What time is it-really?
Such was the thought running through my mind after having my brain jogged from its immersion in a friend’s manuscript. I had settled into the novel’s antebellum atmosphere and slowly sunk into the sultry rhythm of the antebellum south until I got to the airport. Airport? There weren’t any airports in the 19th century –were there? After a friendly discussion, my friend confessed she had forgotten what time period she was in. Fortunately, it was a manuscript and not published and we chuckled over it. But unless your novel is centered on time travel, you need to make sure you know what time period your book inhabits. Readers don’t like being deceived. That doesn’t mean I am anti steam punk or alternate reality. But if you are going to change history in a significant way, such as changing who won WWII or another event, make sure the reader knows at the beginning what the new reality is. Otherwise he or she is going to be really confused as to why the official language of the United States is now German.
Doesn’t everyone make mistakes?
Well, yes. It comes from being human, but if you are going to be serious about publishing something readable you need to get over it. You are not perfect and neither is your editor, but work on it and you can get pretty darn close. I’m not referring to grammar, which is important as well, but those details that reveal where the novel is set, whether in location, world events, or the mindset of the average person. In today’s electronic age, anything can be researched pretty thoroughly. Get it right and the reader is lost in the world of your creation. Get it wrong and your suspense novel becomes an unexpected comedy of errors. Anne Perry is a master of getting the details right. Her novels featuring Victorian detectives draw you in with rich details that gradually enmesh you into the later part of the 19th century.
How do you avoid fatal flaws?
Get read. Have your friends read your work in progress, even better have your enemies read it too. They will be sure to point out every flaw. As you take in both the good and bad, decide what’s important. If you cannot write the book without changing history then you need to decide what kind of book you are really writing. Historical mysteries can be as richly satisfying as cheesecake. Those that rewrite history to make it more palatable to the modern world cause heartburn. History is rife with brutal inequities, suffering, miscarriages of justice and times when good didn’t always win. Rewriting it denies the truth of what those who lived during that time overcame. Remarkable people come out of difficult times.
While perfection is desired it doesn’t always happen even among the literary elite. Even well-known works contain errors.
- William Shakespeare made his share of errors. In A Winter’s Tale, he gave Bohemia a coastline which earned him ridicule from his contemporaries. In Julius Caesar, Brutus refers to a clock tolling the hour, which is interesting considering tolling clocks didn’t exist in 44 AD.
- Sherlock Holmes, that dictator of detail, should have realized that Dr. Watson’s wartime injury migrated from his shoulder to his leg in the time lapse between A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four.
- Undoubtedly one of the funniest mistakes was in a printing of the Bible made in 1631. The word “not” was left off of Exodus 20, verse 14, leaving the reader with the impression that the 7th commandment was, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
Why does this matter anyway?
Why do I obsess about keeping literary reality consistent? Because it is those details that make the story’s world believable. When a writer goofs (and I have) it is equal parts aggravating and distracting to the reader. Writers have to show that they care enough to research, rewrite, take the criticism and respond to it in a professional manner. When a book is purchased, someone has made an investment of their time and money. The best writers develop loyal fans that care about the characters and want to know what happens next. The characters become almost like family and a writer is blessed to have such followers. But this is a relationship that develops. Remember dear writer, Hell indeed hath no fury like a reader scorned.
Julie Bates has worked in the computer industry, an academic library and in the public school system in the course of her life. She has always written. Currently a stringer for the Asheboro Courier Tribune, she also writes freelance articles. Previous publications include Spin Off and Asheboro Magazine. She recently completed her first novel, Cry of the Innocent, and is seeking a publisher. Her website is http://juliebates.weebly.com. She can also be found on linkedin.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)