Monday, May 13, 2013

Details, Details

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Years ago (at least fifteen), I passed a novel I had enjoyed along to my husband. Roger is a geologist, and the "love interest" in the book is a geologist, and I thought he might enjoy the story and relish meeting one of his own in a romantic lead of sorts. And he did, for the first chapter or so. Then he put it down in disgust.

"Some geologist!" he said.

Turns out the guy in the book had waxed eloquent about the cleavage in a piece of quartz. Problem is, quartz has no cleavage (which means that when it breaks, it has no parallel surfaces). That booboo clattered right by me, but for the reader in the know, it was a book-stopper.

I run into this all the time in books with animals, especially dogs. (I've shown, bred, rescued, written about, trained, and judged dogs for more than two decades, so, yeah, I care that "dog things" are accurate.") I recently read a novel in which the protagonist's dog is identified as a specific rare breed. Exciting! Then the dog is described. She's a color combination that doesn't occur in the breed and she weighs about half what she should. I had enjoyed the first pages of the book, but found it hard to keep reading past such glaring errors.

And then there was the best-selling memoir a few years ago about growing up in southern Indiana, a place of forests, deep ravines, and rolling country that I know well. I perused the book at a conference in Indianapolis, thinking I would buy a copy, but when I read that Indiana is "flat as a pancake," I was finished. Well, almost finished - I did point out the passage to a friend and the two of us snorted and laughed and snarked about pandering to East-Coaster sterotypes about the Midwest. The author's mother was standing right behind us. Ah, well.

I'm sure we've all read things in which some error in our own field of knowledge damaged or destroyed our faith in the author. In fact, almost everyone I've asked about this has produced an example from personal experience. Many of them also express similar reactions. Disappointment ("I was looking forward to this book, and then..."). Loss of trust ("If the author is wrong about the things I know, how can I trust the rest of the information?). Disgust ("It's not that hard to check the facts!").

And really, it's not hard at all. First, of course, we have the Internet. Granted, we have to be judicious about our sources, but as long as we use credible websites, blogs, forums, and other online resources, we can check out almost anything. Or at least get a leg up.

We can also go old school - libraries, books, reference librarians. All good.

We can find people who know. I saved myself from a serious error in Drop Dead on Recall by asking a physician friend read a passage in which a character uses an epinephrin pen on his wife, who seems to be having an allergic reaction. Myfriend's terse response? "Well, he just killed her." Seems my character's technique left a little to be desired. I learned, and he does it properly in the book. In that case, I called on a friend, but it isn't hard to find people in the know, and most people are generous about helping us get things right.

Need the skinny on a location? As my husband, Roger, likes to say, there's nothing like a site visit. Whether its a place or a kind of event or an institutional setting, we can do lots of reading, watch videos and films, peruse photographs, but nothing beats being there. How does the quality of light shift by the minute on the Carolina coast at sunrise? How does the heat dissipate in the high desert as the sun drops behind the Sierras? How does the grooming area at a dog show smell, or the waiting room in a hospital sound? If we can't get there, then once again, finding someone who has been there to read what we write can save us from grievous goofs, and may even give us some telling detail to add.

I'm working on the third Animals in Focus mystery right now, and am planning a couple of site visits of my own. I've already lined up some experts to keep me honest, and I have files upon files of background info. Luckily for me, the research I'm doing for this book isn't tedious at all. I get to interview lots of lovely cats and dogs.


Lois Winston said...

I, too, have come across huge factual errors in books, but it's really embarrassing when a reader points out one in your own book when you KNOW you did your research. In my case, I remember pulling out the Atlas to check a geographical fact. Trouble was, the map was small and I read it wrong. The mistake slipped by my agent, my editor, the copy editor, and everyone else who read the book prior to publication. A reader caught the error a week after the book came out. Luckily, the book is now out of print and only available as an ebook with corrected copy.

Sheila Boneham said...

Oh, Lois, I feel your pain. I used to work as a copyeditor for a big, slick magazine where every article went through the section editor, 2 copy editors, and 2 proofreaders, and things still slipped through. Still, sometimes authors don't check carefully enough, and we need to.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I try really, really hard...but as Lois said, sometimes something slips past. All I ask is that readers point it out nicely, instead of verbally flogging me for it in an email.