February 29, 2008
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 Since I wrote this tale about a man traveling into his past, I didn't have to worry much about items being out of date.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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