A few goofs can make readers doubt.
The review gave a glowing recommendation, underscoring the meticulous research behind The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.
The author’s note speaks of using the subject’s “letters and papers, declassified U.S. and British government files, Freedom of Information Act requests, and my own interviews.”
The book devotes three pages to acknowledging those who assisted with the research and offered guidance into obscure topics. Then come eighty pages of source notes.
Those are all marks of thorough research — underscored by the book being printed in hardcover by a major New York House.
So will readers find any cause to take issue with the contents? Unfortunately, yes. At least I did.
In Chapter 3, I read about someone in 1916 being given a ride in a “Stutz Bearcat, a roadster with a four-stroke engine.”
That stopped me cold. While I don’t know much about codebreaking, I do know something about cars.
While I don’t know much about codebreaking, I do know something about cars.
With some notable exceptions, almost every gasoline-powered car ever built has used a four-stroke engine. (The alternative, a two-stroke engine — like what’s used in chain saws — requires mixing oil with the gas.)
The Stutz’s engine was four-cylinder, but that was also typical for the era. More significantly, the street-legal racecar featured a 390-cubic-inch engine that developed sixty horsepower (triple that of Ford’s Model T).
All that ran though my head as I tried to digest that sentence — and reconcile it with the claim of thorough research. If an author stumbles with an obvious fact, what of those areas about which I know nothing?
What’s an author to do?
First, their research. Dig deeply into every topic — all of them — with which you’re not familiar. Then take the step of having your writing checked by experts. Several of my favorite novelists make a practice to thank those who’ve offered not only initial guidance, but also manuscript review.
Take the step of having your writing checked by experts.
Even then there will be blind spots. (Automotive history has nothing to do with cryptography.) That’s where “beta readers” come in. In many well-crafted books, you’ll see authors thank a select handful of people with wide-ranging expertise — like a panel of Jeopardy contestants — who know something about nearly everything.
That’s also a good criteria when selecting your book’s editor. Someone familiar with your genre, good. That plus a Jeopardy champion, even better.