Thursday, August 7, 2008

When the Author Gets It Wrong: The Writer’s View

Elizabeth Zelvin

It’s well known in the mystery and crime fiction world that on TV it’s okay to disseminate any inaccuracies the writers and producers feel like (eg CSI, in which crime scene investigators interview witnesses), but woe betide a novelist who gets the slightest detail of history, forensics, geography, or anything else wrong.

“You’ll get emails,” I heard long before my own book was published. “You can’t have a head-on collision on West 83rd—it’s a one-way street!” “You couldn’t hit someone’s gun hand at that distance with a .22!” "America didn't get into the war till 1917!" I always imagined that these emails served as a life sentence with no parole. “Your books will never darken my bookshelves again. You got it wrong!”

To tell the truth, I was sweating it out with Death Will Get You Sober, since the world has changed considerably since I started writing it and even since I completed the first draft. My editor waved away my suggestion that maybe I needed one of those forewords about literary license. “I’ve kind of telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery,” I told her. "I wanted to give a bit of the flavor of the old days, but I want the story to take place more or less in the present.” She didn’t think I needed to tell the reader that.

As it happened, nobody’s said a word about that particular issue, although the Bowery’s gentrification is even more complete today than I ever dreamed it could be. On the other hand, two different book clubs have pointed out an inconsistency in the chronology of my primary victim’s life. “If he fought in Vietnam, how could he be 47?” In 2008? He couldn’t. Oops. When Barbara first went through Godfrey’s medical chart in 2002, it was just possible. He says himself that he “got to Nam for just long enough to start enjoying the drugs, and then the war was over.” (Wanna kill him yet? Somebody does.) If I ever get a chance to change it, he’ll be 54 or 56. That’ll work, because at that point, the demanding reader will check not the calendar but the original copyright date.

I’m glad to say that both book clubs whose members caught the error pointed it out very kindly indeed. The first even said they wondered if their ability to do the math had fallen prey to senioritis. Nope, it was my goof, as I hastened to reassure them. I had dinner with the second group, which consisted of thirtysomething contemporaries of my son, after they read the book. They had no doubts about their faculties, but they were fascinated to hear about the writer’s process of writing and rewriting, trying to get published for years, and inevitably letting an error or two slip by no matter how many people read the manuscript.

Next time around, I’ll be more assiduous in my research and more careful in checking for accuracy. When it’s the first book, the writer is tempted to say, “How important is it to look that closely when the manuscript may never be published?” Knowing for sure that real people will read the thing is a great motivator. On the other hand, I’d hate to think that I managed to get published so late in the decline of the novel that I’ve completely missed the novelist’s right to a little literary license.

Next week: When the Author Gets It Wrong: The Reader’s View


paul lamb said...

Where is the editor? Isn't this the kind of thing an editor or fact checker is supposed to find?

I read a nonfiction book about the Mississippi River that was so replete with errors that I read it to the end, despite being disgusted, just so I could see what whopper the author slipped in next.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Paul, debut mystery authors don't get fact checkers. The editor was looking at the bigger picture, the copy editor was looking at the grammar and punctuation. It was my job to catch it. Oops.

knwick84 said...

This reminds me of my dad. We all suffer when watching a war movie with him.

"That plane wasn't flying over China!"

"That bomber wasn't built for another year!"

"What's that Israeli jet doing over Germany in WWII?"

Lots of fun!

Lonnie Cruse said...

If you set the story in the town where you live, locals will really check you closely. Keeps the writer on her toes. Great post, Liz.

Sandra Parshall said...

I can always forgive a little fudging for the sake of the story -- this is fiction, after all -- but it does bother me when an author makes a major mistake... such as one I came across recently in a favorite writer's new book.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post on this topic of 'realism', Elizabeth. It's a real issue when concocting these stories: how 'right' must one be? Is 'suspension of disbelief' enough? Can't we just say 'it's fiction, get over it' and be done with it? Or is it genre dependent? Are crime writers held to a higher standard of 'rightism' than the fantasy writers who are expected to be imaginative?

Personally, as a reader, I'm quite happy with 'made up'. We get too much reality most days. Why not a little escapism, idealism, and extremism in books? It's fiction. Get over it. [grin]

But granted, stating specific ages and years can cause all kinds of grief. Better off not mentioning, me thinks.