country. They were harsher on the facts – often requesting source or evidence – which was great but new to me. Luckily by then all was in order apart from the name of one of the minor characters by then – whose name was not timely.

    I regretted I hadn’t kept a journal with references and source material to various historic events/facts – it would have been easier to do any later checks, and would have put my mind more to rest.

    1. Thanks for your input, Cecilia. Very much enjoy your writing and fact checking seems important to me in order to not look ridiculous to that specific knowledgeable reader. You never know who’s watching!

  5. Over the past two decades I’ve come to realize a dreadful fact: I always research the details I’m sure I don’t know. It’s the things I ASSUME I know, that I invariably get wrong.

    For instance: In my first Jane Austen novel, one of my characters heard Big Ben toll the hour in London.

    It’s a fixture in the landscape, right? Part of the Houses of Parliament?
    Only the clock and bell didn’t exist in 1802. I didn’t tumble to that fact until the book was in galleys.

    In my first Merry Folger Nantucket mystery, I set a scene in a famous Nantucket doughnut shop that has been an institution on-island forever. I had eaten the Downeyflake’s famous oat cake myself for years, while working as a teenaged nanny on Nantucket and later as a seasonal renter myself. I happily wrote about the wonderful place on Water Street as Merry waited in line for oat cake on on bright weekend morning. But unfortunately during the winter I wrote that book, the Downeyflake suffered a gas main explosion and the building was destroyed. They moved from Water Street, in the heart of Nantucket, where they’d been iconic for time out of mind, to the distant pale of the Rotary two miles away. When that book came out, people wrote derisively to tell me I needed a subscription year-round to the Inquirer & Mirror–because of course, I had to be current on EVERYTHING that happened on Nantucket as I wrote.

    I immediately subscribed.

    There’s a phrase we used to employ in intelligence analysis at the CIA to describe this phenomenon that plagues all chroniclers of a changing world: “My work has just been OBE’d.” That’s a clever little acronym that means: “Overtaken By Events.” I once spent six months analyzing a foreign politician in the belief he’d be elected to his country’s highest office, only to have him resign overnight as the result of a scandal. Six months of effort, OBE’d. My description of the Downeyflake was OBE’d. And unfortunately, I didn’t realize it until after the book was out.

    So no matter how scrupulous our efforts or those of our copyeditors to fact-check and ascertain, sometimes we must simply shudder and think: What am I certain, beyond all else, I KNOW?

    Because that’s what we’re certain to have gotten wrong.

    1. I like the term OBEd, Francine. I need to be especially careful writing books set in Chicago, a vibrant city which changes before my eyes nearly every day. I set a critical scene in my current book, THE SOMEDAY FILE, in a firehouse on the South Side. The firehouse was on Google Maps. But when I went looking for it, it was nowhere to be found. I finally figured out it had been moved for construction, but I didn’t know where. So I drove around and found another firehouse I could use. Two days of research into one scene, but in the end, I got it right. I have to do it. Nobody’s going to do it for me.

      1. NO! No one is going to do that for you–but if you hadn’t done it yourself, some reader would have been certain to tell you. I find that there’s an added problem when writing a scene set in the past, for readers familiar with the present. I had Jack Kennedy moving through a part of London on a street/access point that existed in 1939–but was reconstructed after the Blitz. Readers were quick to tell me “he couldn’t have gone that way.” Useful in such instances is the prop of a London map from 1939–which can be found on booksites like Alibris. Whenever I visit a city as it was sixty or eighty years ago, I try to purchase an ancient guidebook from that year. Not only do they tell you which hotels and restaurants were popular, which streets were named after which politicians of the day, and whether those streets looked different from their current incarnations–they have wonderful contemporary ads!

        1. That sounds like a good plan, Francine. I have a good friend who is one of the best mystery writers I’ve ever read, but he’s a masochist. He’s both a stickler for getting his facts right and he prefers to set his stories in 1930 Europe. He once spent a week researching what red wine would have been recommended for a cassoulet served in a Paris restaurant in 1936. When I asked him why he would go to that much trouble, he replied, “Somebody will know.”

    2. Great examples, Francine. Amongst a dozen cringe-inducing, life-shortening gaffes I’ve made, I once referred to Erle Stanley Gardner as “Earl” Stanley Gardner. Since then I’ve become as obsessive-compulsive about quadruple-checking names as some folks are about washing their hands.

  6. So many good points already in this thread.

    I’m endlessly fascinated by why it matters to us — both as readers and as writers — to get the details right. I mean, it’s FICTION, right? Who cares whether the protagonist field-strips his weapon correctly, or whether a Nantucket doughnut institution has moved location (to use two of the examples mentioned above)? The whole story — characters, plot, ending — are products of our imagination. Why not play fast and loose with a few facts?

