Getting it right, or correcting it. What do you prefer? Comments preferred, mess with the average. :D

I was reading a book by a successful author, and amidst the rest of what was a splendid manuscript, I hit a snag. A particular kind of airplane was being flown by a particular branch of service.

Normally, this shouldn’t be the slightest issue. Whatever. It’s just equipment. Who cares if it’s a P47 or an F4U? One flew in Europe by the Army Air Corp and the other flew off islands with the Marine Corps, OR it flew off carriers with the Royal Navy during WWII. It did not ever operate off US Navy carriers until after the war.

See the difference there? It’s a glaring error if you say, “Joe’s flight of F4Us swooped in to drop bombs on the nazi scumbags.” If Joe is Army Air Corp, he’s not flying F4Us. If Joe is Royal Navy, he MIGHT be flying them, in the Mediterranean.

This is minutia, you say. “Pontius, nobody cares about that stuff but you.”  Maybe that’s true, and it doesn’t matter, and you can have alternate universes in your books where the F4U was all over Europe countering the FW-190.

Back to how this matters to your book. See, if you make glaring errors like this, it drops your street cred a little. This is near history or near future history, and you either must make a point of saying “this is a fantasy alternate world” or it’s gotta conform to what is and was and is to be.  A technical error is a FULL STOP removal from the immersion of your world.

If you have a technical error, do you want to hear about it? Or are you moving on to the next 27 books? This is true for everything from detective novels to technothrillers to historical romance.

“He ripped her bodice off.” Really? That’s a lousy-made bodice. I can tell you that I’ve run into all sorts of period underwear for women in my 20+ years of faires and re-enacting and all that, and there wasn’t a one I could rip off a woman. Putting them on the women usually was a long and tedious process. They build those things for keeps! That’s a technical error. If you’ve seen the garment in question, you’d know that it isn’t that easy. Victorian sex? The lady would have to lift her skirts unless she wanted to go through a 20 minute disrobing process.

Or wearing armor. Yesterday, I went on a 3 mile hike with my Roman re-enactment group. I used to wear plate (segmentata) and yesterday I wore a 6mm riveted chain shirt (hamata). There was a HUGE difference in comfort between the two. Chainmail on your bare skin? bzzzzt Boris Vallejo! NOT COMFORTABLE AT ALL. And the edges will chafe you and leave marks. And so on. I could tell you about the experience of wearing the plate armor (it does things to my shoulder blades that are not suitable for anyone except mature audiences. Edema, edema!). If you’re doing fantasy and you’ve never worn armor, best you talk to someone who does. SCA people know this stuff backward and forward, and will keep you from your faux pas.

I could go on, but I won’t. Tell me: Once you’ve written a book, do you care about the errors and nitpicky commas and grammar and stuff, or are you done done and moved on to the next thing? What if you’re being harassed by annoying readers like me?

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33 thoughts on “Getting it right, or correcting it. What do you prefer? Comments preferred, mess with the average. :D

  1. I’m more or less of the mind that if you’re going to get specific in your details then you should make the effort and do your research for authenticity. Some of your readers won’t care, but the [insert hobby/craft enthusiast title here] reader is the one that you could automatically turn off from future works if they think you’re sloppy. They could also be your most loyal followers if they trust you to put the effort into making an enjoyable, believable book.

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    • Yes! That’s another thing. The loyal reader, the guy who’ll be buying the sequel, he’s not going to do it if you’re not getting his particular pet peeves right. I started reading “Thunder of Erebus” by Payne Harrison, and he did a major load of research into cold weather environments to properly portray Antarctica and combat in that environ, including spending time with and questioning Army guys stationed in Alaska. The answer there is that you cannot be satisfied with a wiki stub, but rather you should get on the phone or get some face time with people in the line of work or expertise in the area you’re headed into.

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  2. I agree with you, I think it’s important that you get facts right or, as you say, you lose credibility with those people who recognise the error – it makes it seem sloppy, like the author hasn’t bothered to make the effort. If you’re using real factual things, then research and get them right, otherwise just make up something completely different that doesn’t exist in real. I’ve got a feeling I wrote something about this issue a long time ago on a writers’ blog I used to be part of, I’ll have a look later to see if I can find it.

