Why Details Matter and How to Get Them Right

On December 11th, 1998, NASA launched a space probe called the Mars Climate Orbiter.  All was going well with this space nugget until, less than a year later, NASA lost communication with the probe. It was eventually determined that it vaporized in the upper atmosphere of Mars due to a trajectory that brought it too close to the planet.

I can only imagine the meeting at NASA where, after what was surely months of discussion and investigation, it was discovered that one tiny error undid a $200 million machine and years-long planning.

As NASA describes it, the cause of the disaster was that a single piece of software from Lockheed Martin used a United States customary unit, while all other parts of the software, supplied by NASA, were in SI units.

In short, the Mars Climate Orbiter met an early death because all the ground software was in the metric system except for Lockheed Martin’s numbers, which were in US Industrial units.

One avoidable error caused catastrophe for a promising space expedition.  Much like the fate met by the Mars Climate Orbiter, your work has the potential to disintegrate right in front of a reader’s eyes with even the smallest of errors.

Non-fiction writers, you already know this.

Fiction writers, I’m talking to you.

For all the effort we put into spinning up a good story, we sure can get lazy in our research.  We’re making everything else up, so why not carelessly insert something we’re “pretty sure” is right?

Let me return to NASA.  Not the Mars Climate Orbiter, but to Howard, from Florida.  Back when I received fan mail in the actual mail, I got a handwritten letter from Howard, who wanted to let me know I’d made an egregious error in one of my books.

In an (albeit poor) attempt at a simile, I’d used NASA computers to equate something to being fast.  Howard was writing to let me know that NASA had some of the slowest computers on earth.

I’m thankful for Howard, because early on in my career he set me on a trajectory toward getting things right, no matter what “it” was. Plus, I hate getting fan mail that turns out to be a complaint.  So really, it’s just self-protection.

You can’t be careful enough. I’ll give you another example. When I wrote my novel Skid, I had to do an incredible amount of research on commercial aviation, which included a trip to Delta headquarters in Atlanta, where I spent some time with pilots and flight attendants to get the real scoop on what their industry was like.  Since I didn’t know a thing about aviation, I kept several technical advisers on hand to help me with things like realistic sounding dialogue and plausible scenarios.

When I adapted Skid into a movie, and we began pre-production on it, I suggested to the director we should probably bring a technical adviser on board, and thankfully he agreed.  Had he blown the request off, and had we not had two pilots on set the day we were filming the scene where the pilots are taxiing to the runway, we would’ve looked awfully stupid.  As the cameras rolled, the actors began “driving” the plane to the runway with the control wheel.  Made complete sense to everyone watching it.

Everyone but the pilots.

They knew something we didn’t.  Large aircraft don’t use the control wheel to steer the plane. They use the nose wheel tillers, a small joystick-like mechanism on the side of the cockpit that steers the nose wheel with the help of the hydraulic system.

I still to this day shudder to think about a pilot watching Skid and seeing that awful mistake. Thanks to technical advisers, catastrophe was averted.

When I novelized the motion picture Heart of the Country, several scenes took place in an apartment in a certain part of New York City.  Having never been to NYC, I knew this was going to be challenging. So I called the director up and said, “Hey, I need some help recreating this particular area of NYC you have in the movie,” and he said, “Haven’t been there.”  In film, a whole other department handles that.  It literally says “INT. NEW YORK CITY STREET – DAY” on the script and production design creates the rest of it. The screenwriter doesn’t need to know the details. It’s somebody else’s job.  But the novelist is in charge of getting all the details right in a book.

For all of my crime novels, I worked with several technical advisers over the years, but one came with me for every book.  His name was Ron.  And Ron would not just advise me, but he would read my manuscripts cover to cover, pointing out big and small mistakes.

On Misery Loves Company, I got an interesting note from him.  I would’ve never thought about it had he not pointed it out.  I had my cop character using the butt of his gun to try to break a lock.  How many times have we seen this in the movies, right?  What could I have gotten wrong?

According to Ron, a cop’s gun is like his child.  He’d never do anything to damage it.  It was unrealistic for my character to damage his gun like that when he could’ve picked up a rock or something else.

