K Is for Knowledge

My mind was drawing a blank on K. All the English words that should begin with K begin with C instead. I could fill a whole month with words: convention, collection, character, colon, critique, computer, creativity, chapter, capitalization, coda, classics, copyright . . .

All I could come up with for K were “kern” (a typographical term) and “knotty” (characteristic of prose that needs to be untangled), neither of which inspired me. “Knotty,” however, got me to thinking about words that begin with K but don’t sound like it. Up popped a granddaddy of writerly clichés: “Write what you know.” Aha! “Knowledge” begins with K!

dog coming down hill

Travvy on a mission

I’m more likely to write what I want to find out, but it’s true, things I know and things I’d forgotten I know keep showing up in my writing.

It’s also true that so far I’ve chosen to set my fiction on Martha’s Vineyard, partly because I know it pretty well and partly because I want to know it better.

Wolfie, the title character of the novel in progress, is based on Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, because Travvy has taught me a fair amount about dogs and dog training and what’s a writer to do with the interesting stuff she’s learned besides write about it?

But I don’t know how to rescue a sixth-grade girl who’s been incested by her stepfather, and I don’t know how the stepfather can look himself in the mirror having done what he’s almost certainly done. That’s part of what I’m trying to find out.

Ursula Le Guin’s essay collection Language of the Night was at hand because I’d quoted it in “J Is for Journey,” so I flipped through a couple of my favorite essays and came to this, in “Talking About Writing”:

I invite  you  to meditate on a pair of sisters, Emily and Charlotte. Their life experience was an isolated vcarage in a small, dreary English village, a couple of bad years at a girls’ school, another year or two in Brussels, which is surely the dullest city in all Europe, and a lot of housework. Out of that seething mass of raw, vital, brutal, gutsy Experiece they made two of the greatest novels ever written: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

This struck me with special force because I’d recently watched To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s wonderful film about the Brontë sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne.

Le Guin goes on:

Now of course they were writing from experience; writing about what they knew, which is what people always tell you to do; but what was their experience? What was it they knew? Very little about ‘life.’ They knew their own souls, they knew their own minds and hearts; and it was not a knowledge lightly or easily gained.

A writer can learn plenty by doing research, whether this involves extensive reading or spending time in a place or interviewing lots of people. But to do justice to all this knowledge, she has to know her own soul, her own mind and heart. That’s what enables her to make sense of her research, to understand or create characters that are not like her at all.

F Is for Fact-Checking

Fact-checking is much in the news these days — or perhaps it’s the absence of it that’s much in the news.

It used to be, and may still be, that top-quality magazines had fact-checkers whose job was to go through every story accepted for publication and check all the facts. They weren’t responsible for the quality of the prose — just the facts.

Editing — specifically copyediting, which includes excruciating attention to detail — and fact-checking are two distinct tasks, but inevitably they overlap. Imprecise writing can lead to readerly misunderstanding, and those misunderstandings may have to do with facts. A trade publisher I’ve been working for regularly for many years directs copyeditors to check dates, the spelling of names, and anything that can be easily verified as long as it doesn’t add to billable time.

Before the World Wide Web, freelance copyeditors were limited to biographical dictionaries, atlases, specialized reference books, and such. Because these had been subjected to a rigorous editing process, they were reliable, but they were also limited in scope. Print references start going out of date even before they’re published, and the further your interests strayed from white male English-speakers, the harder it was to find any facts, verified or not.

In the Age of Google, you can find almost anything on the Web, but plenty of it hasn’t been subjected to either fact-checking or editing. As you’ve probably learned for yourself, verifying the attribution of a quotation is a particular challenge because misattributions seem to multiply exponentially — giving rise to memes like the classic at left (variations of which have also been attributed to Mark Twain, among others).

Copyeditors generally do our fact-checking on the fly and with the help of a search engine. We develop a sixth sense for determining the reliability of sites we’ve never visited before. (Hint: This often involves the quality of both writing and design. If the copy is riddled with typos and strange punctuation, I’ll move on PDQ. Ditto with any site that uses white type against a dark background.)

