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How to Find Experts to Help You Fact-Check Your Novel

When writing a novel, it's important to get all the facts right. Finding an expert to help fact-check your novel can help you correct mistakes.

In a previous article, we looked at how you can find and work with beta readers; people who read your manuscript and give you comments on the plot, characterization, dialog, and more. Writing is a lonely task, and it’s important to find people you can trust to share their opinions on your work. For the most part, these beta readers can give you general feedback about a novel. But they can’t help you with more specific elements that require specialist knowledge.

When you’re writing about a specific profession or time period, you get everything right. If you make mistakes, it’s likely that many if not most readers won’t notice it, but you’ll certainly hear from those who are familiar with a certain subject or profession who will gleefully correct you.

Many writers of crime fiction befriend police officers and use them as sounding boards to ensure that the descriptions of police activities in their books are correct. If you write science fiction, you may want to find beta readers who can critique the use and description of science in your novel, real or imagined. And if you write a historical novel, it can be helpful to get a real historian, who is familiar with your setting, to give your manuscript a once over.

There are many books written for writers describing police procedures, forensics, and legal processes, and there are books about certain historical periods for writers. But let’s say you’re writing a novel where air traffic controllers are important to the story. It may not be easy to find the kind of documentation that you need that explains how they work. Or what if you’re writing a romance novel set on a cruise ship? You may have taken cruises, and you may know enough about how it feels to be a guest on one of those ships, but it can be useful to know what goes on behind the scenes, because this could help you create interesting plot points, or introduce characters from the crew.

You should check everything that you can on your own, using reference books and online tools, on your novel during the final editing stage. Start by going through your manuscript or draft and highlighting the elements that need to be checked. You may need to check things like place names or the descriptions of specific places, and these can all be found using tools like Google Maps. To ensure that you’ve described real places correctly, you can use Google Street View, which lets you see exactly what many locations look like, allowing you to provide detailed descriptions without taking trips to do research.

For other types of fact-checking, there are many resources available online. You can look up specific topics in academic journals and authoritative websites related to specific subjects, and Wikipedia is quite good as well. (But don’t blindly trust what you read there; follow the sources cited, and make sure they are reliable.)

Depending on the subject you’re dealing with, it may be enough to do some online research, as long as you don’t go into too much detail. When you have more than you can find, you can try reaching out to experts in the fields you discuss. You can find people like this through professional networks, social media platforms, or online forums, and you may even find some in writing communities such as Goodreads; there are lots of writers who have expertise from their careers and who would be willing to share. In some cases, you may only have a few questions, and these can be answered quickly.

Where things can get more complicated are not so much the facts but the way people work, or the way specific objects work. For example, there is a very popular writer of thrillers who spends pages and pages talking about the guns used, yet who has been criticized for not understanding how specific guns work. This doesn’t bother most readers, but people who know about guns end up distrusting this author. A bit of research, and the help of an expert, might have avoided disdain from people familiar with guns.

Fact-checking can take a certain amount of time, even for experts. When you contact someone, explain the premise of your novel and the specific information you need to verify. Provide a brief summary of your story and explain what you would like them to review. In many cases, you may just want a few facts to be checked, but some novels may require more attention, and this may be difficult for busy professionals. But some experts might be avid readers, and relish the idea of helping out an author.

When you’ve found someone willing to help you, send them excerpts or sections from your novel that you want vetted. Highlight specific statements, events, or details that you want them to review, so they can focus on the areas that need attention. In some cases, it won’t take long for an expert to look over a few dozen sentences and confirm whether you got things right or not. But sometimes, checking the behavior of people as they do a specific type of work, throughout a novel, requires a more thorough read.

It’s important to provide a reasonable timeframe to review your queries. Remember that these professionals are often busy and may not be able to read a manuscript as quickly as you need, so it’s important to agree to a schedule. One suggestion is to find experts in the field you need fact-checked who are retired, and who may have more time.

There’s lots to do when finishing up a novel, and fact-checking may not be high on your task list. But it’s an important element of the final editing process, and getting facts wrong can annoy the readers who spot mistakes.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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