Thursday, May 22, 2014

"She was listening to the wireless in her cocktail dress ..."

... not in August of 1923 she wasn't. These are two mistakes that made it into the published version of my second book, THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. One of them is really bad: I had the characters listening to dance music on the Light Programme from the BBC months before it broadcast for the first time. There's no getting away from that.

The other mistake is one I can talk my way out of, if I have to.  BMD is set two years before the Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of the expression "cocktail dress" in print.  But it's highly unlikely that a phrase is used in print before or even soon after it's first used in speech and so there's nothing to say that Buttercup de Cassilis couldn't have used it that day, the second Thursday in August in 1923.

Except that BMD is set in Queensferry, the village where I was born (in fact the jacket image is the view from the room I was born in)

and I know from my schooldays that no one in Queensferry beat anyone to a fashion coup by two years. We didn't get punk until 1998. Okay, slight exaggeration but it's not Soho.

The question of first citations is one that I think about a lot, given my background as a linguist. It's easy enough to avoid out-and-out anachronisms - they do clang so in the middle of a historical story - but there are some words and phrases, perfectly contemporary for the time, with a dated entry in the OED to back them up, that nevertheless seem too modern. I've cut "death-ray", "cash and carry" and "homo-erotic" (not from the same sentence - although what a sentence it would be) because, although they are all fine, they have to strike the reader as fine and my copy-editor reckoned none of these would.

So much for dictionary work.  When it comes to general physical research, probably some of the above tells you how important it is to me. On the one hand, I didn't check the radio history but on the other hand I know exactly what date the book is set and I know that I've got the moon in the right quarter and the tide doing what it would have done on that day.

Buttercup's house - Cassilis Castle - is another mixture of accuracy and fantasy.  It's a real castle
with a roof on and glass in the windows, admittedly, but the rooms, doors, fireplaces, arrowslits, murder hole and oubliette are all accurately placed inside it.  The only tiny little bit of license I took was to drag it a hundred miles north from where the real Cardoness Castle can be found, just outside Gatehouse, to where I wanted Buttercup and Cadwallader de Cassilis to live, just out side the 'Ferry.

I always put a Facts and Fictions page at the back to let people know what I've made up, but one reader who was intrigued by the thought of the castle and lived nearby (she thought) spent quite a long afternoon tramping around looking for it. She was only halfway through reading the book though and hadn't seen the Facts and Fictions page. And it was high summer and therefore raining. She got in touch, quite politely considering.


Paul D. Marks said...

Catriona, the Facts and Fictions page is a great idea. And a major bummer for your reader who tramped around looking for a non-existent castle. That'll teach her :).

And hey, I was gonna use that pic of Homer Simpson. Well, actually I already had swapped it out for something else, but he was in the running. So another :)

Katherine Hyde said...

You're certainly not alone. I'm currently reading an Agatha-award-winning historical mystery, and while I haven't noticed any historical howlers yet, I've noticed a number of consistency errors just in the first 100 pages. Everyone needs a good copyeditor!

Meredith Cole said...

A good copy editor is worth their weight in gold! But having to check every detail (and every use of a word) is enough to make me reluctant to tackle a historical novel...

Robin Spano said...

LOL. That story sounds awesome, glaring errors and all.

Dana King said...

You've hit upon a key element: the level of accuracy required depends largely on the amount of detail in the book. Once you set certain things--in this case, a date in the past--you have to be accurate at that level. Leeway can be allowed if you say the person had a gun, but if you describe it as a semi-automatic pistol, its owner cannot be surprised when it runs out of ammunition; the slide will lock open. The Empire State Building cannot serve as a location in a book set in Chicago, but a building can be made up to serve.

Your idea of telling the reader what you made up is excellent. I thought about something like that when I started my series, then decided everything worked better if i pulled an Ed McBain and fictionalized a real place. Now I can make up places and move them where I need them.

Susan C Shea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan C Shea said...

I, too, have been moving the furniture, or the castles, around in my current book. But I made up a whole town to go with it and will be quick to say so in print. Part of it is that I've never been as fond of the librarian-style research as lots of writers are. I like painting the scene in big, Impressionistic swaths. My hat is off to the rest of you, who clearly take it more seriously. Catriona, I think you should definitely put all of those words/phrases in one sentence! (Maybe a contest?)

Catriona McPherson said...

You're right, Katherine and Meredith - blessings on the heads of all editors. And booksellers and librarians. And of course readers. The number of times I've heard people at conventions say "I'm just a reader"!