February 29, 2008

A “Now” Fangled Story


When starting a work of fiction, a writer must understand that when it is completed, it is going to be a different piece of work than when initially begun. Writers mature a bit more as story tellers and practitioners of their craft with each project undertaken. When editing a first draft of a manuscript, authors may notice changes in the voice, tone, and timbre of their tale as it progresses. The characters may even speak differently. A large part of the editing and rewriting process involves searching for errors and improving the sentence structure, etc. However, authors sometimes make the mistake of not looking for anachronisms.

My first novel took me five years to write and about two years to edit. Since I wrote this tale about a man traveling into his past, I didn't have to worry much about items being out of date. It took four months to write the first draft of my latest work. Yet, I have been re-writing and editing it for the past two years. Society and technology haven't been altered dramatically in that brief time span; but, there are subtle changes which may leave the reader wondering.

This story takes place in contemporary times. Small details such as talking on a cell phone in a hospital need to be addressed. When I first wrote a chapter with my protagonist having life saving surgery, my mother was hospitalized, and using a cell phone in a hospital was forbidden. Now, I am almost done with my editing, and I've noticed that it does not matter if you chat on your cell phone in a hospital anymore. Without any reference to the year in which the action is taking place, technical gaffes like that can cause the reader to doubt the story's accuracy. My style of writing is such that I do not want the reader to know that they are in fact "reading." With that said, I do not wish to risk losing even one member of my audience to carelessness.

A few years back, I started reading a novel by a well known author who shall remain nameless in this article. The reason for not mentioning this writer’s name is because I loathe to speak ill of an author’s work if he or she has been published by traditional media and I have not. Still, from a reader’s view, the point I have is valid. The novel in question is about an attorney who gets the bulk of his cases from a much larger law firm which sends clients with dicey or unseemly problems to him. The lawyer-protagonist winds up investigating a string of homicides. My problem was not with the plot, but with the police tactics.

As a former police officer, I retreat quickly when it comes to watching police dramas on television and in the movies. Nor do I run to the bookstore when the latest police procedural is published. Often times, I find such huge inaccuracies in the methods employed by the fictional police officers that I can’t watch or even read about them. I’ve seen movies where the officer gets into several shootouts a day and they never have to fill out a single report much less testify at a grand jury. The Constitution is non-existent as they burst through doors without warrants, arrest people on the flimsiest suspicion, use excessive force, and the list goes on. That is why I found it odious when I read the book based on my father's recommendation.

What concerned me was that whenever the main character had interaction with the members of the New York City Police Department, the cops always had to use a pay phone to call “headquarters.” One scene depicts a shootout with one of the officers fumbling for change in his pocket to call for backup. This book was written in the middle 1980’s. For the record, I was an NYPD officer during that era and we employed curious devices called “radios.” In addition, street cops do not call “headquarters,” which is actually known as “One Police Plaza” to rank and file “members of the service.” If anyone does call “1PP,” it would be someone far up the chain of command, and only after several other events happened, and only after a string of procedures was implemented.

Those are major holes in the story which as a reader I could not handle. The unfortunate result was that I had to put the book down. It wasn't the quality of the writing which turned me off, but a credibility gap created by the imprecision of plot details which canceled any suspension of disbelief for me. Was I being too technical? Could have I dismissed that the fact there were no portable radios were issued to uniformed patrol units? I don’t think so. Those are important components. While only police officers are likely to have noticed the error, authors should be unwilling to part with anyone in their audience for the lack of research or insufficient editing.

With regard to my story, I do not believe I would have caused anyone consternation if my characters had to go outside the hospital to call someone on a cell phone; still, I repaired that point. But, I am still wary as it is now three years sine I wrote this story and more anachronisms may pop up when, and if, I ever do have it published. My older works of fiction may not need any such tweaking as if by some miracle they ever see the inside of a publishing house, it would be obvious the story’s setting was decades earlier.

My lesson is to remember that the novel I set out to write today is going to be very different when I finish it tomorrow. Reading for mistakes is obvious; but making sure your story details are still relevant to the time period is not as apparent. Now I’m off to finish my current project which is taking me ages to complete. It’s a contemporary novel about a young man who needs money to buy a new boom box so he can listen to his audio cassette tapes and practice the singing and become a rock and roll star. Oh wait; they have iPods now, don’t they?

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23 comments:

Kristyn said...

I wrote a short story several years ago in which the details of the time period didn't fit with several metaphors I had chosen to use. I had the draft read over by one of my English professors, a woman who specializes in British and medieval literature and when it came back it was glaring with red! She told me that my reference to the sound flintlock pistols make was out of sync with the story because they hadn't been invented yet at the time the story takes place. It was one reference but it was huge in the overall scheme of the tale. Floating technology can be a serious problem, even when that technology is antiquated powder weapons.

