Pedantry, Perfection or Procrastination?
Hot on the heels of last week's #TuesdayTip about writing realistic relationships, I am staying with that broad theme and this time want to examine realism in general.
I write police procedurals grounded largely in reality. I am not a police officer, and have no experience in law enforcement, but I try to be as procedurally accurate as possible, whilst acknowledging that compromises need to be made in order to serve up a dramatic story (see #TuesdayTip49 for more on this).
I also like to get as many verifiable details about other, non-procedural things as correct as possible. I will never forget one of my proof-readers early comments for my first novel, The Last Straw. The book is set in the summer of 2011, but as is the way with these things, it was well into 2013 by the time it was submitted and edited. In one throw-away comment, I mentioned how the dry weather had affected Warren's lawn. My proof-reader's comment was succinct: 'I looked it up and the summer of 2011 was actually quite wet in Hertfordshire'. A later comment on the same manuscript noted that the radio station that Warren was listening to in the car had changed its name the year before.
A couple of years later, I received not one but TWO comments in my Amazon reviews for Silent As The Grave (both from Americans, bizarrely) pointing out that a hospital in Coventry, UK, wasn't built until a couple of years after I had a character being born there.
Since then, I have been a stickler for trying to get as many of the small details correct. Not only is it a way to avoid those negative reviews and save my proof-reader some time, it also provides a brilliant excuse for procrastination!
My books always have a date (although I tend not to specify the year), so here are some of the things I do.
Googling for these little details is an obvious solution, but sometimes it's difficult to phrase the question properly. In this case you can post questions to forums on Reddit etc - you'd be amazed at the trivia that somebody out there is an expert on. Similarly, firms that provide services or goods that you need details about are often very willing to answer strange questions. I always start my email by explaining that I am a crime writer - the communications staff for large companies spend much of their time dealing with the same routine questions from the public. Something a bit different will often pique their interest. For my latest book, Out of Sight, I needed some specific guidance on the laws surrounding the drafting of a will. I found a firm that specialised in this and fired off an email on a Friday afternoon. A partner replied within a couple of hours, saying that they thought the question was fascinating and they'd get back to me. Sure enough, Monday morning I received their response. It was really lengthy and detailed, and they had clearly spent time looking up what I needed to know in their own time.
For other precise facts, Wikipedia is a remarkable resource. I just finished writing a short story, and in the first draft, I blithely mentioned a life insurance company. Fortunately, I always flag anything like this with a comment to verify later. It turns out that not only did I have their name incorrect, it had also sold its life insurance business years before my book is set!
Finally, don't forget Facebook. I know nothing about guns, but there are dedicated writers forums populated by US cops who can tell you everything you need to know and more! If you have a wide and diverse group of friends, then sometimes it's worth posting the question and letting the FB hive mind do its thing.
Don't let the (inevitable) mistakes get you down.
How much effort you put into finding out these little factoids is entirely up to you, and I am well-aware that I am probably at the more obsessive end of the scale. It can be a tremendous time-suck, if you aren't careful.
Unfortunately, mistakes still occur, especially for things that you are convinced you know - I was certain that I had the name of that insurance company correct, and was really only double-checking capitalisation and spelling, I had no idea it no longer sold life insurance.
Even if you are correct, there are plenty of readers out there who won't believe you (I had a recent surreal email exchange with an overseas reader who took exception to my pluralisation of a word, refusing to back down even when I cited the Collins dictionary). Some readers even write to authors to castigate them for giving incorrect directions for a fictional route between two places that only exist in the writer's imagination!
There will always be those who loudly proclaim on social media or review sites that an author's faux pas 'ruined the whole novel' and they had to 'put it down, never to read one of their books again'. Sometimes they call into question the author's attention to detail, accusing them of not bothering to engage the services of a proof-reader or, something that really irritates me, implying that the proof-reader is useless and unprofessional - they aren't, they're human.
Dig a little deeper and you'll find that such an over-reaction usually says more about the reviewer than your book. Often, they are using it as a platform to broadcast their supposed expertise on a niche subject that nobody else really cares about.
To be honest, aside from absolute howlers that are embarrassing, my advice is not to lie awake at night. If there is an opportunity to change the manuscript, then perhaps do so, if only to avoid having to reply repeatedly to the same questions on social media. Otherwise, wear it as a badge of honour. You aren't really a successful writer until you've had your first unjustified one star review!
How bothered are you by small inaccuracies? Do you have an obsessive attention to detail? What tiny details do you always strive to get correct?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media.
Until next time,
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Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
Disclosure: I am a member of both the Amazon and Bookshop.org affiliates programs, meaning that I get a small commission everytime a book is purchased using links from my site.