Who is in Your Details?

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

God Is In The Details by Mauricio Raffin

Today’s post counts as two entries in The Weight of Words and one for Research Road. It also stresses the importance of thoroughly editing and researching your work as well as finding a good editor. We’ve all made mistakes. I have received tactful comments from followers pointing out errors I’ve made. It’s easy to correct a blog post even after the fact, but what about my novel? I don’t live in fear of discovering an error post publication…oh, wait—I do.

I can’t tell you how many times my mother has said, “What difference does it make if you’re not 100% accurate? The common reader won’t know if you’re right or wrong.” To which I explained that I would know. Then there is the historian or well-read person who may read my novel and nail me for incorrectly portrayed facts. I’m not talking about the creative license we employ when placing our fictional characters in real periods of history or an entire reimagining of historical events such as the Germans winning World War II. I’m talking about modern words and phrases ending up in the mouths of characters from an earlier century and inaccurately portrayed artifacts, architecture, places, etc. due to lazy research.

A book I finished recently had two such errors. The first was the spelling of the word carcase/carcass. About thirty years ago, I read Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Have His Carcase. It was part of a trio of Sayers’s books gifted to people who made a donation to the local PBS station. The announcer kept mispronouncing carcase the way one would say car case. How embarrassing. Years went by before I stumbled across the spelling carcass, which, by the way, is the only spelling Word recognizes as correct. I assumed it was another instance of American English vs. British English. What I discovered after reading several definitions for both spelling variations, is that carcase is the older, often consider archaic, of the two spellings although both are acceptable. Why is this important? The author of the aforementioned book used the word in the diary of a Carthusian monk from 1535, but she spelled it carcass. As soon as my eyes fell across the word, I was jolted out of the story to ponder whether the mistake was mine or hers. True, most people would have let it go, but for historical accuracy, well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Small sidebar: When I checked writing forums for the correct spelling of carcase/carcass, Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel, Have His Carcase, was referenced at least once on every site as the example for the spelling carcase.

I was much less forgiving toward the second mistake. Another character, also from 1535, mentioned seeing a nine-branched menorah used in the second temple of Israel. Did you catch that? Talk about being shocked right out of the story. All my research on the subject verified what I already knew to be true: menorahs used in the temple of Israel have seven branches. The most reliable source of this information is the Bible. I don’t doubt that the candelabra people see the most and the one with which they are familiar is the nine-branched version known as a chanukkiah used in celebration of Chanukkah. The terms are used interchangeably and incorrectly. However, the two items are absolutely not the same thing.

My thoughts on the subject ranged from disappointment toward the author to wondering if the editor was too young to care about such facts or not interested in verifying them. Several years ago a self-published author gave the advice that you should research your history to the nth degree because your readers will trust that what you have written is true. That advice is what prompted me to research my own novel in minute detail. At one point, I had a fellow author/history buff tracing World War II troop movements to ensure I had placed my protagonist with a unit that had actually ended up in a battle I needed to feature.

Perhaps I sound like a fanatic. Even Andy Weir, author of The Martian, admitted to minor mistakes pointed out by other brilliant scientists, the type of knowledge the common reader wouldn’t possess. There may even be mistakes in my own novel. I sincerely hope someone catches them before it goes to printing. Still, I cannot stress enough that the writing and research of your work in progress begins with you. Beta readers and editors are essential to the process, but there is no excuse for a lazy author.

In closing, I’ll point to the title of this post as my final comment on the importance of using the correct words/phrases and conducting research. You’ve probably heard the devil is in the details and the older, slightly more common phrase, God is in the details. The first means that mistakes are usually made in the small details of a project. Usually it is a caution to pay attention to avoid failure. The second means that attention paid to small things has big rewards, or that details are important. Who is guiding your writing efforts?

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir is an enjoyable read. I’m not sure it was the best choice in books as I was still coming down from my high after Night Train to Lisbon, but light reads are good for balancing out the heavy stuff.

Written mostly as journal entries by abandoned astronaut, Mark Watney, the endless explanations on the necessary procedures conducted to survive life on Mars were tedious. I often felt as if I was reading an article from National Geographic or a really interesting survival manual. I skimmed a few descriptions until I found the story again.

Andy Weir has proven that he knows his technical stuff, but he delivers it inelegantly and without passion. I don’t need to know exactly how many molecules of various elements are produced when splitting hydrazine nor do I need to know how much power is required to do so. All I need to know is that it’s dangerous. Besides, how many of us could actually refute the science?

untitled (5)The diary entries came across as mild locker room humor mixed with surfer dude attitude and undermined any real tension in the plot. We’re told this is how Mark Watney deals with stressful situations. A more professional approach on the part of the main character with less “ugh, whee, yay, and boo” in his responses would have gone a long way to making me believe in the seriousness of the situation and that he was a highly educated person suitable for space travel.

We’ve been here before with Apollo 13, Castaway, and mostly recently, Gravity. Even Robinson Crusoe was a survivor story. The Martian lacks in respect to these stories because beyond saving Mark, there is no human side to the story. There is no wife or girlfriend waiting on Earth, no foul play to his situation that he needs to discover, not even a friend to whom he needs to make an apology for having spoken harshly. In short, there’s not much in the way of human interest for Mark Watney.

The second way in which The Martian differs greatly from these stories is that it’s pure fantasy. Obviously Apollo 13 is real and the other tales could actually happen. Travel to Mars and/or survival on Mars is still pretend. I find it’s easier to relive historical tragedies than get caught up in the drama of make believe. But that’s just me.

The story was mildly predictable in terms of the sequence of trials and tribulations Mark had to endure on Mars. No sooner would he triumph, I’d turn the page and right on cue the next crisis would appear. The constant up and down was interesting but not as suspenseful as everyone is claiming. This is most evident when thirty pages into the book, Mark wonders if he’s going to blow himself up undertaking an experiment. With about 92% of the book left to go, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to die. Result: zero tension.

Still, Andy Weir’s book is fun. If you’ve worked your way through all your DVDs of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dr. Who, I recommend reading The Martian. If you’re not a reader, you can wait for the movie which, according to IMDB, is due out in November, 2015.

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