Sunday, November 15, 2009

Get it Right





I got something wrong in my latest book, SHANGHAIED, and of course I heard about it.
“Eric — I loved the book. I have a problem with part of it though. After Mei Lin and Lei Yue escape, Mei Lin shoots Lei Yue with half a shot of "H," then saves the rest for later. This is NOT possible! The blood would have coagulated in the syringe, rendering it worthless, even an hour later. (How I know this is not important, but it posed a problem with the logic for me of that passage.)”

Damn readers — they’re vigilant. And knowledgeable, apparently.

And me? I should have known that. (Actually, I did, I just forgot about it in the excitement of writing the scene.) Or if I didn’t know it, I should have looked it up. Thanks to the internet, you can look up almost anything these days.

Now granted, much of what you look up on the internet is going to be wrong. But even Wikipedia is right a lot of the time. And if you take the few minutes extra to look at several sources for whatever it is that you’re looking up, you can at least get a consensus opinion.

And it’s important to get your facts right. Mistakes can throw off your readers. Last night I was reading a book by a well known author whose books I generally enjoy, when I came across this: “…my family is from Hong Kong and I was raised speaking Mandarin at home.”

I lived in Hong Kong for the better part of eleven years. Chinese families in Hong Kong speak Cantonese at home, not Mandarin. (Okay, I concede that there might be one or two Hong Kong Chinese families who speak Mandarin at home, but not many more than that.)

And the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is greater than the difference between French and Spanish. The author also refers to the “five major Chinese dialects.” You could just as accurately refer to Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian as the five major Latin dialects. (Although I’ll give him a pass on this, a lot of native Mandarin speakers derisively – and incorrectly – refer to Cantonese as a dialect rather than a language.)

Language counts. I just sent the polished first draft of my latest masterpiece to my agent. It’s working title is CENTRAL AVENUE. It’s set in Los Angeles, in jazz bars and nightclubs, in 1947. There’s a lot of colloquial dialog in it. A variety of people of different races, backgrounds, class and occupations have something to say in the book. It was fun to write, but I spent an awful lot of time pouring over dictionaries and especially etymologies to figure out what words people used, or didn’t use in 1947.

And I’m sure I still got some things wrong. Did a black jazz musician and a white college guy use the same word for marijuana? Beats me. And the dictionaries I consulted weren’t so clear on the matter either. They didn’t call it “pot,” at least I know that.

Geography, strangely, can provide challenges. Most of the locales in CENTRAL AVENUE are based on real places. Some of the action in my new book is set in a nightclub called the Alabam. I know right where it was in real life. I even have a photo of the memorial awning where it used to be. But I have three different addresses for a club called Dynamite Jackson’s, and two addresses for the Downbeat. The location of the clubs matters, as some of the characters move between them and action takes place on their way to and from them.

I had to give up on getting those facts straight. But I do know for a fact that sooner or later I’m going to get an email or letter from a reader who was disturbed to read that my characters walked three blocks down Central to Dynamite Jackson’s, when they should have walked two blocks up the street instead.

I put a geographic disclaimer at the front of the book. It won’t do any good.

Some writers fall back on the age old – and unassailable – defense: “IT’S FICTION.” And I can’t fault them for that. But I do like to get my facts straight because I, like the reader of mine who I quoted at the start of this blog, tend to pull up short when I encounter something I know is not right in a book.

4 comments:

Charles benoit said...

I love Eric's books, not just for the exceptional writing but for the amazing sense of place. After reading "Living Room of the Dead" I expected to find my passport updated with new stamps. I wish I didn't know him personally so that when it comes to the annual Type M Christmas Book Suggestions I could recommend his books. (NOTE: That was a not-so-subtle suggestion, folks)

Donis Casey said...

Nothing is harder than trying to get every little detail right. You can't get it all perfectly correct, but if you can just make the reader buy it ... now, that's skill!

Dana King said...

I've read Eric, and know how hard he works to get things right. I try to be just vague enough to keep the reader satisfied without picking my nits. For example, if I'm not sure exactly how far or in what direction a place is (as in his example), I might just settle for it was "walking distance" and let the character hoof it. Of course, this won't work every time, as something specific might need to be encountered along thew way.

Eric said...

And you never know after all. I was on a panel with Doug Lyle, a forensic pathologist, yesterday. I was telling Doug about the email from my reader regarding the syringe. He said that it was possible, that you don't necessarily need to draw enough blood back into the syringe shooting someone up that it would coagulate and cause a problem. Perhaps I apologized to that reader too soon.