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  3. This is one good reason to involve more people reading your manuscript before publishing it. There are, in so far concerning “particulars”, some way to say in every idiom… (ripping off clothes, in italian is a “figurative” way to express metaphorically a discomfort or distress in doing the undressing).
    Nonetheless, it is very important to study and achieve all the informations you need before and during your writing… and the first, may take weeks. But this is the fun of the whole story. Vanessa-Jane touch the true: I guess that some writers like best to go right to fantasy not to bother with a huge necessity of getting well prepared by reading books and material regarding the topic treated in their novels… or am I wrong? 😉
    Serenity Claudine

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    • Ciao Claudine! The historical romances are sometimes guilty of ignoring the limits of what is possible… then again, as Blake Griffith says, “Look man, I’m not here for a history lesson, okay? I’m here to win.” (https://youtu.be/mXNhwvyglYA?t=35)

      But I’m referring to those works that do take the history seriously. And maybe it was because they didn’t have enough beta readers looking at the manuscript that the mistake got through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah I got the image. But you need to get beta-readers with a good schooling… not just “friends” which do the reading for fun (well these may give you a tip or consideration about the whole story/plot). Nowadays we have more writers than readers, that’s a fact. And the several ways to auto-publish make it easier…
        I don’t know how long it usually takes for a writer who does it as “profession” to write a novel (around 500 pages); personally I work part time and I really take it the easy way, getting over and over a lot of infos the old way at the bibliotheque or in internet… and I need around 2 years!
        I guess you are a winner 🙂 congratulations Matt!

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  4. I’m a bit obsesive about this. Even for fantasy you need research. Magic needs rules, how does magic interact with natural laws etc? How is it depleted, recharged? Then there are the mundane things that affect magical worlds, too, like weather, agriculture, daily needs, infrastructure, legislature, currency… I also love to write Scifi, I’m currently plotting a longish SciFi story, and I’m at a loss. There are many things that can be researched on the internet, beyond Wikipedia. Whenever possible, I try to get original papers on a topic in question. But when it goes outside my own expertise, I often don’t understand all of it, and how can I be certain that the way I incorporated it into my writing makes any sense at all, even if it touches topics just superficially?
    How do you go about finding beta readers who have that kind of knowledge? Do you know physicists, engineers, astronomers, molecular biologists, sociologists, whatnoticists personally? I’d really like to know how other people go about their research. Famous authors probably have a network of people who are only too happy to help, but what can the would-bes like me do?

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    • Experts in all fields enter those fields because they love them. I have never found an archaeologist, botanist, US Army colonel, metallurgist, potter or lawyer who wasn’t delighted to be consulted with and asked intelligent questions about his/her field of expertise by a would-be writer of related fiction. As a retired US diplomat and consular officer, I feel exactly the same. You want to know how immigration really works? Call me any time. I’m so happy that someone finally wants to get it right that I’ll probably buy the lunch. You want a university-level physicist? By all means, call that office in the nearest university and tell them what you want and why. You WILL get expert help and encouragement.

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      • This is true. I’ve run into this where people want to get the Roman angle of things right. They come to our board and post their question, and one of the umpteen dozen experts in that field jump on the answer. That isn’t to say they aren’t also advocates of http://www.crackafrigginbook.com (as my beloved Aunt Slappy likes to say), but if it’s nuanced enough and obscure, sometimes the answers aren’t in the Osprey books or in one of the books considered to be canon in the field.

        But the modifier, “Intelligent,” that’s the back-breaker right there. Do your best to research as much as you can before you hit your expert, THEN go to them with the next level of questioning. Yes, people in detailed fields usually have a passion for what they do and you’re right on the ball with the idea that they’ll not only assist, but go out of their way to do so.

        Some unusual jobs out there bear having some curiosity about them, even if you’re not writing a book. Smokejumpers. Salmon farmers. Aqueduct engineers. Lion keepers. Why do you do what you do? How do you do it? Why do you like it? How is it done?

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      • Thank you for your helpful reply. It would take a lot of courage to approach complete strangers about something like that. Good to know where to ask where immigration is concerned (won’t need it anytime soon) or maybe anthropology (more likely)–I peeked at your blog. I only have one colleague who was ever approached by a writer–and that would have needed a lot of explaining of basic things in the field, no idea how that worked out in the end. She was more baffled than pleased, actually. But I think the idea is good, you could always check out workgroups through their websites, ask the supervisor if one of her or his masters or PhD students would like being an advisor… that would minimize embarrassment from the writer’s part, and may actually be fun for the student.

