Ringing True: It’s a Wonderful—Ordinary—Life

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.

Tweet: The reader has to believe the world you’ve crafted. Details, details!
Tweet: Historical accuracy is important … but so are the details of a contemporary setting.

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.”

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12 Comments

  1. Michelle Ule says:

    So, can you talk about telephone usage circa 1905? I can’t believe how many people have folks running around calling people all the time–including in a rural community. OK, I get the people strung the phone lines in that community, but in 1905 they surely had party lines? Right? And wouldn’t the cost of the phone call preclude relatives from phoning from halfway across the country?

    I’m not THAT old. My grandparents in southern California didn’t own a telephone until 1972. My parent had a party line in Los Angeles in 1960!

    And I STILL stop and think twice before making a long distance phone call, wondering how much it’s going to cost.

    But, maybe that’s just me?

    • Jamie says:

      In my editorial capacity I’ve done an astonishing amount of research (I think they may be all bookmarked) on the American phone system: when the phone system was complete, when you could reliably call long distance, when we switched from party lines to private, what the rings sounded like, when we got 911… oh, yes, any mention of telephones is a pretty big red flag for me. :)

    • Jamie says:

      Rural communities, of course, were the last to get phones lines, and yes, they would have been party lines, and yes, long distance was VERY expensive, even into the 1970s. I quit thinking about LD so much maybe in the 1980s, but it still incurred a cost. I get really irked when folks write as if things have just always been this way.

  2. Miryr says:

    I’m currently writing a novel set in the Napoleonic Wars, and I’ve completely stopped writing it until I have verifiable information. I’m trying to work out how the legal system was organized in a city of the Holy Roman Empire, which is considered independent but for all intents and purposes it’s a part of it. Besides that, my novel is set 15 years before the whole legal system was changed either way. So it’s been a nightmare trying to find accurate information, yet I don’t want to “wing it” because of how jarring that might be to knowledgeable people.

    So yes, I must agree with your arguments.

    • Jamie says:

      It’s wonderful that you care! I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; the details—so subtle and organic—are wonderful. I’ve read that she did YEARS of research.

  3. All of the above is why I’m selective with historical fiction. What bothers me particularly is the complete divergence from the realities of the era. Yes, there are always outliers, but do we have to read about every stinking headstrong girl ahead of her time?

    The converse of no research is when the writer does it and is going to make the reader pay!

    I remember noticing this when I was quite young reading a novel set in Regency England. A character was reading the paper and it was named. I was a kid and the author preening, “Look! Look! I did my research! came right off the page. “The morning paper” was all that needed to be said. The specific naming jarred my ear and took me right out of the story.

    • Jamie says:

      Oh, excellent points! I’m always bothered by love relationships in historical fiction: the concept of marrying for love (for love alone) is a relatively recent development.

  4. Jamie,

    This post has been haunting me, and I have wanted to look a thing or two up. The two words you mention from the Boston Globe piece about Downton Abbey (which is really my favorite thing to watch), shafted and boyfriend, were actually, according to M-W’s collegiate, though I intend to do additional research in the OED’s etymology pages, both in use in both of those senses in plenty of time for them to have made it to WWI era England… Though I did not click through to the BG article, I will now, even though I should be doing many other things.

    Though I agree with you about everything in this post in terms of historical accuracy. On the flip side, I recently read a book that was contemporary that had teenagers using land lines. I had to ask the author to change them to cell phones and at least mention texting.

    xox,
    April

    • OK. So I just read the BG piece, and I am intrigued by the disparity between what M-W says and what the guy at OED says, and I’m also kind of confused about why the author of the piece only seemed to cite Green’s slang dictionary himself, instead of trekking to the OED’s pages (which are available online with a subscription, but free at the public library, I reckon)…

      I will get me to the bottom of this!
      -A

    • jamiechavez says:

      I actually had a different article when this post was written, but when I went to publish it, that article was no longer available (some papers don’t leave article up very long, and I’d had it for months). So that may be part of it…

  5. OK, I swear I’ll stop, but “I couldn’t care less” sounded so, so, wrong to me. I wanted to rush right home and look it up. Alas, I have not enough time for pursuing things that interest me personally…

    So, I’m putting it on the list, and I will come back.

    -A

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7 Trackbacks

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