May 29 – June 4: “Do publishers fact-check?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Do publishers fact-check – or is that the author’s job? This week ITW members Jean Harrington, Elena Hartwell, Ovidia Yu, Alan Drew and Christine Goff will discuss who’s ultimately responsible.


Writing advertising copy for Reed & Barton, Silversmiths, was Jean Harrington’s first job. Then for 17 years, she taught English literature at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  After moving to Naples, she began dreaming of murder—and the award winning, tongue-in-cheek Murders by Design Series is the result. On September 1, Murder on Pea Pike (What happens when a hot property meets a cold corpse?), the first book in Jean’s new Listed and Lethal Series will be released.


Ovidia Yu was born in, lives in and writes about Singapore. After a happy childhood spent reading, drawing comics and dramatizing stories, she dropped out of medical school because while medicine is fascinating, she didn’t want to be a doctor. One of Singapore’s most prolific playwrights, Ovidia has had over 30 plays produced. The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first book in her Crown Colony Series.


Elena Hartwell spent years in the theater before turning her dramatic skills to fiction. She writes the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series. One Dead, Two to Go, Two Heads Are Deader Than One, and Three Strikes, You’re Dead (launching April 15, 2018). According to Peter Clines, Eddie Shoes is “the most fun detective since Richard Castle stumbled into the 12th precinct.” Elena lives in Twin Peaks, called North Bend, Washington in the real world. The perfect place for a writer, especially one who kills people for a living.


Alan Drew is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, Gardens of Water. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An associate professor of English at Villanova University where he directs the creative writing program, he lives near Philadelphia with his wife and two children.



An award-winning author and Rogue Woman, Chris Goff‘s recent international thriller, RED SKY, hits the stands June 13th. Set in Ukraine and Asia, Agent Raisa Jordan tests the boundaries of diplomacy as she races to prevent the start of a new Cold War. Catherine Coulter had this to say: “Breathtaking suspense, do not miss Red Sky.” Goff’s series debut, DARK WATERS, was dubbed “a sure bet for fans of international thrillers” by Booklist, and nominated for the 2016 Colorado Book Award and Anthony Award for Best Crime Fiction Audiobook.


  1. I think of this as a two-part process. It’s ultimately the author’s responsibility, but I have found that my developmental editor is great at pointing out places in my manuscript where it’s either unclear I have the facts correct, or she questions if I have things correct. This forces me to either clarify what I intended to say or double-check my facts. (I love doing research, so this is usually fun for me.) For example, my developmental editor recently asked if a case would fall to the local sheriff or the local police.

    That’s a great example of a spot where I am responsible for having the facts correct, but I might also want to clarify why my private investigator would choose to go to the sheriff rather than the police, to demonstrate it’s accurate. While it might be true that my PI would go to the sheriff not the police, I need to be specific about the situation to show why that would be the right choice in the real world.

    My line editor is also great at that final pass on facts as well as line notes. For example, in “Two Heads are Deader Than One,” the second book in my Eddie Shoes Mystery Series, she caught that I had a character looking at an Auto Trader Magazine. She knows it’s only available online. I missed that, having not looked at one for twenty years or so. It’s always good to have multiple sets of eyes, because sometimes we don’t know what it is we don’t know until someone else points out we don’t know.

    1. I find it very interesting to hear that other writers have had situations where editors have questioned truths. The idea that you’ve had to go back and clarify and better establish character motivations and/or situations to make the reader believe what’s true is something I’ve experienced. It makes it ever more clear that it’s less about actual truth in fiction, but what is made believable.

      1. Yes Yes Yes to the ‘make believable’ . That’s definitely what I need most world-reality vs fact check help with!

  2. Publishers definitely fact-check and so do authors. The task is doubly onerous when the writer is self-published and every glitch falls on him. But in the more traditional setting, the writer depends on the editor’s eagle eye to spot anything amiss, and the acquisitions team depends on the ability of the writer to get “it” straight in the first place.

    When errors creep into a text, though sometimes small and hardly noticeable, they are, nonetheless, cringe worthy for both parties, if not downright embarrassing. Hence Rule #1: Don’t take anything for granted.

