Those Pesky Details

Once upon a time I copyedited a novel set in 19th-century New England that had cranberries being shipped to market in May.

Uh — no.

cranberries

Cranberries

I grew up in Massachusetts and have lived here most of my life. When fresh cranberries reach the market in early to mid fall, I stock my freezer with them because they aren’t available earlier in the year. That’s true in the 21st century, it was true in the late 20th (which was when I copyedited this novel), and it was surely true in the 19th, when transportation, storage, and other technologies were a good deal less sophisticated than they are today.

That’s known in the trade as a “good catch”: I caught something that the author, the book’s editor, and everyone who had already read the manuscript missed. Copyeditors are always catching things that everyone else missed, but this was an especially good one. That’s why I remember it more than 15 years later. (Tellingly, I can’t for the life of me remember the title of the novel or the name of its author.)

We copyeditors quite justifiably pat ourselves on the back for these catches and crow about the best ones to our colleagues.

Readers crow about them too when they find what they consider a glaring error in a published book. “Where was the copyeditor?” they cry. “Where was the proofreader?” This is often followed by a lament about how publishing, the English language, and/or western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, if there are several glaring errors in a book, coupled with infelicities of spelling, usage, and style, it may be that it wasn’t properly copyedited or proofread at all. But errors do crop up in even the most conscientiously written, edited, and proofread works. The overwhelming majority of them, thank heavens, are minor.

Think of how many factual details go into any book-length work, fiction or nonfiction. Pity the poor author, who must focus on the whole forest while remaining acutely aware of each tree in the forest, each branch on each tree, each twig on each branch, each bud on each twig. Say you’re an expert in a particular sort of bud. Chances are good that you’ll eventually catch the author out — “No, no, no! Those buds never appear before May in the Upper Midwest!” — but chances are even better that most readers won’t notice. It won’t, and shouldn’t, undermine the credibility of the work.

Unless, of course, the work is about trees in the Upper Midwest. Then you may have a case.

swans on the Mill Pond

There’s a lot more to Martha’s Vineyard than swans on the Mill Pond, but we’ve got that too.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that is so often misrepresented in both fiction and nonfiction that much of my own writing is devoted to countering those misrepresentations. At the same time, I know that some errors are more significant than others. I don’t care (too much) if someone has a ferry sailing from Vineyard Haven at 5:15 instead of 5:00. Recently, though, I reviewed a book that got some of the geography wrong and misspelled several names that could have been verified without much trouble. Editor fail, I thought.

I do get really, really angry when someone assumes that what they’ve seen on the news is the whole truth and nothing but; that everyone here is wealthy when our median income is one of the state’s lowest.

“Write what you know” is a truism quoted ad nauseam, but I don’t mind it when it’s accompanied by its obvious corollary: “And if you don’t know it now, do your research.

This is why I was so impressed when I was contacted a couple of months ago by a writer whose novel in progress was partly set on the Vineyard. Could he ask me a few questions? Ask away, said I.

His questions were the sort that would only be asked by someone who had at least a passing acquaintance with the place. The larger world wouldn’t notice if he got these things wrong, but many Vineyarders would. I was thrilled to be asked and impressed that he cared enough to get it right. I answered as thoughtfully as I could. (Note to anyone who’s writing about Martha’s Vineyard: Contact me. I’m not kidding. If I can’t answer your questions, I can probably put you in touch with someone who can.)

This has inspired me. If I didn’t mind answering this writer’s questions — hell, no! I’m glad to be asked! — other people won’t mind answering mine. I’m not going to get all the details right, and even if I do, some people are going to disagree with me. But if I get out there and ask the questions, I’m probably going to meet some cool people and get into interesting conversations.

It’s all good.

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2 thoughts on “Those Pesky Details

  1. Hi Susanna – an interesting piece but it begs the old question about writers of fiction who use real places and how much they may feel the need to change or adapt them. I take absolutely your cranberry example but I think that ‘believability’, that key factor that takes the reader into the writer’s created world and entertains them while they’re there, is more important in FICTION than factual detail. The cranberry error renders the work unbelievable, tripping up any reader who knows anything about any berry time in any part of the northern hemisphere, be they a botanist or a cook! But quite where streets run, sun orientation, names of bars, siting of cemeteries…..a good writer can skillfully blur or gloss over awkward facts but, nonetheless, they are in a constructed space and time and, if it feels that it will be believable by a broader readership I leave it alone.
    (And thanks for the offer of Vineyard expertise – equally I can offer knowledge on the Isle of Skye, another tourist destination woefully represented in both fiction and journalism.

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    • It does indeed skirt that question, mainly because that’s a topic unto itself: Where does one draw the line? As I wrote, I was thinking about a movie chase scene set in an urban neighborhood. We who knew the area crowed mightily because we knew that those two streets never intersect and this block isn’t adjacent to that one. With our insider knowledge we felt more than a little smug — a good catch on our part, eh? — but did this undermine the movie’s credibility in any way? Almost certainly not — in part because the film dealt with supernatural events, compared to which the rearrangement of streets was pretty minor.

      My own guideline is Grace Paley’s “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” If you’re going to set your story in a place that really exists, get your feet muddy. Let the place influence what you write; don’t just impose your preconceived plot on it. The Martha’s Vineyard of my fiction is a sort of alternate-universe version of the place. The landscape, political and economic as well as geographical, will be recognizable to anyone who lives here, but you’ll never find the office of the Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle or the complex occupied by Island Social Services, even though similar institutions are located in their respective places on the “real” Martha’s Vineyard.

      Thank you for your comment! I might have to blog more about this. 🙂

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