Friday, February 17, 2012

The right words and the right facts

One of the self-published e-books I started reading this past week irritated me to the point that I pretty much gave up reading it about 20% of the way through.  It wasn't that the facts in the book were wrong, but the plot made no sense. 

There's no excuse for that.  One of the basics of writing a novel is that it needs to make sense.  Every author needs to ask him or her self "Would real people act like this under these circumstances?" and if the answer is no, then the plot needs to be fixed.

As an example:  The classic gothic romance plot features the innocent young woman in the spooky mansion with the brooding hero who tells her not ever to enter the rooms in the old wing of the mansion.  The innocent young heroine, of course, has to go to the old wing in order for the plot to develop because that's where the hero's old nurse, who never got over losing his love to his first wife, still lives, violently insane.  The old wing is cold and dark and there are rats running around in it and gigantic spiderwebs everywhere.  The doors leading into the old wing are padlocked, and servants warn our young heroine that the floors are unsafe and the roof is falling in.  There is nothing she could possibly need there and she has no reason to go there. 

In a poorly written version of this plot, the heroine would just wander in there because she can't control her curiosity.  She just has to know why she's not supposed to go there.  All the information she's been given isn't enough for her to stay out.  She goes in anyway, with no earthly reason.  Or she just gets lost because she can never remember which way to turn at the end of The Hallway.  With either excuse, she's TSTL -- or "too stupid to live."

In a better plotted version, she's given a reason to go to the old wing.  She wrestles with her better judgment and believes the warnings but is compelled by outside motivations to find a way in.  Maybe it's because a beloved pet has become lost or whatever, but the motivation must be logical.  We read this and we say, yes, she was told not to go there, but she's going to go anyway because she has a good reason to.

Another kind of error involves internal facts or internal consistency.  For example, sticking with that hypothetical gothic, our heroine arrives at the mansion ahead of her luggage and has to wait for her wardrobe to arrive in a day or two.  On her first night, she suffers from the lack of a warm cloak.  No provision is made for her comfort -- no clothes from the master's dead wife or from a servant or whatever.  But the next morning, the master takes her for a walk on the windswept moors. Wait a minute!  She was cold without a cloak the night before, and now she's walking on the moors?  Why isn't she freezing to death?

Again, this is the kind of error of internal fact that a careful writer won't make -- or will at least catch before self publishing.  Critique groups or partners are great for this kind of internal error catching.

What about errors of external fact?  You know the kind of thing I'm talking about.  The contemporary story set in Chicago that has the hero and heroine meeting at the corner of Dearborn and LaSalle.  The millionaire who loses everything in the 1929 stock market crash and commits suicide by throwing himself from the top of the Empire State Building.  Plate armor on a Norman knight in Duke William's 1066 invasion of England.  You can get an idea of the worst of this sort of thing by looking at reviews of Spoil of War and Celtic Storms.  It's like, did the authors ever open a history book?

Research is a whole lot easier today than it was 20 or 25 years ago.  The Internet has put so much information at our fingertips.  There should be no excuse for the kinds of errors noted in the two above examples.  Virtually all the details are easily confirmed -- or countered -- with a little time spent on the computer.

Which brings me to my current dilemma.  Or quandary.  Or whatever.

Difficult as it is to believe, I wrote Firefly in 1984.  I had no computer, no Internet, and only the limited resources of the Carnegie Public Library in Angola, Indiana.  My 10-day vacation in Arizona had given me some understanding of what the territory looked like, and I was able to do some research via interlibrary loan.  But even ILL could be expensive -- the borrower had to pay for postage at least -- and afforded only limited accessibility, unless one could afford to photocopy a whole book.  Checking details for historical accuracy was, in many cases, difficult if not impossible.

I spent several days trying to find out when the familiar stethoscope was invented.  Could my 1884 physician have used one?  What about hypodermic needles and syringes?  Even asking a friend whose husband sold medical equipment didn't provide conclusive answers, and so I ultimately decided to leave out any details rather than make an error.

Today, however, quick Internet searches provide that information in a flash.  And I'm able to purchase a copy of Medicine in Territorial Arizona for less than $10, including shipping, and have it available for any research I might want to do at any time, rather than only being able to take notes for a couple of weeks and then send it back.

By the time Firefly was purchased in 1987, I had moved to Arizona and had a much better feel for what I wanted to convey about the area in the novel.  So when my editor -- who shall remain nameless because she's still active in the industry -- began asking questions about the accuracy of details in the manuscript, I was able to confirm that yes, Arizona looked like the way I depicted it in the book. 

Details of historical facts, however, were a bit more difficult.  Did screen doors exist in 1880s Arizona? she wanted to know, for example. 

In my personal collection I had photographs of houses from the late 1800s, probably 1890s, in the Chicago and Milwaukee area that appeared to have typical screen doors.  I had another photograph of a house in Arizona that also clearly had screens on the windows, but though the house had been built prior to 1888, the photograph itself wasn't dated and could have been taken well into the 20th century, so the screens could have been added many decades later.  After following many false leads, I ended up on the phone with a Mr. Garrison, an architectural historian who at that time was with the Arizona State Historical Society.  His research -- he had to call me back after checking -- revealed that metal hardware cloth was indeed available for making screen doors and could have been brought to Arizona along with other consumer goods once the railroad reached the territory in the 1870s.

The screen door stayed in Firefly.  So did a number of other seeming anachronisms, because I'd located information that confirmed their existence in 1880s Arizona.  The manuscript was edited, and the book was scheduled for publication in October 1988.

I had long been a fan of cover artist Morgan Kane so when my editor asked for cover art suggestions, I brought up his name and was overjoyed to learn he would do the cover. 

It's a lovely cover.  It's also very inaccurate.  There are no pine trees in the story.  Cottonwoods, yes, but not pines.  No green meadows with yellow flowers.  No gently flowing river.  Julie never wore clothes like that.  Never.  But hey, I got my Morgan Kane cover, it looked good, and he nailed Del Morgan perfectly, so I didn't complain.  And who cared about inaccurate cover art anyway?

(Okay, Christina Dodd got the heroine with three hands, but that's probably an extreme example. . . )

My subsequent books for Zebra Heartfire and Pocket had worse covers, whether inaccurate or unappealing or just plain blah, so I've never complained about Firefly's cover.

But what do I do now as I'm putting together a revised digital version, 28 years after the original was written?

Well, for one thing, I'm restoring parts that were excised when the original manuscript was deemed too long.  I'm putting back in a couple of scenes deleted as objectionable.  I'm adding to the narrative information that should have been provided to clarify issues that some readers found confusing. 

But I'll also be able to add details that I couldn't 28 years ago because I simply didn't have access to the research.  Will it make for a better book?  I hope so, because I always felt it was lacking.  It's not a matter of showing off research skills or fascinating tidbits; it's about making the story come more alive.

The problem is that having access to so much more information has revealed more than one rather significant error of fact.  I don't want readers to head to the google and start checking every word, but do I want to incorporate every single iota of accuracy, or do I want to leave the errors in place, slide in an afterword with explanation, or what?

I don't know for sure yet, but I'll probably fix most of them, make the book as reasonably historically accurate as I can.  I think it will be fun.

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