    Doesn’t that character have blue eyes in Chapter 1, not brown?
    Wasn’t that address 1500 Maple not 1600?
    I thought that character’s name was Jane on page 10, not Jean.

    Of course, the potential for larger errors exists as well and ups the potential embarrassment. In the manuscript of one of her books, a writer friend described the exterior of a well-known Florida hotel as pink. In preparing the book for publication, her developmental editor had the foresight to Google the hotel and found that it was really pale yellow. While the book was being written, the hotel had been transformed. When told of this discrepancy, my writer friend felt she had dodged a bullet—and she had.

    So for both publisher and writer, the cautionary tale here is beware. “Facts” can be slippery little devils.

    1. You mention how important it is for the self-published writer to fact check their own work. I would think for the self-published hiring a copy editor and a content editor would be a must. I am so thankful for both my editor and copy editor. Not sure how anyone gets by without the second eye.

  3. In my experience there’s fact checking throughout the process–from first draft to copy-edited last–but you’re expected as the author, and as the expert of your own subject matter, to be on top of your facts. In my first book, which is set in Istanbul, it was imperative that I get cultural, historical, and geographical details right since I, having lived in Turkey for three years, had far more expertise about the place than did anyone at the publisher. I checked and rechecked everything, consulted photos, hung maps on my wall, checked with Turkish friends, yet even after all that I was embarrassed at all the mistakes that were in the final draft of the novel that went to the copy-editor. (Copy-editors are amazing people, though they must be OCD and can make you feel like an idiot for all you don’t know about the English language!) This copy-editor even discovered every mistake I made in my Turkish. But despite all this, still things slipped through and I’ll tell you right now, all my Turkish friends let me know every little thing that got through that line of defense.

    With my new book, I was fictionalizing a real town (Irvine, CA) but writing about real places surrounding it in the LA basin. I wanted the freedom to fictionalize the city in which the story was set without having to get all the geographical details right. Also, I wanted to compress the geography to give me more freedom in terms of where things took place. The problem I ran into with my copy-editor was a question of latitude: since this is a fictional town set in a non-fictional place, how much freedom did I actually have to make geography up before I destroyed the sense of verisimilitude? For instance, there’s a climactic scene in the book that takes a place in a real canyon, Limestone Canyon (or The Sinks) in the Santa Ana Mountains. I like the place and the name and wanted to keep it. To get to the canyon, the killer has to drive his car on a dirt road through the mountains. But I needed him to have access from another part of the hills that didn’t have a road. So I simply created a road and named it some dark sounding name I liked, thinking this is fiction I can do whatever the hell I want, but she wouldn’t have it. Once I named a real place, the rest of the geography had to be correct. And she’s right. If a reader knows Limestone Canyon and I don’t have the surrounding details correct, the illusion of reality is destroyed. It can take one stupid little thing to ruin that illusion, and once you’re found out the reader doubts your authority.

    So it takes diligence throughout, from the author to the editor to the copy-editor–and everyone checks everyone else before the books sees the bookstore.

    1. Alan, I’m in that exact same spot with book three of my series. It’s set in a fictional resort in a real place and I’m dealing with how much I can “fictionalize” the actual geography. Fingers crossed my publisher accepts my choices.

      1. Yeah, its tough. You want the freedom, but once people found you out it can sort of blow up on you. If I was to do it again, I would probably just fictionalize everything. Kind of difficult to cut a hole out of real geography and just call it something else. Good luck with it.

        1. Thanks Alan. I’ve had similar thoughts about fictionalizing everything. Unless I set something in Paris. Then I need to go on several site visits…

          1. I love your dedication and how you’re so willing to sacrifice yourself to research Paris! 🙂

      2. I had to laugh. I set my mystery series in Estes Park, and the publisher made me change it to “Elk Park.” In Book #4, I needed the lake to freeze. For a variety of reasons, Lake Estes doesn’t freeze in the winter, despite the elevation and snowfall. You’d be amazed at the number of people who let me know that Lake Estes doesn’t freeze. I was very happy to be able to tell them, “Maybe not, but Elk Lake does.”