    And yet it DOES matter, hugely. When I catch an error in a novel, it yanks me right out of the story. Soon I’m wondering, if the author didn’t bother getting basic facts right, why am I bothering to read this book at all?

    An example: If I had a dollar for every spy thriller I’ve read that misidentifies someone as a CIA agent, I’d be a rich woman. (Note to fellow espionage writers: CIA agents are the foreign assets that the CIA recruits and pays in the hope of stealing secrets. If you’re talking about an American who works undercover for the CIA, you’re talking about a case officer. It would also be correct to call him an intelligence official. Or, keep it simple: a spy.)

    This may seem like nit-picking. But anyone who knows the intelligence world will spot the error, and your credibility is shot, before you’ve even set up the chapter with the dead drop in Moscow, or the terror cell in Karachi, or wherever the action in your otherwise wonderful spy thriller is headed…

    1. We all want to be sucked into a good yarn, but that whole suspension of disbelief thing only stretches so far before it snaps. I drive my wife crazy barking at the TV if a show flies too far off the rails.

      1. Agreed. The funny thing is, I’m willing to forgive a lot of big-picture plot implausibilities if the author gets the mundane details right. You’ve got your protagonist single-handedly chasing an army of nuclear terrorists on motorcycles across Washington, DC? Sure, so long as you don’t have them turn the wrong way down a street that I KNOW is one-way going the other direction…

    2. I agree completely. I use case officer and intelligence analyst in my Agency-specific books, and some readers have no idea what I mean. I was tickled to watch CNN last week and catch an interview with a former US ambassador who kept referring to the “Iranian account.” That’s a CIA term, too–analysts and case officers refer to their “accounts,” meaning their region of expertise and responsibility, and the “assets” they’re handling (read: controlled agents) on that account. Hence the term “Company” for the CIA–it has always used business parlance as a minor cloak for the business of spying. It’s less usual to hear a State department officer do so.

      Which brings up another of my pet peeves: capitalization of that term. The correct title is Department of State. When people refer to it as the State department, only State should be capitalized. Copy editors always argue the point; but that’s US government convention. SO in some instances, we find ourselves fact-checking our editors and their staff…

  7. Facts are perhaps more important in fiction than non-fiction, since we’re already constructing a world of some kind from whole cloth, however much it resembles real life. These essential facts help bring to life the truth of our fiction.

    That may be a little crazy to assert, but there y’go.

    Case in point: I recently read a novel wherein the author proposed a new civil war in America, precipitated when a conservative Southern state decided it could no longer stand, basically, what was happening in Washington. The state mobilized its National Guard forces to secure its borders. Many of the Guard members disagreed with this action, but like most good soldiers everywhere, they followed their orders.

    The state considered federal forces as its enemy, underscored by several pretty kinetic tank battles. But the author never even breathed in the direction of the many dozens of military Reserve Centers that doubtlessly dotted the state. Not only could these federal troops be counted on to get orders to attack the Guard forces, but even absent this likely act, the Guard never thought of them as resupply depots when their own ammo and resources ran low.

    These are probably not factual miscues as much as plot holes you could drive an MRAP through, but they’re close enough for government work.

  8. I think it’s also important to have critique partners and beta readers who are familiar with your genre and setting. In my debut, Gemini, which will be released early May, the scene my critique partner questioned takes place in an older NYC school. The school psychologist character was having a conversation with a poorly trained teacher over her planbook. She told me there are no plan books anymore, they’re done online. She’s a Floridian in a new school with state of the art technology. The schools in NYC could have been built in 1928. I called a former colleague and yes, indeed, plans are still hand written, so I was good. But it’s little things like this that can cause misunderstanding. Since I’m the only thriller writer in my chapter, I’ve had some questioning scenes. I was taught to keep every bit of research sources and my files take up my desk. My pub who is very familiar with the genre hasn’t questioned anything. Research is my thing. Has to be real. Enjoying this conversation. Thank you!

  9. So here is a question – what about when ‘facts’ and ‘the truth’ is uncomfortable for the reader? In my book I write about the Sami people. The term ‘Lapp’ is derogatory but in 1717 when the book is set, it was the denomination used – also by the Sami people themselves. I was contacted by the Swedish publisher who felt very uncomfortable about me using the term ‘Lapp’ – I know, I do too – but I have researched it thoroughly – and so I stood my ground. The book comes out in Sweden in ten days time and I must say I am apprehensive…

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