Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Devil's in the Details

A few years ago I read a novel where the author mentioned an old photo of her newly married parents, back in the '50s, posed in front of their Ford Mustang convertible. Buzzers went off in my head. The Mustang, which caused a major sensation on its release, didn't come out until 1964.

Right now I am in the middle of a book (which I will review shortly on Cross-Reference and which I will not name here in case the error is corrected in future pages) about a woman who moves into an abandoned cabin in the woods. After years of neglect she finds, realistically, mouse droppings in the cabinets and a nest in an old stove. However, the upholstery on the fine antique furniture has not been burrowed into. Books on shelves, though dusty, remain undisturbed. And, so far, into the third night of her stay, she has not seen an actual mouse skitter across the floor or heard the scratch of tiny nails across the boards. As hard as I'm trying to get into the story all I can think is, this woman does not know mice or how they will multiply and take over an uninhabited building.

Many readers and writers will ask, what's the difference? The cabin in the woods serves only as a backdrop to this woman's internal journey, a place where she could be alone. So what if this gal's parents are posed in front of a Mustang or a Thunderbird or a Corvette? The point is, they were in love.

That's one way to look at it, but inaccurate details cause problems for me, as a reader, in two ways. First, it's a matter of trust. If the author fudges the details I do know about, how can I trust her on other details, integral to the story, that I might not know she got wrong. Second, I see it as a matter of respect for the reader. If the author can't take the extra time to get it right, why should I take the time to read it?

I remember reading one of those cautionary articles in a writing magazine a few years ago by a writer who set her novel in a city in which she had never been. She received a huge number of letters from residents and former residents regarding non-existent street names, and while her point was to alert writers to the issue, at the same time she took a condescending tone toward those for whom the issue was so important. I hardily disagree. As I mentioned "Cliched Settings," each city and region of the country has its own personality. Setting a novel in a place you've never been goes beyond street names. It gets into bigger questions of, would this incident have actually taken place in a city like Denver or Seattle or is it more of an East Coast event?

It may sound silly, after my post exhorting writers to extend themselves, to now fall back on the old "write what you know." It's a good thing for writers to extend themselves into different skins, because, like actors, we can draw on our own experience to imagine what it would be like to live like or be another person. I can easily imagine how I would feel living in prison, but if I've never visited a prison, or I don't know something about the routine or what a cell looks or feels like, I'm better not to go there.

Notice I said "something" and not "everything." Writers often set work in an earlier time, and even if they are very familiar with the setting as it is now, they can never truly experience it as it was in times past. However, a detail or two can add a sense of reality. For example, I am currently working on a novel that starts during the country's Centennial celebration in Philadelphia. In my reading on the subject I learned that the winter of 1875-1876 was unseasonably warm. Pairing that with what I know of the unseasonable weather I've experienced growing up in the area––that daffodils and forsythia might be blooming on New Year's Eve––I was able to bring a touch of reality to the setting, a touch, I hope, will add credibility for my readers if and when it is ever published.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. If you want readers to trust you, get the details right. Otherwise skip it or write about something else.

1 comment:

Angie Ledbetter said...

I always wonder if this is one of the curses of being an editor. Do "normal" readers even think about such details? But it does make me go crazy when something like that leaps off the page, big screen or even the TV and screams, "Not true!" at me. ;)


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