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Have You Got It Right?

First Monday Post by Sheila Connolly

I found myself writing not one but two books simultaneously for the past couple of weeks. Well, only one was new, but the other was the edits of a much-reworked version of a different one that I had written months ago, and I’ll admit I had a little trouble remembering what I’d written back then. At least the characters and settings were sufficiently different between the two books that I wasn’t likely to muddle them. (I keep thinking that one of these days I’m going to have all my main characters get stranded in an airport together and talk to each other.)

But sometimes it’s hard to keep timelines straight, even within one series. How many days or weeks have passed? What day of the week is it? That’s been true for the County Cork Mysteries. I know the series began in the spring (lots of symbolism, right? New beginnings, a new life, et cetera). But after that things got a bit murky. I knew it snowed in one book, so that had to be in winter. Yes, there are seasons in Ireland (if not quite as extreme as in the US), and time does pass, so I had to write a chronology to help me remember. Thanks to that I figured out that Maura had arrived in Ireland about 15 months earlier. Funny, it had seemed longer to me. I just finished writing Book 8, which takes place in Maura’s second summer, so things aren’t moving fast). A lot had changed, but Maura still thinks of herself as the new kid in town, and she’s still learning about her new home. That’s actually helpful because she still has a lot to discover (even though she never seems to leave the pub), so I have plot ideas in reserve.

I know there are writers whose series span decades (and I congratulate them!). In their stories, one generation passes away; couples meet and marry; they have children, who go on to live their own lives. And often the world changes around them. Certainly electronics play a bigger role than they once did (though I do remember that in my first published book, Through a Glass, Deadly, which came out in 2008, my protagonist did have a cell phone, but since she seemed to spend a lot of time in the desert in Arizona, I could eliminate cell reception easily.)

It’s fine to write historical (or semi-historical) books, and there are plenty of readers who enjoy them (my mother was one). I tend to stay away from writing about history, except in small snippets, because I believe you have to be careful with the details. I remember years ago reading a book set in the later 18th century, in which an antique desk held an important clue (a photograph) in a secret drawer that hadn’t been opened since it belonged to the first owner in 17-something, which of course the modern sleuth discovered. At which point I stopped dead and said, “excuse me, photography wasn’t invented until around 1824, so that clue couldn’t possibly exist.” (Unless you believe in time travel.) Thanks to Google, that could easily have been fixed.

And if you really want to sneak in a bit of history that interests you, you can find your own empty drawer (yes, I’m guilty—I once put a clue into a mortise joint in the attic of an 18th century house, that I’ve visited more than once. This became very weird when the owner was showing me the attic, and I put my hand on a beam and discovered that the mortise I though I had invented was real and I was holding the matching tenon in my hand (recycled beams–apparently recycling had begun by 1760). No hidden clue there, though.)

I find that the challenge is to give your reader enough detail that they can recognize what era the book is set in, but not so much that they get bored before the story really starts. I know what fun it is to find new (to you) information, and of course you don’t want to waste it since you went to all that work to find it, but not everyone may want to know when gunpowder was invented (700 AD in China, although it wasn’t used for weapons until 904 AD. Don’t worry—I had to look it up.).

I think people expect a writer to tell the truth. You may have a wonderful dramatic idea for an important confrontation or a big reveal, but if you get your facts wrong, some reader is going to complain. Readers want to believe what they are reading could have happened—after all, you’re writing fiction and they know it, so they give you a bit of leeway. You can sneak around that by making a brief statement at the beginning of the book that you’re writing historic fiction and you’ve taken just a few small liberties, and then luring the reader into the story so he or she doesn’t care that horseshoes (the kind with nails) weren’t used until around 900 AD, when your Roman emperor rides off to battle on a shod horse. (And I won’t even get into what your publisher may do with the cover image, which sometimes has nothing to do with the story or the time period.)

Have you found things that are clearly anachronisms in a book you were reading? What did you do? Fling it across the room, cursing? Write the author a polite letter? Or did the writer do such a good job that you want to keep reading anyway?

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