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    • I’d say you start by creating a bible of your world, including its physics and unusual things. This isn’t meant for publication. It’s meant to give consistency. Figure out your magic system and how it works, and then figure out how much the characters are taught or know about it. Thus the magic system is all about consistency across the board, in a cohesive manner that means that nothing that happens will happen without there being some sort of natural law relating to it. You as the author must never break the consistency of those rules and laws. (It’s a vicious circle: If it annoys you enough, just go change the law and it’s not a problem, right?) I see it as maintaining cohesiveness at the cost of everything else. If it’s not cohesive and doesn’t work as a whole, it is failing on a major level.

      That doesn’t mean you infodump everything you know about your magic system to the reader; it’s unnecessary. In fact, it’s sort of like the idea that has been propounded a lot regarding nudity: some clothes preserve the mystery, where no clothes do not, so some clothes tend to be more sexy. If I open a fantasy novel and by page 3 the entire magic system is explained to me, it creates two problems. 1) You’ve taken all the interest and mystery out of it, 2) you’ve infodumped information I don’t really need to know. It is usually more fun for me to learn the magic system by seeing it in action and learning from the characters. If you decide to do some sort of system in your scifi universe where you’re using wormholes or freezing people for long voyages or whatever, write down your system and refer to it.

      The beta readers may or may not be experts. You use the experts in the fabrication stages, and the beta readers can be whomever. If it flies with the beta readers, you’re usually good. I consult with guys I know through my association with an on-line military realism gaming community, which has real life military types in it that are willing to extend help and assistance to me. I ask the real life cop to vet the cop scenes and tell me the sorrowful reality. (And he did. I rewrote the scene.) I ask the satellite air force guy for advice, and he gives it. That’s fun and useful.

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      • Thank you. Yes, a bible is a given, infodump has to be circumnavigated carefully–but especially in SciFi you need some accuracy, but I still insist, it’s important in any field. See, you know these guys. I was wondering if there was a writer’s rescource somewhere, where this kind of information is exchanged (Have a biology question, ask away, or some such).

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        • No, you email/call a place where you mostly will find the expert you need, and explain what you need and ask if that’s something they could assist you with. Worst that can happen is they say no, or there’s no response. You may have to try several different places to find your expert. There’s also the “go to the location and ask” approach. You can also make contacts with people at events like fairs where businesses and organizations have booths with the sole purpose of contacting and interacting with the public.

          Consider also that you can get introductions through related professions. For instance, *I* am an amateur actor. I do, however, know professionals in the field of costuming, so if that’s something you were interested in–especially renaissance or victorian eras–I can give you introductions to very talented people in those fields.

          It’s a matter of getting your foot in the door and the person realizing that you’re looking for knowledge that they possess.

          Consider that some subjects might be taught at your local high school and the teachers may be amenable to sharing their knowledge with a non-student.

          There are also professional associations and amateur associations. If you wanted to learn about gold-mining, you could find a club in your locale, and contact the people active in that club. Chances are there will be someone who can answer just about everything you ask.

          With the internet as your starting point for research, you should be able to get pretty far with any subject before resorting to digging up experts.

          Finding beta readers who are professionals may be a little more difficult, but you do the above searches and then explain what you need and find out if anyone is willing to assist.

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  5. My genre is historical fiction and I take research extremely seriously. My period is the Bronze Age, primarily in Greece, and I know just about every inch of the territory my book takes place in, have walked through all the palaces looking not at the grandeur but at how everyday life must have worked in them, meet frequently with the archaeologists and keep up with all their work and thoughts (in Greek, French and English), and even try to read some of the competition (mostly inexcusably horrid stuff, but it does sell).

    I also spend a lot of time thinking through the characters that exist in legend and what they might really have been like: as in, don’t look at what Homer and everyone since has written about them and how they’ve portrayed them: look at what they actually DID. (Do this, for example, for Achilles, and feel the chills that run down your spine.)

    The only plausible excuse I can imagine for getting something wrong would be that the book went to print before that feature was discovered. Would I want to be corrected by someone who was actually right (rather than mistaken or led astray by others’ incorrect writing)? Absolutely!

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    • Out of curiosity, what side of the linothorax fence do you fall? Glued linen, or leather? I’ve seen a lot of argument lately in the re-enactment community. It doesn’t matter that much to me, that’s ancient history to the Romans. 😀 But the catty fights over the content of the armor… you’d think they’d be polite about it.

