A few weeks ago I listened to an audio book that made me acutely aware of how important it is to make sure seemingly small details are accurate and believable. The majority of authors try to make sure they’ve written a believable scene, as they should. However, sometimes things sneak by due to the genre, particularly when the story is sci fi, paranormal or fantasy. After all, in those genres it’s a world the writer has created, so they get to make the rules.
Stories that take place in the real world, whether in current times or the past, present a whole different situation. An anomaly in a scene or description could cause the reader to do a mental head slap when they realize something is very wrong.
That’s what happened to me when I listened to the audio book I mentioned, and it’s why I decided to make believability today’s topic. There are a ton of things to consider, but if you don’t get details right for an era, a common profession or actions a person can realistically perform, it could come back to bite you. Easily recognizable faux pas reflect upon your credentials or capability to write the story. Once doubt is raised, the reader will either put the book down or continuously search for more errors—even tiny ones that wouldn’t have caught their eye. Think of it as an aha moment that creates a little feeling of superiority. Better yet, picture the I know better than the author does moment.
In the case of the book in question, a young boy had been abused by a priest and the archbishop decided to send the priest to the Vatican, The boy was determined to follow him to the airport to make sure he was indeed leaving the country. Okay, that does sound a little over the top, doesn’t it? However, what rattled my cage is this little kid, who is only about ten or eleven, actually manages to follow the priest from the church school to the airport. The story is set in Boulder, Colorado where the airport is around thirty miles from the center of town. Since we don’t know where the school is it’s hard to make an accurate assessment of the distance, but it’s fair to assume it isn’t walking distance.
Therein is the first red flag. It is never explained how the kid got to the airport in the first place. The cheapest solution, a bus or shuttle wouldn’t have worked even if it came right to the school because he wanted to follow the priest. See the problem?
Could this little ten year old take a cab which would probably eat up his life savings if he had that much money and carried it on him? What would a taxi driver think if he was summoned to a church school to pick up a kid who said something trite like, “follow that man?” Maybe the author intended to have these questions raised, or realized the mistake and didn’t want to do a rewrite. As it stands, while we have no idea how the boy got the airport, we next see him watching the priest conveniently use a restroom just inside the airport. The priest was killed in the restroom and never comes out. The boy leaves. Okay, getting him killed solved the getting through security issue, but still leaves the question of the trip back and forth to the airport. Sorry, I didn’t buy any of it and stayed alert for the rest of the book spotting other little inconsistencies I might not have noticed otherwise.
Another time a mystery novel I read took place at the High Point Furniture Mart during market week. Having been an interior designer myself for many years, I was impressed that the author obviously knew quite a bit about the business. But, I’d also been to market week in various cities. My doubts began with the protagonist, a resident of a nearby town, breezing into High Point without a hotel reservation. Space is very limited relative to the amount of people who descend upon the city during that week, and getting a room at High Point at the last minute would be akin to getting a room in Monte Carlo at the last minute for the Film Festival. Reservations are made a year ahead of time. This particular show is legendary because it sets the pace for the year and is covered by many newspapers.
It went downhill from there. So much was totally off-base as the story unfolded. The description of showrooms so voluminous that they actually did manufacturing right there at the Mart was completely unrealistic. I kept waiting to see what other mistakes would be made and, trust me, they came one after another.
When I was writing The Devil’s Due as Arliss Adams, after the last edit something niggled at the back of my mind. I searched the manuscript trying to spot it, and spot it I did. It was so obvious I had no idea how it had slipped by in previous edits. At the very end of the book, one of my characters looked at her computer screen to re-read something she had written. That would have been fine, except that this scene took place in the early 70s. As I read, I realized that personal computers were not even marketed until about 1975 and she probably would have had a typewriter, or with a stretch, perhaps a word processor. Fortunately it was easy to fix. She simply rolled a sheet of paper into her typewriter instead.
Make sure you are aware of things like this, so you don’t get caught by vigilant readers.
For more information about Morgan, visit www.morganstjames-author.com, www.silversistersmysteries.com. Follow her on Twitter @ LAWritingExamin and on Facebook. The Spotlight column appears in the Las Vegas edition on Tuesday and in Los Angeles on Wednesday. For those interested in writing, read Writers’ Tricks of the Trade, check the Thursday edition in Las Vegas and Friday in Los Angeles. Just click SUBSCRIBE to automatically receive notifications of new articles directly from modenook.com.
Links to Morgan’s monthly Writers’ Tricks of the Trade newsletter, featuring many informative articles by guest contributors from all over the country, writers’ conference listings and more can be found at http://writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com. Kindle owners, on Saturday, January 28 and Sunday, January 29 ONLY get your free copy of her new book, The MAFIA FUNERAL and Other Short Stories at Amazon.com.