I enjoyed your article, Mike. It really helped me to reflect on some of what I've written and wonder if I've made more of those similar mistakes. I'm actually terrible at editing!! I read over my work and it looks fine to me. Of course it does, I wrote it, but stepping back is difficult and a skill I've not quite mastered.

Best,
Kristyn

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
"Floating technology can be a serious problem, even when that technology is antiquated powder weapons."

Youare so correct. I remeber reading a movie review about the movie "Joan of Arc," discussing the heavy use of catapults as weapons. One historian backed up a reviewer stating that the armies of the time were well along the way using cannons and other artillery pieces as gunpowder was invented hundreds of years earlier. If big time Hollywood writers can get it wrong, we have to double our efforts. And, like you, I've only recently come to fully appreciate the skill associated with editing my work. It's daunting. Thanks Kristyn!
-Mike.

Maureen said...

I can totally relate to your reference about police stories. I have worked in a hospital for nearly 30 years, and it kills me the way procedures and physicians are depicted in movies and on TV too... totally unrealistic to the trained eye. So yes, a writer should research, but with the pace at which technology advances, you may be editing forever!

Great post.

footiam said...

Many people just want to enjoy a story I suppose; they do not care much about details. That's why Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring sell!

Swubird said...

Good article, Mr. Grudge. I'm a stickler for accuracy too, and, in my opinion, there's no substitute for research.

A friend of mine writes about his experiences in Vietnam. Everything is accurate right down to the detail of the uniforms, the medals, the shoulder patches - everything. He writes to the authors of books that aren't accurate. He writes to the producers of television and movies that don't depict the story accurately, or fail in some other technical aspect. He's a fanatic about this topic. And here's a little bonus. My friend gets calls from authors and producers requesting his technical advice on major projects - all because they know that he does his homework.

Very good and informative article.

Kathy said...

A computing consultant by trade, I consider the popular series "24" to be comical at times. What the lead character can do with his cell phone is truly amazing. Smart phones are smart, but trust me, they can't do what Jack Bauer's does. At least not at lightning speed, as depicted on the show. His assistant can hack servers and download secret blueprints to the device in two minutes! Not likely. Also, his phone never seems to need a single charge in a 24 hour period. Where do I get those batteries?

My husband prefers I don't question all the fantastic technical feats they manage to pull off, as it detracts from his enjoyment of the show. But I can't help it. Some of it is ludicrous.

Winter said...

I, too, tend to drop a book and not finish when the author has done something that doesn't jive. I lose my connection to the story at that point and sometimes even feel peeved that the author didn't do their homework.

Since I'm lucky enough to write about a fantasy world populated with immortal beings, I can do what I want. I try to stick to the idea that their world parallels our on contemporary one, but I deviate from that when necessary. Rather than having to deal with technology issues or other things that can be 'dated', I find myself having to keep track of the powers each being has, their mating rituals, how they can be killed, their physiology, etc. Believe me, even with the internet as a publisher, I find myself checking an rechecking that I have my 'facts' straight. I don't want to be one of those writers who has lost a reader to a stupid lack of attention to detail.

Great post Mike!

Bob Johnson said...

Lol, I still have boom boxes, gotta get out more, I know what you mean, I'm a tech guy, if you can, it is always nice to get it right, there was still a sign up in a hospital I was just in to turn off your cell phones, could have been just the area I was in, ICU. As usual very interesting post, something I had never thought of, but makes perfect sense.

joderebe said...

That's certainly a good point Mike, something of which I never gave much thought to. I research a subject and depending on what era I plan to write in I try to put my mindset into it and keep everything relevant. But what happens when you write in the present tense over a period of say 5 years? Maybe we should do like Stephen King and pump out a new novel every six months.
Excellent article Mike...got me thinking. Now I think I should be going over some of my older stuff to remove the references to VHS tapes and oh...a reference to a super computer with one GIG of Ram.
I'll email you soon.
~JD

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Mike, a great article. Technology changes soooo quickly and when a ms is purchased, it still can take a year or two before the book goes to print. Ouch.

Thanks for the Midnight Wanderer welcome. :D

I am completing the rough draft to a mainstream novel and have a children's story with an illustrator. :D

I wish you much success with your book!

Hugs, JJ

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
"...I read over my work and it looks fine to me. Of course it does, I wrote it..."

You and I suffer from the same syndrome: "It looks good to me."

I've learned over the course of time that writing can be fun, and sometimes it can be work. Editing is always work...hard work. Thanks Kristyn. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Maureen,
"I have worked in a hospital for nearly 30 years, and it kills me the way procedures and physicians are depicted in movies and on TV too... totally unrealistic to the trained eye."

That can be difficult, especially since the medicine requires that writers be so much more knowledgeable. Research is critical in those situations. I can handle cops shows taking a few liberties, but a medical professional must go nuts watching those types of shows. Thanks for the great comment. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi footiam,
"Many people just want to enjoy a story I suppose; they do not care much about details. That's why Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring sell!"