Now, would that have gone unnoticed by readers?  Probably.  But someone in law enforcement might’ve noticed.  Even beyond pointing out the error I’d made, Ron gave me a fun little bit to spin into my character’s mind—a hard moment where he must decide between his gun and that lock.  That was gold.

So yes, I highly advise working with a technical adviser on anything that is unfamiliar territory to you.  Is one of your characters a mail carrier?  Go find one and get to know the profession.  It’ll make your book a thousand times better, I promise.  Not just because you’ll avoid errors, but also because you’ll teach your reader something.  It’s an amazing thing to learn the ins and outs of another profession.  It’s why we’re writers, right?  We’re curious creatures. I always start with the question, “What is one thing people think they know about your job that is wrong?”

Beyond details and facts, go the extra mile and check other parts of your writing.  You don’t want to be caught with an eggcorn, do you?

What, you ask, is an eggcorn?

An eggcorn is a word or phrase that sounds like, and is mistakenly used in, a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase.

Feel lost?

So was the lady who used the word “eggcorn” instead of “acorn,” believing she was saying the word correctly. To her credit, it could pass for an egg shape…I guess.  When the story fell into the hands of a linguist, he coined the term and now that literary bear trap’s got a name.

Here are some other examples of eggcorns:

  • Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  • Escape goat (instead of scape goat)
  • Mute point (instead of moot point)
  • Towing the line (instead of toeing the line)
  • Wet your appetite (instead of whet your appetite)
  • Collaborating evidence (instead of corroborating evidence)
  • World wind tour (instead of whirlwind tour)
  • All intensive purposes (instead of all intents and purposes)
  • Bold faced lie (instead of bald faced lie)

The list, for all I know, is infinite.  And let me assure you, you’re safe in the hands of any editor worth her weight in gold.  They’ve caught these a hundred times and will catch a hundred more.  But, it’s never fun to see it highlighted in your own manuscript.  And until you get a professional editor, you’re on your own to catch the details, facts and phrasing.

So I’ll give you my advice: never trust your gut on these things.  Now, that’s easy for me to say for two reasons.  One, I’m from Oklahoma, and there’s a very good chance that I’m either pronouncing it wrong or hearing it pronounced wrong.  Thanks to our unique drawl, if you’ve never read the word “wash,” you’re certain there is an “r” in that word.  Second, I’m an idiom train wreck.  If there’s a way to butcher an idiom, I’ll do it.  I’m practically a legend in these parts.

Chances are, wherever or however you grew up, somewhere, in some way, something was said wrong.  It wasn’t long ago that I had to break the news to my son that it’s not a chesterdrawers.  I mean, how else do you learn these things unless someone tells you?

Or you google it.  Bingo.

If there’s a little check in your gut, and maybe even if there isn’t, take the extra few seconds to double check.  Whether it’s an editor, your best friend, or an avid fan, nobody wants a reader distracted by a detail gone wrong.

Since I’ve rather dramatically outlined the importance of getting everything from facts to phrases right, let me leave you with a heartening tale of utter failure that was not found out.

In My Life as a Doormat, now a Hallmark movie, I have a character arrive by bus and leave in her car.

Yep.  Never caught by me, nor the several editors who combed through it, nor Howard from Florida.

I only found it when I reread the book years later during an early option deal that had me as the screenwriter.  I was aghast!  And after ten years, I still haven’t gotten a letter about it, but it makes me sweat nevertheless.

However, if you want to pass the buck, just take a cue from NASA.

At least two navigators sounded the alarm about the discrepancies that eventually led to the probe’s demise.  But their concerns were dismissed because, according to NASA, they “did not follow the rules about filling out the form to document their concerns.”

Leave it to the rule breakers to mess everything up.

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  1. Oh my gosh–love this. Since moving to the States, our kids have struggled with idioms. Apparently, I was supposed to pull every single one out of my memory and teach them to them before they entered American culture. Oops. As for your character arriving by bus and leaving in her car, just tell people she left it there the night before when she went to a late concert and had too many peppermint mochas.