June 04, 2015

The devil in the detail

I'm wondering if there is scope in book world for a kind of specialist roving editor who scours manuscripts just for historical anachronisms before they are published? If anyone reading this would like to offer me such a job, I'm pretty good at spotting them.

I read and review a fair number of historical books and depending on the plot and quality of the writing (I'm very forgiving if it's really good) my reaction varies between mild annoyance and tsk-tsk indignation, especially in non-fiction written by academics, e.g. in a Tasmanian history written by American, the terrace houses in Hobart in early 19th Century were described as "brownstones". If you can't see the problem with this, then you need to travel more.

Dialogue and social attitudes are very tricky, e.g. from a recent book, young lady from the Edwardian era complains about her gentleman friend's "inability to commit". If you can't see the problem with this either, then please swot up on Edwardian etiquette and prose before daring to write any more historical fiction.

Most of us humble writers know we can't possibly know everything, but there's no excuse when it takes just seconds to check all sorts of facts these days, even ones that once needed excursions through dusty tomes in libraries. I've made my share of errors. In the pre-Internet days I was berated by an octogenarian anthropologist for a mistake in my novel relating to a remote African tribe and I felt crushed. Never mind that no-one else on the planet would have spotted it, I felt stupid and thought, sheesh, why didn't I study that source more carefully. And you guessed it - of course the only source was a dusty tome written by said octo anthro which may now be available at Internet Archive. I'll have to check.

In all writing groups that I've belonged to, there are always those who are cavalier about errors and those who are absolutely terrified of making them and they sweat over questions like: “How long would it take a horse and rider to travel from York to London in 17something?” This inevitably generates howlongisapieceofstring discussion: that it depends on time of year, state of weather and roads, delays at turnpikes, condition or age of the horse. Does the rider fall victim to a highwayman (no, he's already one) or the seductive winks of a farm maid en route? It could also make all the difference as to exactly whereabouts in London he was headed; even in 17something that rush-hour traffic on the Great North Road was diabolical ... and so on.

The wisest recommendation is not to be too specific and try to work that road trip in such a way that you avoid the questions in the first place, but no matter how careful you are, there will always be the obsessives who worry more about your time-and motion-equations than the state of the knackered pony or Dick's brief dalliance with that farm maid. (See PS.)

But I ramble … 

If you consider yourself an accomplished or conscientious historical author you will know that you can't have King Richard III smoking a pipe or Queen Victoria sending Albert sexy SMS's, but it still pays to be careful in more subtle areas where it is easy to slip up: place names, terminology, laws, fashions, products, inventions. Examples I've come across in recent books from top-selling authors:
  • Shipping an English convict to Australia more than twenty years after the practice ceased
  • Train driver employed by British Railways during World War II 
  • Characters going to movie a year before general release, plus error in name of star
  • Mentioning a country in 1914 that didn't come into existence until independence nearly sixty years later
  • Listening to music that hadn't yet been composed
  • and many more ...

Most of us can't even remember stuff in our own lifetimes and would have to check if someone asked us when did we get that first microwave, mobile phone or computer, or when the first Harry Potter hit the stands. Google comes to the rescue on most of these questions and yet authors and editors still don't seem to bother with such simple checks before putting their books into print.

This post was in part inspired by a movie I just watched, The Imitation Game. There are loads of people out there spotting movie bloopers, so this may have already been called to account. In 1951, a policeman changes a letter using white-out. In 1951, this stuff wasn't used in offices in England. It was only in late sixties/early seventies it came into regular use, but even then you would never get away with using it to disguise an official letter as they tried to do in this film, as it would have been spotted as an alteration. There were no photocopies, scans or faxes in 1951, and that letter would have had to be originally typed. 

The devil is in the detail (and just be careful how you use this phrase too!)

Off my soapbox … enjoy the fun images

Farley Katz, New Yorker


Brilliant!  From Worth 1000.com

PS:  For the obsessives out there, Dick Turpin is supposed to have done the 200 miles on Black Bess in anything between 12 and 15 hours and, if he really did, he ought to have been hanged for animal cruelty as well as being a highwayman. Read here.

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