    2. I had a similar experience writing my thrillers set in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It’s amazing the amount of research and fact-checking that goes into writing scenes set in real places. Yet, don’t you think it’s the fact they are set in places like Turkey and Ukraine that add to the allure and depth of the stories?

  4. I agree with what Elena, Jean and Alan have said–authors fact check all we can but it’s a huge blessing to have an anal retentive OCD publisher!

    But I’m going to stick my neck out and put the bulk of fact-check ‘responsibility’ on the publisher, especially when it comes to mystery writing.

    Because the author’s main/ greatest/only real responsibility is creating the hook that lures a reader into the Suspension Of Belief roller coaster and maintaining the momentum to keep her there.

    The publisher’s final fact-check makes sure the roller coaster rails are all connected, there’s nothing (and no one) lying on the tracks and everyone is seat-belted in…

    1. I’m not sure I agree, though I like the idea. I often find myself writing things about which my publisher and copy editor have no in-depth knowledge. I think there’s a limit to the amount of research a writer can expect their editor and copy editor to do on their behalf.

      1. I don’t expect my publishers to do any research other than point out where my gaps trip them up–because that indicates I’ve either left out info I assumed they’d have or (more likely) made a mistake!

        1. That makes total sense, Ovidia. I think it’s an interesting thought as to how much they go in-depth in order to fact check. Like Alan said about Turkish, my publisher did, in fact, double check my Russian/Ukrainian phrases and came back with the more informal way something would be said vs. the formal construction I’d gone with. Made a big difference for the foreign readers.

  5. Publisher’s fact check, but in my opinion, the author better make sure that things are right. It’s the author’s name that goes on the book, and the author who will hear from readers when she gets things wrong.

    My first book was A RANT OF RAVENS, a birdwatcher’s mystery featuring a reluctant birdwatcher named Lark Stanhope, a recently jilted New Yorker who was visiting her aunt in Colorado. Pressed into “pishing” for birds down by the creek—pishing is where someone walks along the bushes whispering “pish, pish” in order to draw out the curious birds to where the birdwatcher can get a better look—Lark hears an inordinate amount of crackling in the bushes and thinks “OMG, a mountain lion.” When I got the manuscript back from my New York publisher, she had written in the margin, “Oh, Please. Who would believe a mountain lion?”

    Now, to put this in perspective, the book was set in “Elk Park,” a dead ringer for Estes Park, Colorado. The publisher made me change the name—probably so they wouldn’t have to fact check so many things. That said, Estes Park is considered the “Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park,” and there are lots of mountain lions. And the mountain lions come down near the creek. Clearly my New York editor didn’t know that.

    In that case, I fact checked the fact checker. I did go back and set the scene to make it easier for my readers (namely my editor) to believe. It took one sentence, judiciously planted earlier in the story, where Aunt Miriam hand Lark a brochure entitled “Living in Lion Country,” and warns her there have been mountain lion sightings down by the lake. I also added a piece of dialogue where my character says, “Oh, please….”

    For both of my thrillers, DARK WATERS and RED SKY (which is coming out June 13th), I double checked my facts. The first book is set in Israel, and I was thrilled when so many people commented on how it made them feel like they were actually there. RED SKY is starts out in Ukraine, and I also traveled there in order to get the details right. I trust my readers will send me emails and let me know what I have wrong. More importantly, a certain number will send me emails to let me know what I got right.

    1. I love how you kept the mountain lion fact while making it easier for your editor (and readers like her) to accept!

    2. I agree that authors need to make sure things are right and not rely on editors. It’s your name on the book, your rep and readers aren’t going to blame the editors at the publishing house. They are going to blame you, stop believing your authority as a writer (and once you lose that, you’ve got nothing as a writer), and maybe even stop reading the book.