We also develop a sixth sense for what facts in a manuscript need to be checked. When starting a new job, I’ll fact-check a few names and dates to get a feel for how careful the author is. If the author seems reliable (as is usually the case in the stuff I work on), I’ll look up anything that smells funny and spot-check facts here and there just for the hell of it.

Ultimately writers are responsible for the accuracy of their facts, but a book-length work of nonfiction involves a myriad of facts, and it’s all too easy to transpose letters in a name or figures in a number and wind up with a goof.

Writers whose work is based on research do plenty of fact-checking while they’re writing. Written sources may contain errors, or contradict each other, or be superseded by later works.

I think the journalists have it hardest. Many of their sources are living people talking about events that have just happened. These informants bring different perspectives to the event, they see it from different angles, some are more observant than others — and some may be deliberately shading or hiding what they know, for reasons they’re unlikely to be upfront about and may even be unaware of. And the journalists are generally working on deadlines that don’t leave time for leisurely fact-checking.

Button: I never believe anything until it's been officially denied.In this age of spin and “fake news” each of us has to do our own fact-checking. Because we rarely have the time or inclination to check every fact, we generally focus on the source, the news outlet: if it’s got a good track record, it’s probably because its reporters, editors, and fact-checkers are on the ball. When they screw up, our faith is shaken. Was this an aberration, or are they going down the tubes?

At least in our wiser moments, good editors and writers know that 100% accuracy is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from expecting it of ourselves and of those we respect, and from turning on anyone who doesn’t live up to our expectations.

In my weekly newspaper days I quickly learned that if we spelled the name of someone’s child or grandchild wrong, that person would remember it forever. Worse, it could easily become a cornerstone in that person’s conviction that the paper was careless with facts. It’s not hard to understand: misspellings and factual errors are easier to recognize than sloppy sourcing or sloppy writing, and they stick in the mind longer. It’s not fair, but there’s an upside to it: if you’re scrupulously accurate with your easy-to-check facts, your work will be more credible.

And when the liars, spammers, and misrepresenters catch on, we’re all in big trouble.

B Is for Backmatter

Yeah, both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage make it two words, but it’s my blog and they’re not telling me what to do. Hmm. I have this hunch that D is gonna be for Dictionary . . .

As noted in “A Is for Audience,” I started this A-to-Z challenge a little late. B should have been posted on the 3rd, but it’s currently the 5th. I’m backdating this post to the 3rd to make myself look good.

So what’s backmatter (or back matter)? It’s what follows the main text in a published book. With fiction the backmatter is usually short. It might comprise acknowledgments (which sometimes appear in the frontmatter — guess what that is?), the author’s bio, and — a regular feature of one trade publisher for which I edit regularly — “A Note About the Type.” Meaning the history of the typeface the designer chose to set the book in. Print geeks like me love this stuff.

Nonfiction, especially academic nonfiction, is a whole other (excuse my English) matter. In histories, biographies, and any nonfiction that involves any kind of research, the backmatter can make up a quarter or more of the book’s total pages. In a nonfiction work, the backmatter often includes endnotes, bibliographies or reference lists, and indexes. It may include a glossary or an appendix or two.

Citations — meaning especially endnotes, footnotes, and bibliographies — drive grad students, professors, journalists, and others crazy. They especially drive editors crazy, especially when authors have been inconsistent in the formatting or inaccurate in the details. Almost every assertion in an academic work has to be sourced: the author has to tell the reader where it came from, so the reader can, if so inclined, check it out. This sourcing is done in endnotes and footnotes (which aren’t considered backmatter because they aren’t in the back), and then all the works cited in the notes are compiled in a bibliography or reference list.

There are, in other words, good reasons for confusing “backmatter” with “dark matter.”

When I start a copyediting job, it doesn’t take me long to figure out whether the author is careful or careless.  Sometimes I can tell at a glance whether a cited work’s publication info is correct. Other times I have to look it up. If the author is careful, I spot-check the occasional reference and don’t worry too much. If not — I look up a lot, gnashing my teeth all the while.

Asked to provide an estimate for a nonfiction job, some editors will provide an estimate for the main text but then say they’ll charge by the hour for the backmatter. I totally get it. Backmatter words and main-text words are not created equal. Charging by the hour motivates some authors to do more of the heavy lifting themselves instead of expecting the editor to do it.

