I worked on a manuscript recently in which the author had the president of the United States delivering the State of the Union Address … in June. I left him a note in the margin: Dude, George Washington delivered the first “annual message” before a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1790, and it really hasn’t changed much since. (In fiction, it’s easy to solve this sort of thing, of course: the president can give a speech pretty much whenever he wants. We just didn’t call that June speech the State of the Union. Problem solved.)
Details—of characterization, of milieu, motivation, and so on—are important; they’re what make a story live and breathe. And it’s just as vital that the details in your novel ring true. Which means, really, they should be so seamless and perfect they’re barely noticed. See the paradox? They’re so important I don’t want to notice them.
The reader has to believe the world you’ve crafted, kids, and the minute he doesn’t (God help you if he rolls his eyes), you’ve lost him. Editors call this keeping the reader in the story. Lots of things can jar a reader out of the story: bad writing (in all its iterations), characters who don’t make sense, plots that don’t make sense, craft problems like head-hopping—but once you’ve mastered those things, don’t overlook the fine detail.
In historical fiction, it’s anachronisms that’ll kill you. I’ve always loved slang, so I’m pretty sensitive to out-of-place language. Apparently, viewers of the first season of the period drama Downton Abbey were, too, according to this article in the Boston Globe, when characters used words like boyfriend and shafted. This is one of my pet peeves … and I don’t buy into the it’s-only-light-entertainment defense; get it right or go home.
One of the most egregious examples of this are Ken Follett’s awful books The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (I think he may have written another one now; I try not to look). Set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the characters have twenty-first-century attitudes and and use twenty-first-century language. The women are independent and treated as equals; serfs and peasants act as if they have human rights. Yet these concepts were unknown to people of that era. And in a time when even kings were illiterate, average people read books—and own them. Talk about jarring the reader out of the story!
A contemporary setting can be just as difficult. British author Zadie Smith, speaking earlier this summer at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said she would never set another novel in the United States (as she had done with 2005’s On Beauty). She got a lot of feedback, it seems, pointing out inaccuracies. “You’ve no idea how much email I get telling me how wrong every single thing in the book is,” she told the Guardian. “There are a lot of very specific things that Americans don’t say and English people don’t realize.” Well, yes. (And vice versa.)
In theory, an editor will catch these things, but you shouldn’t rely on him to sort out things for which you’re responsible. A few years ago I was reading chick lit for homework (Milkrun by Sarah Mlynowski) and was astonished when the female protagonist was given a bouquet of tulips and, because she didn’t have a vase, put them in an empty wine bottle. (Research: buy a bouquet of tulips, see if they’ll fit in that narrow neck. Let me know how it works.) I was a beta reader for a manuscript that had already been edited and still there was a character off fighting the Korean War in 1958. Oops.
And that, my friends, is why you often see academics, professionals, and other experts thanked in the acknowledgments of novels. Don’t count on your editor; it’s your responsibility to get the details right. It’s always wise to seek out folks who are familiar with your territory and ask (pay) them to do a beta read precisely for those little details.
The goal is for your reader to lose himself in your story. The minute he notices something odd, something a little off, well, he’s done. And you’re done.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”