      It’s especially important if you’re writing about a foreign place, as you rightly point out since you can quickly move beyond getting small, insignificant details wrong and stumble into unfair misrepresentations of culture. For me, that moves into ethical territory and issues of appropriation. In the follow up to SHADOW MAN, which I’m working on now, I’m trying to write about Vietnamese refugees escaping from Saigon in 1975, and follow their resettlement in Southern California. This is a dicey thing for a white male writer to do, and some would suggest that I shouldn’t try. (This is still an open question for me.) If I am to do it, the burden that I get things right is very high since I want to be sympathetic to that experience and not misrepresent it. I’ve been talking with a Vietnamese-American writer friend of mine who was a child when her family escaped Saigon. She’s directed me to the Vietnamese Oral Project out of UCI, which archives personal stories of this experience. I’m also reading a ton of history of the fall of Saigon, the refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam, and California, and the whole sponsorship and resettlement process. But it’s more than that, too. Knowing elements of the language, of familial interactions, personal and religious beliefs and practices, food and ingredients, etc. and how being in a new country puts pressure on that culture. It is my responsibility to get these things right since I’m in a position of power by telling and publishing these stories which might (should I have readers!) sway how people think about these real people.

      I cannot rely on the editor for this. They’re going to expect that I have some expertise about culture. Besides, in my experience a lot of people in the NYC publishing world don’t know much about what exists beyond Manhattan! (Well, throw Brooklyn in there, too.)

      1. Wow, you’ve taken on a tough task, but it sounds like your dedicated to getting it right. I’m impressed. Plus it’s clear your passionate about your story.

        As for writing from a different culture’s pov, people do it all the time. You may run into one or two who don’t like it, but I doubt most will mind if you’re respectful of the differences and accurate in your interpretations. I’ll be watching for the book!

  6. I’d like to pick up on what Jean mentioned about the importance of getting internal facts straight (blue/brown eyes, Jean/Jane) and push it a little further.

    Because what are facts other than generally accepted assumptions? Certain things I assumed were common facts when writing (in Singapore) were unfamiliar enough to trigger questions from my publishers in the United States and United Kingdom.

    When this happened, unless absolutely essential to the plot, I adjusted my perception of ‘facts’ to theirs rather than leaving in points that might trip up rather than enhance. As Alan says, maintaining the illusion is the really important thing.

    And of course it can be difficult to define ‘facts’. For example some Japanese text books still claim it as a ‘fact’ that the Occupation happened because Singapore begged Japan to free us from Colonial domination. If they had won WWII (that begins just after the end of The Frangipani Tree Mystery) that ‘fact’ would be in our textbooks and no doubt in my mysteries too.
    But then I would be writing in Japanese and probably not posting here.

    1. Ovidia, I think that’s so interesting that you adjusted the perception to fit with the common assumptions versus fighting the issue. I agree. Unless it’s critical to your plot, there is no reason to fight to change common beliefs. I had a friend who write a book set in the 1800s that featured a family traveling across the Great Plains. She had a few things happen in her books that jarred with common perceptions–minor things (and for the life of me, I can’t pull an example at the moment), but actions that the pioneers took that went against things I’d learned in school. It didn’t make any difference to her plot, but because there were several instances, it strained the author’s credibility with the reader. I thought at the time that she should consider changing those things, omitting those things and/or setting things up so that readers would accept the “change to the norm.” She refused to make any concessions, and she received a lot of letters and criticism–all of which she responded to citing the facts. In the long run, I don’t think she altered anyone’s thinking and only created issues for herself with her next story.

      1. As a child I read something that went into great detail on the difficulty of finding menstrual rags and toilet wipes (probably factually accurate) which completely overshadowed the rest of the book for me. (I’d expected something like the Little House books) I know there was an absent-turned out murdered father but aside from that, nothing.
        And no, the toilet difficulties had nothing to do with the plot.
        I did look up menstruation after reading this book though, so it wasn’t a complete waste!
        (If any of you wrote this, please forgive me–I was very young then–and send me the title so I can find it and give it another go!)

        1. How hilarious! I can tell you, I didn’t write that. It had to be something that fascinated the author if they insisted on putting it into the story regardless of whether it was important to the plot. What is it they say, “Kill your darlings.” Sometimes that is the best advice.