It’s when I’m editing backmatter that I most appreciate the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever other style guide I’m supposed to be following. Who wants to invent citation style from scratch? Not me. Here is one area where I’m grateful to have “rules” to follow, and I’m happy to follow those rules.

Just the Facts

Several of my current or recent jobs involve a fair amount of fact-checking, so I’m feeling both heroic about the errors and inconsistencies I’ve caught and anxious about the ones I know for absolute sure I’m missing.

You know how it goes: You’re reading along in a pretty good book and you screech to a halt at something that’s flat-out wrong. Not a typo or a misplaced modifier or a grammatical goof: a genuine error of fact. Maybe you know the right answer because it’s about your hometown, the car you drive, a subject you’ve been studying for years, or the work you do for a living.

“Where was the editor?” you cry. “Any idiot knows that’s not right.”

The editor and the proofreader would probably be mortified to learn that this error had slipped through. The more significant the error, the more mortified they’d be. At the same time, it’s ultimately the author’s job to get it right, so let’s not be blaming it all on the poor editor — not least because the reader of a published book has no way of knowing how many errors and inconsistencies the editor and proofreader caught.

Pick up a good book, fiction or nonfiction, and read a few pages. Notice how many matters of fact there are, how many opportunities there are to get something wrong or not quite right?

As an editor I don’t do the kind of rigorous fact-checking done by good journalists and others, where everything that isn’t common knowledge (like the law of gravity) has to be confirmed by at least two independent sources. “Fact-checking” is a task in its own right. It overlaps copyediting, but it’s not the same.

I do routinely check the spellings of place and personal names, especially when I’m not familiar with them. I’m currently editing a book about an eminent classical musician of the last century. This isn’t a field I know well, so I’m looking almost everything up. This is how I learned that Goosens was supposed to be Goossens and something else: that three successive generations of this musical family included a Eugene. The elder two spelled their first name Eugène but the youngest had dropped the accent. I couldn’t tell for sure which Eugene/Eugène Goossens was being referred to, so I asked the author. The youngest, she informed me. “Eugene” it was.

I’m also proofreading a long nonfiction book with many, many names, dates, and other details. This is a “cold read,” which means that though I do have access to the copyedited manuscript, I am not reading the proofs against it. When a book’s been competently edited and copyedited, errors and inconsistencies are generally few and relatively minor, but they are there. I was quite pleased with myself when I realized that a fellow who was survived by eight children when he died on September 13 had been the father of nine on September 9.

What did I do next? From context I knew that there was virtually no chance that a child had died between the 9th and the 13th; in other words, this was an error. Because  this fellow was not famous and the number of children he had was irrelevant to the story, I didn’t even think to look it up. (Fact-checking in the digital age can be a terrible time sink. There are a helluva lot of fascinating facts out there.) I noted the discrepancy on the proofs and left it to the author to deal with.

Reading the same proofs, I came to a sentence that ended with a series of organization names: “the House of Representatives, the New York Urban League, the National Legal Aid, the Defender Association, and the Buffalo Council of Churches.” “The National Legal Aid” looked odd. What was the “the” doing there? So I looked it up — and discovered that “the National Legal Aid” and “the Defender Association” were not two organizations but one: the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). Which of course I had to read up on — see what I mean about time sinks?

This is what’s known in the trade as a “good catch.” I’m still feeling a little smug about it.

How about when an error goes beyond an easily verifiable fact? Some things we catch because we have knowledge of the subject matter. Editors bring their personal histories as well as their editorial experience to each new job, so we’ll catch things in the areas we know well and speed on by things in areas we don’t.

Checking street maps to make sure a driver can make a left turn from Street A onto Avenue B? Verifying appropriate technology in a historical novel, or customs in a place far from home? Basically it’s the author’s job to get this stuff right. When the editor, copyeditor, or proofreader catches an impossibility, an anachronism, or a cultural improbability, it’s great, but editors are not fact-checkers and we’re usually working on deadline.

An obvious gaffe can undermine a book’s credibility. Competent editing and proofreading will greatly reduce the number of errors, inconsistencies, and unclarities that slip through, but in this, as in everything else, perfection is not possible.

