Some people collect coins. Others prefer art work, or stamps.
I collect howlers.
Now, to be clear, I don’t mean continuity errors. They’re irksome, but forgivable. Flaws in grammar and spelling or even word-usage are not forgivable. Shame on the editor who lets such sins go unpunished. But the sort of gaffes I mean, the ones that make me cry, WTF! are the ones where an author or screenwriter makes an error of fact.
For instance, in The Antiquary, Sir Walter Scott has the sun sinking into the North Sea. Only, of course, the sun sets in the west, not in the north, so it should have sunk into the Irish Sea. Scott, being made aware of the error, refused to change it feeling art trumped science. Well, alrighty, then.
Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, has two characters travel by train from Delhi to Bombay, passing through Kurla. Except Kurla is on a different railway line.
The Box Hill picnic which Jane Austen describes so sweetly in Emma is marred a little by the fact that the event took place in June yet Austen mentions an ‘orchard in blossom’. Apple trees don’t blossom in the summer and Austen, herself, admitted the error.
There are hundreds like these. If this subject interests you, you can read more about a large number of literary howlers, puzzles and quirks in the fabulous books by John Sutherland. His titles include:
John Sutherland, The Literary Detective
Can Jane Eyre be Happy?
Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett?
Henry V, War Criminal and Other Shakespearean Puzzles.
All of this is great fun, of course, but it’s not how we, as writers, would choose to be remembered.
Mistakes happen. Even with the most exacting attention to detail, the most scrupulous editor and the the most persnickety of readers, something is bound to slip by. So what can we do?
Well, firstly and most obviously, we can do our research. Know the difference between arsenic and cyanide. Don’t talk about clocks chiming during ancient Rome (shame on you, Bill Shakespeare!) And don’t say Shelley wrote Endymion when any schoolchild knows it was Keats.
Don’t rely on other people’s research. Do your own.
I recently saw American author Philipp Meyer at the Dublin Writers’ Festival talking about his most recent novel, The Son. A significant portion of the novel deals with life among the Comanche. Meyer said he was disappointed to discover how inaccurate some of his favourite writers were in depicting this Native American tribe. His research took years and was hands on, even going so far as to hunt buffalo. Now that’s dedication to truth and to accuracy.
My own research into A Biased Judgement, which is set in 1897, mostly involved reading or in discussing various aspects of the period with different people. The novel is set in London, where I lived for about a quarter of my life; and in Southampton, which I visited during the period when I was working on the book. Historical events were approached in the form of scholarly essays, contemporary newspaper reports and photographs. Have I managed to avoid all possible mistakes? I doubt it.
Which brings me to my second filtering agent: A good editor.
There’s a certain extremely successful author, whose first books were fairly well-crafted works of fiction. Only in later novels, the ones he released after he’d become King of the Hill, so to speak, are much weaker. Why? I suspect it’s because he’d either changed editor or become so powerful he always got the last word. A shame, because, in my opinion, the work suffered.
I hope my own editor, a Sherlockian and well-experienced in her craft, will catch any of the more obvious boo-boos that I missed, but there’s a chance something will slip by her too.
Finally, while I was working on my novel, I was very fortunate to have two good friends read my various drafts with untiring enthusiasm and attention to detail. Both are fascinated by history, and their suggestions and questions helped focus my research and even in some instances caused me to redirect the plot.
As you will find said in many dedication pages, the final novel is my work, errors and all, and I alone bear the responsibility for any howlers the reader may find. But maybe I’ll be lucky and it’s perfect.
I know how people judge.