Sunday, June 30, 2013

You Can Lead A Writer to Research...But You Can't Make 'Em Use It

There's an old saying in the writing world that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. This is why research is so important in fiction writing. When I cite anachronisms, spelling errors, and other problems in a manuscript, 90% of the time, it's an error that could have been corrected with a little research.

Research is the writer's best friend. I spend a lot of time urging writers to double-check their research. Why? Because in minutes, with the magic of the Internet and my vast library of research books, I discovered a glitch in the story's timeline, the character's procedure, or a historical inaccuracy that cannot be ignored. Sometimes, what I find throws off the rest of the story, and I understand if an author's first reaction is, "I don't want to change that. It'll mean totally revising the manuscript." Yes, it's disappointing that a scene that hinges on three hundred pages is illogical or impossible. Yes, I commiserate with an author's need to protect his/her baby from deep cuts. You've already spent so much time on the story, finally feel it's perfect, and now I come along and rip it to shreds. So, of course, the author feels too protective to take a step back, consider my comments as helpful, and rise to the challenge. Since I'm a freelance editor, I don't have the power to make a writer follow my suggestions. All I can do is strongly advise. To opt against making changes is the author's prerogative, but an author shouldn't be surprised if that decision doesn't endear the book to readers.

What I discover too often are writers who write the facts around their story, rather than writing their story around the facts. Savvy readers will know the difference and will lose respect for the author who doesn't know the difference.

Last year, I wrote a post about the best habits for doing research. You can read it here. I urge you to do so and to follow these habits before committing to your story.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Need for Etymology When Writing Historical Fiction

For those who aren't familiar with the term, etymology is the origin of words. I'm in the midst of judging a contest, and my entries are in the historical category. I love judging, by the way. It gives me a chance to read some stellar works (I've seen some amazing stories and even collected new favorite authors from the contest circuit) and if the work is less-than-stellar, I have the opportunity to provide an author with the chance to improve.Today's post is one of those Public Service Announcements. Don't Let This Happen to You:

Last night, I picked up an entry and began to read. Within the first ten pages, I'd stumbled over four words that didn't seem accurate for the time period. A quick flip to my etymology references confirmed what I suspected: all four phrases were nineteenth century in origin, while the setting of the entry is six hundred years earlier. The editor in me cringed. Four? In ten pages? What else am I going to discover as I dig deeper into the manuscript? Because right there, the author lost me. He or she clearly didn't do the research and I'm now going to consider every phrase that leaps out at me as anachronistic.

Now, of course, I don't expect the dialogue in a modern book (regardless of historical setting) to read like a Shakespearean play, but at the same time, don't use 19th century slang (or even 16th century slang!) in a 13th century story. It takes seconds to look up the origin of a phrase. Those of us who know these things (and readers who flock to the same historical time period over and over do so because they *do* know these things) don't easily forgive that kind of "lazy writing." It makes us wonder, what else did the author screw up? And once that happens, the reader's no longer engaged in the story. 

Some helpful websites that every historical author should have bookmarked: 

The Online Etymology Dictionary
The Big List
Etymylogically Speaking