If you’re the writer, however, it’s your name in the byline or on the book cover. There’s a reason for that. You’re the one with the most power to get the facts right.

Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.

***********

Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

What You Don’t Know

There’s nothing like writing to show you what you don’t know.

The other day I took two of my characters on a field trip. Rather, they took me. These are the same two, Shannon and Jackie, I blogged about last month in “The Importance of Place,” after they took me to the Gay Head Cliffs.

Shannon has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for decades. Sister Jackie has never been there before. Shannon is playing tour guide. (Come to think of it, there’s nothing like playing tour guide to show you what you don’t know — and also what you do. Shannon listens to facts and factoids coming out of her mouth that she didn’t know she knew. I didn’t know I knew them either.)

So we went window-shopping in Edgartown, where in novel time it’s Thanksgiving weekend so some shops but not all are closed for the season, then we strolled along State Beach. The sheer vastness of the ocean started getting to us, so Shannon and I simultaneously hit on the same antidote: “Let’s go to the Campground.”

In the Campground — formally the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association — more than 300 cottages sit on about 34 acres of land.

I’ve been to the Campground many times over the years, but never accompanied by these two characters. As we walked, the conversation they were having flowed in interesting directions, shaped by the narrow walkways and the colorful, cheek-by-jowl cottages.

The Pink House from the front

The Pink House from the front

The most colorful, and by far the most photographed, cottage in the Campground is the Pink House so of course Shannon guided Jackie in that direction. When we got to it, I was glad we’d made the trip.

In my memory the Pink House stood apart from its neighbors, as if they’d startled at the sight of it and taken a giant step backward.

But it doesn’t. It’s on a corner, yes, but it’s nestled as close to its immediate neighbors as any other house.

Jackie then wandered around to the back of the house. The Pink House may be the most photographed cottage in the Campground, and maybe the most photographed building on Martha’s Vineyard, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a photo of its backside.

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

Pink House, rear view, with mystery plant

The trouble started when I got home and started to write. What the hell were those tall stalky things on the left? I wrote “tall stalky shrubbery” and knew immediately that I wasn’t going to let myself get away with that.

Like what if I were reading about a character running through a meadow noticing little white flowers and little blue flowers over there and hard orange berries over here? A little of that goes a long way. At some point I start to suspect that the author didn’t know the names of the things and didn’t care enough to find out. This subtly undermines my confidence in her knowledge of other things.

So I posted that rear-view photo on Facebook and asked for help identifying the tall stalky thingies. The first two friends who responded said it was hard to tell without foliage or flowers, but they thought it was probably rose of Sharon. Others thought privet, which I’d always thought was an evergreen but it turns out it comes in deciduous too. Trying to confirm one or the other was difficult because all the pretty pictures I found on the internet were of flowers; no stalks were visible.

Rose of sharon is currently in the lead.

Sturgis’s Law #6 says “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” This is how it works. That particular scene may disappear from future drafts of the novel, but now I’ve a pretty good idea of what rose of Sharon looks like. Who knows where it will show up next.

The Importance of Place

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

Two days before the late January snow fell, I drove all the way to Aquinnah to see the Gay Head Cliffs. My Alaskan malamute, Travvy, rode shotgun, his nose usually as far out the window as it could get.

In the Forester’s back seat were two of my characters, protagonist Shannon and her long-estranged sister Jackie. Shannon’s in her mid-fifties. Jackie’s three years younger. They survived their violently alcoholic family in different ways, Shannon by fleeing, Jackie by sticking it out. After almost four decades of minimal contact, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and Jackie has come for a visit.

I live on, and write about, Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard is famous, not least because the president and one of his recent predecessors vacation here. I write about the place and the people who are still here when the celebrities leave.

Gay Head light

The Gay Head lighthouse. In a major engineering feat last fall it was moved 129 feet back from the cliff that was eroding out from under it.

The Gay Head Cliffs are celebrities in their own right, celebrities who never leave. People who know nothing else about Martha’s Vineyard have seen them in photographs. Shannon, like me and many another year-round resident, is somewhat jaded about both celebrities and tourist attractions, but she’s showing her sister around and it’s late November: no chattering crowds, ample places to park.

