Thursday, December 11, 2014

Time Out Thursday: Details do matter

Little details make greatly when you are developing a world…particularly in the all important first chapters says PHS editor Michelle Styles, getting on her soap box.
You need to get the little details correct so that the reader won’t question the big lie Ian Fleming pronounced back in the 1950s and nothing really has changed. This applies to contemporary as well as historical writing.
This truism came back to me earlier this week when my mother was going on about an article she had read in the Wall Street Journal about a best selling author (male). Earlier this year, she had recommended one of his books to me because he had named checked where I’d gone for my BA.
I had tried reading his book. I downloaded the first bit and was eager to see Carleton  being named.  Except he mentioned that there was a 7/11 convenience store in the town where Carleton is located. Surprised and feeling the small town which had more colleges than stop lights when I went there thirty years ago or so had really moved on, I googled it. Not only are there no 7/11s in Northfield Minnesota. There are no 7/11s in Minnesota.  My eyebrows were raised. Then he mentioned the woman protagonists major. Now Carleton has a proud tradition in the liberal arts. It does not offer a major in marketing.  Again this is something that is easily checked. And there was a third error in as many pages. At this point, I pressed delete on my kindle and did not buy the book.  And thought no more about it until my conversation with my mother.
In the WSJ article the author defends his lack of research because he did not want to stem his creative flow. He wanted to be able to create without constraints. He apparently expects plaudits for this because he has written a very clever book which looks at modern society in the Silicon Valley.   I could question if a woman  author (particularly one who specialised in romance) would be allowed to get away with statements like this but that is a whole another topic!  My mother did back off btw when I started muttering about how women are treated.
I am all for creating without constraints. The time you check your little facts is during the editing process and then you pray you have a really good copy editor who catches anything you miss. Because when you get a number of details wrong, you pull the reader out of the story. 
It is not the known unknowns – those are the things you check. But the think you knows and unknown unknowns — this is where you can fall down. And in the above case, the copy editor let the author down. She should have been questioning the little facts, flagging them up and asking. They catch mistakes like she had a bag in her hand on page 45 and not on page 46 when she catches the plant pot -- where has the bag gone?

Of course for the historical author, there is always the Rosemary Sutcliff The Eagle of the Ninth problem. You can only write what you know to be accurate in your time, even though later research may turn it on its head. The lost legion which Sutcliffe so brilliantly evokes was never lost for the Roman

administrators --- they were simply relocated  to Germany. The proof was found several years after the book was published. But at the time of writing, to the best of anyone's knowledge, it was lost.
 The demise of the excellent non nonsense copy editor who knew everything is one of the great tragedies of modern publishing. They were often the unsung heroes who made worlds work for thousands of readers.
PD James who liked to get the detail right
 A good copy editor is worth her weight in gold. Not only does she check grammar but she also checks facts and questions things. These were facts rather than story points (there is a difference). Little details help make the world become vivid and alive. When the details are wrong or off, the world dies a little for that reader.
The reason you want an excellent copy editor is that every time a reader is pulled out of the story, she is less likely to go back to that story. Yes even the best story tellers get things wrong. PD James used to tell about making a motorcycle do something it shouldn’t (readers wrote to her about it!) until one reader  gave her the name of the type that could. Subsequent editions had the make of the motorcycle.  
I also know that readers forgive, particularly if the story telling excites them. If I am in the flow of the story, I might note things down in my mind or be surprised but I am caught up in the characters. However when the mistakes are at the beginning and I’m not invested, I am much less forgiving. Lots of mistakes at the beginning betrays a certain contempt for the reader, a taking the reader for granted scenario. And the last thing an author wants to do is to treat readers with contempt because the next time, the reader won’t even bother picking up the book.
What does everyone else think? Do little details matter at the beginning of the book? When are you will to forgive an author for not doing her research properly (maybe I should have put HIS research…) ?

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty, and intimate historical romance in a wide range of time periods. Her next Viking novel (her 23rd for Harlequin) will be published in February 2015 TAMING HIS VIKING WOMAN. You find out more about Michelle on her website


  1. I agree about details, Michelle. I had no idea of the amount of facts that would need checking when I wrote my first book, The Baby athatChanged Her Life (Jan 2015 release) but now I DO know what a CE will point out and I often find myself, mid-write, scurrying off to check a fact. My aim, one day, is for a manuscript to comeback to me with no copy editor comments on it at all!
    Ambitious much?

  2. I agree with you. Once the author decides to set his book in a real place (rather than one he makes up) he has to check the details. One could be more forgiving in the old days, but it is so easy to check online now, or even to ask your readers via social media. And I agree that a good copy editor is essential.

  3. I am so glad you both agree! People sometimes think writing historicals requires a lot of research but writing contemporary does as well. The little details make the world believable.