This is an article about the suspension of disbelief. In order for a viewer to watch any show, or read any book, that includes Harry Potter, there must be accuracy. That includes the very rules imposed on a fantasy world by an author. Thanks for the comment. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Swubird,

"My friend gets calls from authors and producers requesting his technical advice on major projects - all because they know that he does his homework."

Your friend sounds like someone I can really appreciate. I work hard for accuracy. For my last story, I interviewed nurses and a physicians assistant at great length for the medical details on bone marrow transplants. Then I went to the library...and I went to the National Bone Marrow Database (my DNA is now in the database as well for possible donation) for information. When I was done, I went back to my medical sources, told them what I learned, and the clarified things further. It took me about one month to become knowledgeable enough about bone marrows transplants to write about it. And, if someone needs my bone marrow, I am willing to give it as I am now in the database, like I mentioned earlier. There's nothing like research, just like you said here. Thanks Swubird. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kathy,

"My husband prefers I don't question all the fantastic technical feats they manage to pull off, as it detracts from his enjoyment of the show. But I can't help it. Some of it is ludicrous."

Not only does every tell me to shut up during police shows, I'm told to keep my trap shut when I see computing gaffes as well. Recently, my kids were watching a kid's show on the Disney Channel. They wanted to hack into the school's computer lab, and the main database. It was easy: all the kids had to do was distract the teacher, remove the plate off the wall with a coaxial cable plugged into it, fiddle around with a pair of needle nosed pliers, and whammo! They were able to sit in front of their laptop at home and browse the school's entire network, and change their grades. Wow. I wish I had that kind of talent. Thanks Kathy. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Winter,

"I find myself having to keep track of the powers each being has, their mating rituals, how they can be killed, their physiology, etc.

I so have to read your fantasy fiction. And yes, keeping track of those details must be daunting. That's what writing is all about, isn't it? Thanks for a terrific comment. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Bob,
"I'm a tech guy, if you can, it is always nice to get it right, there was still a sign up in a hospital I was just in to turn off your cell phones, could have been just the area I was in, ICU."

Yeah, many of those signs are relics, I am told. Still, I think ICU is off limits. When I was visiting my dad in the hospital a month ago, I saw a lot of people using cell phones in the lobby and the ER. In fact, the recently remodeled the lobby of that hospital. Gone are the rows of pay phones which used to take up an entire wall. Now there's only one, and it's hidden in a corner. The ubiquitous cell phone is everywhere! Thanks Bob. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,

"Maybe we should do like Stephen King and pump out a new novel every six months."

Yes, with that kind of production, we can write about technology which is in the prototype stages and it will be current when the novel is published. Great comment. Thanks JD. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Nature Nut/JJ Loch,

Welcome once again to the Midnight Wanderers!

"I am completing the rough draft to a mainstream novel and have a children's story with an illustrator. :D"

I wish you luck with both of your stories as well. Children's fiction is especially hard. I have an artist friend who wrote a children's book and illustrated it himself. I thought the story was wonderful and the illustrations terrific. Publishers didn't think so. Here's to your success! Thanks for the comment. -Mike.

Paul Burman said...

It's an interesting consideration, whether technoloical changes are going to reduce the shelf life of a piece of writing, or whether the quality of the writing will enable it to survive despite apparent idiosyncracies. Or whether anomalies of language or equipment undermine the credibility of a story set in the past. This is an interesting post, Mike, because it highlights the significance of these apects of writing, and the comments you've received are tremendous. Fascinating stuff. As a reader, I'll happily suspend disbelief if the author is asking me to with a nod and a wink, but less readily if I think there are careless oversights.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Paul,

"As a reader, I'll happily suspend disbelief if the author is asking me to with a nod and a wink, but less readily if I think there are careless oversights."

That's a great point. Readers can be generous and give the author some leeway with regards to details, thus supporting the suspension of disbelief. Yet, in the novel I cite in this article, these were more than careless oversights. His mistakes were extreme and due to sheer laziness. A conversation with any police officer, retired or otherwise, over a cup of coffee would have done plenty to bolster his story. I appreciate this comment and your point is well taken, Paul. Thank you. -Mike.

Kimchihead said...

I think there's a fine balance between getting the details right, and alienating readers who have no knowledge of a character's profession. It can be done, but I dare say that those who have no idea of the profession in question would have a difficult time of creating an air of authenticity.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kimchihead,
"It can be done, but I dare say that those who have no idea of the profession in question would have a difficult time of creating an air of authenticity."

I think you're correct. Someone who has no idea about a profession has no air of authenticity. But, the risk is that the wruiter can alientate even a part of the audience, and that may not be something I would want to do with my writing. Thanks, Kimchihead, for your thoughful input. it is always appreciated. Have a great weekend. -Mike.