At this point I realized that my mental image of the cliffs looked like a picture postcard. I hadn’t been there in years. I couldn’t remember the path down to the beach or what the beach looked like. Hence this mid-January expedition. I kept my eyes on the road, occasionally scratched Travvy’s back, and listened to Shannon and Jackie talking in the back seat.

After I parked the car — there was no shortage of available space — we walked past the silent summer shops and up to the observation area. Shannon and Jackie leaned on the post-and-rail fence. Shannon pointed out over the water. “That’s Devil’s Bridge,” she said. “Major hazard to navigation.”

Jackie shaded her eyes against the sun and squinted. “I can’t see anything,” she replied.

“Neither can the ships,” said Shannon.

Most Vineyard people know about the wreck of the City of Columbusa passenger steamship bound from Boston to Savannah. It ran aground on Devil’s Bridge, a submerged rocky shoal, in the dark early hours of January 18, 1884, and quickly sank. Despite heroic rescue efforts that morning by the Gay Headers and the crew of a passing vessel, 104 died; only 29 were rescued.

The anniversary had just passed when we drove to Aquinnah, so it was on my mind, but when Shannon said “Neither can the ships,” I froze. Rescue is a major theme in my novel in progress, starting with the rescue of Wolfie, the title character, who was inspired by (you guessed it) Travvy — rescue and the difficulty of recognizing threats before it’s too late. And there it was, arising naturally and unobtrusively from the place where my characters stood.

Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.

Regional writing, writing deeply rooted in place, sometimes gets a bad rap. Regional writing is only about that region, so the thinking goes. It’s not universal. (If this reminds you of the equally popular notion that writing about women is only about women, and writing about people of color is only about people of color, while writing about white men is universal — it should.)

If William Blake could “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” writers can find a whole world in a particular place, and readers can learn more about their world from following a writer’s words into places they’ve never been.

For another take on where imagery comes from, check out my earlier blog post “Grow Your Images.”

Trav on path

The path to Moshup’s Beach is a lot longer and wider than I remembered. That’s my sidekick, Travvy, waiting for me to put the camera away and keep walking.

Moshup's Beach

Once I realized how rocky the beach was, it was easier to hear what Shannon and Jackie were saying as they picked their way over the rocks.

Sturgis’s Law #6

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #6:

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Every aspiring writer has heard it: “Write what you know.” It’s a terrible cliché.

Well, no, it’s not so terrible, because there’s truth in it. There’s truth in most clichés. The trouble with clichés isn’t their lack of truth. It’s the way they become ossified into conventional wisdom and, gods forbid, rules.

Think about it. If you write what you don’t know, people are going to find you out — unless your skill is such that you can persuade them that you do know it, even if it contradicts what they know, or think they know. This means that you actually know quite a bit.

You probably didn’t start out with all the skills you needed to tell that story either. You developed them on the way.

travvy in field

This is Travvy. The fictional Wolfie looks like his twin brother, but they’ve got different stories to tell.

Knowing stuff is great. Some imagery and a major plot thread of Wolfie, my novel in progress, has grown from what I know about dogs, specifically Alaskan malamutes, particularly Travvy, the Alaskan malamute I live with, on whom the title character is based.

Both Wolfie and my first novel, The Mud of the Place, are set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where I live. Any plot can take place anywhere, but the places where it unfolds will affect how it happens and who the characters are. People are influenced by our surroundings, both past and present. The better you know your settings — both those that exist in real time and those you make up, and those that are a combination of the two — the more you’ll know about your characters.

On the other hand, when you set out to write a history of X or a biography of Y, you rarely know everything there is to know about the subject. I’ll go out on a limb and say you never know everything there is to know about the subject — and when the book is in print and getting great reviews (let’s be optimistic for a moment here), there’s still more to be learned.

The same goes for memoirs and novels. Memoirs are about your own life, and in fiction you get to make stuff up, so maybe you don’t have to know so much? Ha ha ha. There’s nothing like writing to show you how much you don’t know, and how much of what you do know is incomplete or not quite right or even downright wrong. So memoirists and fiction writers do what historians and biographers do to correct the errors and fill in the gaps: research.

