Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Will The World Please Slow Down?

Things are happening just too quickly. There’s too much change. How is a poor writer to keep up? Right now I’m working on a mystery set in Egypt – it’s about the illegal antiquities trade – and though I’ve been to Egypt several times, things are changing so much there that I’m having to rewrite almost constantly just to keep current. At this rate the book will never be finished, or, depending on exactly what happens over there, will never be correct.
Which brings up the question of exactly how accurate does a writer have to be? I mean, we’re creating fiction, but it has to exist in the world of recognizable reality. (Those of you who write sci-fi and fantasy can go have a cup of coffee now – none of this applies to those of you who create your own worlds.)
For those of us who live and write in this world, however, there is an established norm that is expected. If we write about a lake, for example, we expect it to be blue or green or maybe brownish. We don’t expect it to be bright pink or day-glow orange, at least not without a very good reason in the plot.
This insistence on accuracy has always been a very important point with me about historical novels. If you’re going to write about history, get it right! Don’t just put 21st century people with 21st century attitudes in fancy dress and call it historical. You have to be accurate to the mores and attitudes and actualities of the time, not just the fashions. (Can you tell this is one of my hot buttons?)
On the other hand, if you’re writing about the here and now, there is a certain acceptance and communality of knowledge that comes with the territory – for example, we all know that in big cities automobiles clog the streets. Most women work outside the home. Cable TV. The internet. All common and generally accepted points of reference.
What is bugging me is that things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. Often science fact is outstripping science fiction. For example, cell phones became ubiquitous. Then there were smart phones. Who knows what advance is going to pop up next? And when? The next sea change can happen between your contract and release date, making your book glaringly out of date before it even hits the shelves. Or worse, it could happen between your writing chapters 15 and 16, and – poof! – suddenly you have to rewrite. Heaven help you if it means changing a bunch of clues or a major plot point. Or if your basic plot is invalidated completely.
Nothing dates a book more than outdated technology. Or, as in the case of my Egyptian story, a discarded political system or changing theocratic ideology.
So what is a hapless writer to do? We can’t bump every story back in time. We can’t control world events. We can’t stop or even slow the world around us, no matter how badly we might want to. All we can do is rewrite and revise and hope to catch up. Or switch to history, sci-fi and fantasy.
Or do what writers have done since time immemorial and muddle through the best we can. Sigh.

Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
              Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
              Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.


Ricky Bush said...

I feel your pain. A good part of my WIP is set in Belize and there wasn't a great amount of news coming out of that part of the world to worry with current events. THEN, the McAfee founder got himself in a jam, so I've felt the need to research that story and include bits and pieces. Also, my research uncovered facts about Belize that I wasn't aware of, namely that they have a very high crime rate. So....

Terrie Curran said...

On a lighter --and easier--note, I also felt compelled to update a novel I published in 1987, ALL BOOKED UP, which takes place in a library. At the time, computerization was barely born and the crime involved rifling through card catalogs (remember them?). When I decided to give a whirl to e-books, I realized a good portion of my audience would wonder what in the heck card catalogs were, so I revamped and computerized my novel in content as well as form.
However, as a reader, glitches in accuracy tend to put me in a 'gotcha' mode--not a very good mode. One I recall was in Ian McEwan's (of all authors!) SWEET TOOTH where he speaks of the mild weather in early June in Providence R.I. Unfortunately, the action revolves around a Brown University graduation which is always at Memorial Day weekend. And as I know BU well, I found myself being terribly petty reading for other glitches in the Providence/BU details (I didn't find any, but it tarnished my experience a tad).

~Sia McKye~ said...

Janis, I think critical accuracy in every detail isn't as important as the flow of the story. Writers can allude to mod cons without going too deep with details. You give enough to make it real.

Historical fiction? You don't have, or shouldn't have, the leeway to put in 21st century idioms or practices. Get it right, or if you take liberties, at least preface your story with a comment to the effect that you did rearrange X or Y. I have a real problem with those who have characters dressed in period costume with 21st century speech or whatever. If you're weaving in a story against the backdrop of real history, know your facts.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Excellent post, Susan.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

Ah ha! I clicked the right buttons and here I am on the comment page. I think I have the secret to my computer program's own language regarding Make Mine Mystery at last! (Here is where I, too, got caught by changing technology.)

Re: the post. Ah, something new to think about. I have always thought of my series as present time when each novel was written. For example, in the first series "To Die For" story featuring Carrie and Henry, Carrie depended on her adult son to do an Internet search. She obviously hadn't a clue, and, insofar as readers could tell, didn't own a computer. Now, some time later, she is even more fluent in "computer" than her creator, ie: Radine. It hadn't occurred to me until now that someone reading that earlier book might consider it present time and wonder why on earth Carrie herself wasn't doing computer research.

EEGAD! Do readers ever look at publishing dates?