          It brings up the idea of how much research is too much, too. I know I sometimes wish I could put things into the book that I know just don’t belong. It’s hard to resist sometimes.

          1. I know, right? There are some fascinating details that just don’t fit. And sometimes you’re (I am, I mean) tempted to write something around them just so I can ‘use’ them with justification.

            Maybe we can talk about facts that demand their own fictions next time! 🙂

  7. Ovidia and Chris, I agree with your assessment of assumptions seen as facts being a potential problem for writers. I guess in a perfect world, the reader would be willing to leave all disbelief at the door, along with his muddy shoes, and accept, fully, what the page contains. But I guess suspension of disbelief–or not–is a subject for another Roundtable discussion.

  8. As an avid reader, I appreciate authors/editors/publishers/friends/relatives/pets who do the fact-checking before a book is published. Alan got it right when he said that once you mention a real place, everything in that place must be real. There are two books by well-known authors that stick out in my mind for this type of error. In one, the author mentions the time in Washington DC and in Seoul, South Korea. No matter if it was daylight savings time or not, there was no way the time difference could have been correct. In the other instance, the author’s protagonist-lawyers drove out of the gates of a prison and watched them disappear in their rear-view mirror. That prison is in my hometown and it has never had a gate that you could drive through, nor is it situated in a way that they would be visible from a car driving away.
    It took me a long time before I read books by either author again, even though I’d loved them in the past. Believe me, from a reader’s standpoint, I need my fiction to be factual as well as believable.

    1. That’s a very good point. I know I’ve let one thing slip, but if it happens more than once, it strains credibility and I tend to respond the same way, by putting the book down or steering clear of the writer in the future.

    2. Great comment Teri. Question for you – as a person who writes about murders, I typically create a location that would be appropriate for the area, without being a real place for where the murder takes place. So, for example, I might describe the house, but not give a street name. Or use a street, but not a number that exits. etc. How do you, as a reader, feel about some fictionalization for the location of a crime?

      1. Elena, that works perfectly. Since it’s not a real place, as long as you keep your fictional facts straight (not calling it James Street in one place and John Street in another) I prefer it. A few thriller authors have intimate knowledge of certain places and they use that knowledge to make the story more interesting…Linda Fairstein comes to mind. However, having so much detail in a story often takes away from the story itself. If I weren’t a history buff, I’d be bored with Fairstein’s books. As for your question, I really do prefer fictional places. Less chance of messing up. 🙂

        1. Oh! And one other thing: You can take comfort in the fact that 99 people out of 100 won’t notice most types of errors! 🙂

    3. These trip lines irk me terribly too! And not only in location/ geography!

      An observation: I once attended a Tess Gerritsen talk where she mentioned how stringently she fact checks and how only once had she ever conceded an objection was valid: in that book she had someone drive down a (correct) road into a (correct) carpark outside a (correct) building, but as the Objector said, “You can never find a parking place there at noon,”
      (this wouldn’t have read-tripped me but I love it!)

  9. I find that keeping a thriller real means not bombarding the reader with too much information. When I read a book and it has intricate details about everything I find my attention drifting. In my writing, I try and keep it real with some factual detail but don’t overload the reader with too much information. I find I discard a lot of what I research and find some of what I’ve looked up though I thought it was relevant at the time is totally irrelevant for the novel. I’m trying to develop a style of fast-paced page-turning fiction, the type of book I like to read. With research, the main responsibility has to be with the author for they’ve put everything into their work and know the story much better than any editor could ever hope to.

    1. Well said. I’m trying to develop a similar style, though I’ll admit it’s hard to leave certain things out. My new mantra will be “Keep it real. Don’t overload the reader.”

    2. I totally agree with this — I think we have to do as much research as we can, but not include any more than is necessary. That may be part of why what we do include, we need to get right!

  10. Paul and Chris, Good point you both make about “sensory” overload. As Elmore Leonard famously said when asked why his books were so popular(paraphrased here), “I leave out the parts people skip.”

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