      I sent a nice note to the author in question, and got back a polite response thanking me. I assume most authors want to hear the corrections, but I’m always a little… hesitant. In the theater world, there’s a lot of diva types who don’t want your notes or corrections, and this doesn’t seem to be the case in the writing world. I don’t want to seem like the pushy guy who gives a 1 star review and castigates the author for making an error, as that’s just petty and mean, so I always try to send a note. So far, no one has said, “Sodoff baldrick.”

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  6. Note to gahlearner: there is no reason not to do detailed research among those who really know. Like my archaeologists, most experts are delighted to answer questions for writers who (finally!!) want to get it right.

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    • Thanks again. Yes, I always try to get a good overview for anything, then read up on current research, but there doesn’t seem to be a way around actually contacting people.

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      • Another thought on this: sometimes there’s scholarly papers on the subject you’re researching. You can contact the writer for a copy or purchase it from wherever. I remember doing this for a paper on a specific part of history, and the writer was a professor at a college in Sweden. I sent her an email and voila, got a nice response that was essentially “buy the paper from these guys.”

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        • You can get free copies on about any subject from decently ranked journals these days. To get an idea about something you rarely need to buy a paper, unless it is one you absolutely need for your work. It is also easier to follow the discussions that way, because nowhere in science are absolutes. Someone posits a hypothesis, and others often cling to their own ideas, oftentimes heated discussions ensue. It’s always good to look at different sides. Gaining knowledge is not my problem, but someone to read over my stuff and say, “yes that could happen, it’s speculative, but not completely impossible,” or, “that’s just crap, can’t be, silly idea.”
          So, I think networking through wordpress is already a very good place to find people who know, who know people who know, and who often write, too and know what it’s about.

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    • I don’t have a foreskin, but agree in principle. The whole reason I first turned to writing historical fiction myself was due to a truly pedestrian 1950’s novel about the Trojan War. When the writer let Achilles go harness his team of two black stallions, I flipped out. At the very least, since the horses’ names were Xanthos (blond) and Balios (dappled), the writer should have either colored them correctly or spared half a line to note a reason for the misnaming.

      There’s no telling what might set a reader off, but lame research does it for me.

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      • I laughed about that first sentence there.

        There are difficulties in taking something like Homer, for which we have incunabula only about 1000 years old, no older, and translating it correctly. My guess is the author probably didn’t speak Greek.

        Plus, the 50s. Beyond the Rosemary Sutcliffes of that era, how much of the writing had the sophistication and research behind it to make it truly good? I might be off-base on this observation, but not a whole lot comes to mind in terms of awesome historical novels. There’s been an absolute glut of them since the 90s, perhaps fueled by the ease of research via the internet?

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  7. The world of editing is a messy place and I have learnt that I am not good at grammar, or editing. I tend to rely on comments as an aid to what works and what doesn’t regarding story line, structure and characters. As for mistakes, I can take the critts as it is the surest way to learn.

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  8. Details matter. The research is important. If it was something I have knowledge of… blatant errors would turn me away. Bad grammar/spelling would do that for me as well. Sorry.

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  9. hello matt bowes its dennis the vizsla dog hay my dada always goze on and on abowt sum old buk he red wunse set in the mithikal wurld of greyhawk wot wuz filld with goblins and dragons and kobolds and wotnot and in wun seen the heero gits a pomegranit frum the market and bites into it and eets it like an appel and this just drove dada absolootly insayn!!! aparently he kan aksept goblins and dragons and kobolds and wotnot but yoo had better not think a pomegranit is an appel or he wil never forgiv yoo!!! ok bye

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  10. I am too much of a perfectionist. If I am going to use a historical detail, I want to be sure it is correct, otherwise, why use it at all? Just make something up instead. I also check and double check my work for spelling and grammar mistakes, and although occasionally a few still sneak through, I change them if found. I’ve yet to publish, but I would take anyone’s opinions serious about such matters (facts, spelling and grammar issues). I am definitely put off with badly researched books. And continuous grammar and spelling mistakes send me into a tailspin. I’ve found some of the independently published books these days to read more like first drafts than well-polished manuscripts. Some writers are in such a hurry to get their work out there that they aren’t taking the time to actually look at what they are sending out. Anyway… Great post, great discussion!

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