Memoirists may interview family members, reread old letters, or cross-check remembered facts and dates with written records. Mystery writers don’t generally start off knowing a hundred ways to commit murder, or what a body looks like when it’s been shot at close range, or what police officers do at a crime scene. And so on.

Think of writing as a journey of discovery. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write what you want to find out, what you’re curious about. If you’re a “planner” — you like to plot everything out in advance — choose a destination that intrigues you. With my first novel, The Mud of the Place, I thought I knew where I was going, but that’s not where I ended up.

Wolfie started with a fairly simple “what if?”: What if a dog like Travvy was running loose in my town, hassling and probably killing livestock? That was answered pretty quickly, but not before it had segued into a question I’ve long been obsessed with but haven’t dared think too hard about. It goes something like this: Hindsight is 20/20, but what do you do when you begin to suspect something bad has happened and maybe is still happening, there’s no way of finding out for sure, and the price of being wrong is very, very high?

Well, I, like my characters, am still somewhat in the dark, and I, like them, have been drawn into unsettling territory: the powerlessness of children, the trickiness of memory, the barriers we throw up against what we can’t afford to know. I’m having conversations with teachers, therapists, and others who’ve been confronted with comparable dilemmas. I’ve read and reread many accounts of adults who have managed to survive similar situations.

Perhaps the strangest thing that’s happened so far is that one supporting character is an animator: he works on animated films with computer-generated graphics. Where the hell did that come from? I’m not a big moviegoer, and apart from a book I worked on some years ago about Pixar Animation Studios, I knew zip about animation. But I knew, immediately and intuitively, that the fact that this guy was an animator could be significant. So I’ve been reading up on animated films, and particularly what animators do.

No way am I ever going to be an animation expert, though I certainly know more about the subject than I did two months ago. I don’t know everything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard either, but I do know it well enough to know what I don’t know. And that’s enough.

P.S. Here’s an article I turned up while procrastinating researching this blog post. Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know” from TheAtlantic.com. It’s very good.

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.

Less Is (Often) More

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, I was much involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, reviewer, PR person, playwright, and all-around flunky. In the years since I’ve drawn heavily on that experience as both writer and editor. Here’s an example, brought to mind by something another editor was wrestling with.

My colleague was editing a novel in which a 20-something character texted to another character a acronym-laden message that my colleague found incomprehensible. She’s not an avid texter, so she asked an online editors’ forum for feedback. Would the acronyms be readily understood by text-savvy readers?

The answer was a nearly unanimous no. Even the avid texters had trouble figuring it out. It didn’t sound like a plausible text either.

What to do, what to do?

One possibility was that the 20-something character was being intentionally obscure. This, however, didn’t seem to be the case. There was general agreement that translating the acronyms into plain English was out of the question. Footnotes are fine in a scholarly work but not so fine in a novel, and working the translation into the text was going to look contrived no matter how gracefully it was done.

Aside: Something like 20 percent of War and Peace is in French. There’s a point to this. Tolstoy is showing us how the French-speaking Russian aristocracy is estranged from the Russian-speaking rest of the country, at a time when the French-speaking Napoleon is threatening Moscow. In the original Russian, Tolstoy provided translations in the footnotes. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky kept the French (and a smattering of German) in their translation and provided English translations in the footnotes. It worked. I loved it. But I know for a fact that I am not Tolstoy, and you probably aren’t either.

This brought to mind something I learned as an amateur actor who occasionally had to speak with a foreign accent or in an English dialect not my own. My teacher was the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. She was the language consultant on almost every production I worked on, and many more besides.

When we actors went to her to learn to speak southern or English or Russian or Australian, her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Travvy picture

Any excuse for a Travvy picture, right? Travvy loves to jump. Note the retrieve object in his mouth. He’s working hard!

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way.

I suggested to my colleague that a similar approach might serve her client well: In text messages, use enough acronyms and emoticons to sound authentic but not so many that readers are left scratching their heads.

This might apply as well to the research and technical know-how you bring to your story. In my novel in progress, I’m drawing on what I’ve learned training my dog, but I’m not writing a dog-training manual. My goal is to sound like I know what I’m talking about without boring my readers — especially the less dog-obsessed among them — to tears with esoterica that isn’t important to the story.

Less is (often) more. Thank you again, Dr. Gurren.