Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Makings of a Wall-Banger

You know what I mean. Some books are just destined to become projectiles. But what is it that makes us want to hurl a book across a room?

For me, it's a blatant historical error. Now, no one is perfect, and I'm sure I've committed a few faux pas in my body of work. But getting the history right is something I always aspire to. Research is what I do for fun, so I may set a rather high bar of expectation for other historical writers and for the most part, I'm not disappointed. Historical writers are meticulous because we have to be. Our readership is probably the most knowledgable, most sophisticated of all the romance sub-genres.

That's why I was shocked to my curled toes to find a glaring error in the novel I started yesterday. Nothing will induce me to name the author, but she is a well-known NYTimes Bestseller with plenty of experience under her belt. You would recognize her name. I'll bet you've read her books.

But within the first few pages of this story set in 1824, she reveals that her heroine was adopted.

Impossible. Adoption was not practiced in the UK until well into the 20th century. Fostering, yes. Taking on a ward, absolutely. But no one adopted anyone legally because there were no laws dealing with it. It simply wasn't "the done thing."

Now this NYTimes Bestseller gives her readers the feel of the period. She uses all the right slang--phaetons driving neck-for-nothing and rakes trying to "turn the girls up sweet." She knows how to properly address a duchess. The fashions and food are all there in appropriate measure.

But underlying it all, there's something terribly important from history that's missing. How the people thought about themselves. The reason there was no adoption at the time is because bloodlines were everything to the upper crust. A man was born to a certain station and that was pretty much that. If he had a privileged birth, he expected lesser mortals to give way. It had nothing whatever to do with which of them was the better man. The higher ranking one was assumed to be.

In one of Jo Beverley's books (and she's someone whose historical accuracy I trust implicitly!), when her titled hero finds himself without shoes, he demands and gets the shoes off the feet of the man who just freed him from a rather nasty place of confinement. The other fellow--a stranger to the hero--doesn't hesitate for a blink. The man of rank is the one who, by right of birth, ought to have his shoes. How they perceived themselves dictated their actions.

History is more than the stuff people surrounded themselves with. It's what they read and thought about and believed about themselves and their world. That's what motivates their actions in a way that the mere outward trappings can't. I get excited when a writer gives me something more than a costume drama. I love to climb inside someone else's life and try it on, odd old ideas and all.

And no, I didn't really hurl the NYTimes Bestseller's book across the room. (The only one I've ever really done that to is Nicholas Sparks' Message in a Bottle because he resorted to making his hero an imbecile who did something completely out of character rather than have a happy ending and therefore be guilty of penning a real romance!) Once my hackles settled this time, I decided the bit of fluff Ms. NTTimes writes never hurt anyone and the story is charming.

But my sense of suspended disbelief is gone. I'm waiting for the next nasty little mole of historical inaccuracy to pop up its pointed litttle head.

How about you? Do you have any pet peeves about books? What will yank you so far out of the story there's no going back?


Anonymous said...

I agree that historical inaccuracies are extremely annoying, and many NYT writers have obvious howlers in their books.

That said, you may want to fix the typos in your post. A hint: watch your apostrophes. :-)

EmilyBryan said...

Point taken, Anonymous. I found two bad little apostrophes in my original post and fixed them. There may well be more.

When I'm writing, the words come fast and furious and sometimes, I need a bit of distance to catch grammatical and spelling errors. I know what I meant to say, so my eye sees that. When I have a manuscript to turn in, I try to give it at least a week's rest, so the words are fresh enough for me to read them as new. There's never enough time before a blog post! ;-)

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thanks for your post, Emily. I dig the new look on your website, especially the chick in the mask.

To me, historical inaccuracies are only a minor annoyance. Perhaps that has to do with my expectations. I don't read historical fiction expecting to find a 100% accurate picture of the past. I expect interesting characters, intriguing situations, and a gripping story.

What makes me want to throw a book against the wall? When it lacks one of the aforementioned three elements. And when it lacks one, it almost always lacks all of them.

Keep up the good work!

EmilyBryan said...

Mary Ann--The characters, situation and story are why I continued to read Ms. NYTimes' book. I just expected a bit more from her.

But expectations are everything. I guess that's why we don't all like the same thing.

Good thing, too. Otherwise you'd all be after my DH! ;-)

Mary Anne Landers said...

PS: As for cataching typos and bad grammar---well, isn't that what copy editors are for?

Karen said...

I do get annoyed with historical inaccuracies, but some bother me more than others. At the moment, the one that has annoyed me is in a historical mystery. It's set in the 1880s but it's inaccuracy is one that drives me nuts. The main character is a lady whose husband, a viscount, dies. The author has the title passing to the husband's nephew--through the viscount's sister. All but impossible. Except in rare circumstances, titles don't pass through the female line. The funny thing is, this isn't a plot point at all, it's just an aside. But the inaccuracy grates on me and makes me wonder what other research the author got wrong.

EmilyBryan said...

Mary Ann--And one could even say it was an author's duty to help provide a job for a copy editor, couldn't one?

EmilyBryan said...

Karen--I don't pretend to know everything about succession, but I do know that very rarely a woman may hold a title in her own right. In which case, it should pass to her direct descendant, not her nephew. But in the case you describe, if the viscount had no brothers, I believe the title would go back a generation and then down the nearest male line.

I think you're like me. You're looking for the next mole now.

Unknown said...

All of Nicholas Sparks books are wall bangers for me because of what he said about "not writing trashy romance like Shakespeare" and how he had no peers. *snort* Anyway...

There are two books in which I've chucked at the wall and stomped on. One, I was even tempted to light on fire, but I restrained myself.

The first one was when an author killed of the hero of a previous book in the series. I didn't read anything else by her for ten years. Ten!

The second time was more recent and the lighting on fire urge was because I'd been so heavily invested in her series. I loved all of her characters, it was a rich world with beautiful language until the hero said to the heroine he wanted to "conversate".

Oh, I cussed and I spit and threw things. Not only because I hate that word more than an ingrown toenail, but because it killed any good thoughts I had about the hero. "Conversate" is prison slang, therefore in my head, the hero became an inmate. I finished the book, but I was all startled and kept waiting for the next bomb. Also, I lost all sympathy I had for the hero and then when he exhibited other inmate behaviors like drug use... I found I didn't care anything about him or his story. A sad culmination to the years I'd invested with this author.

And over one word. I know it might be kind of silly, but that's how my brain works.

EmilyBryan said...

Saranna--I've never heard of conversate before. Does it mean something bad?

I wonder if the author knew of its prison roots. Sometimes we pick things up without knowing where they've been.

Louisa Cornell said...

I do tend to have expectations of my favorite authors when it comes to historical accuracy and errors in that area can definitely pull me out of the story.

But for me, heroes or heroines who are cookie cutters or who do things that are a complete anathema either to their times or the character an author has established for them will make me close the book.

I am smart enough to know that there are not endless scenarios from which to choose for historical romances. So if an author chooses something that has been done before I don't condemn them out of hand. However, I DO expect a unique twist or treatment of said scenario to keep me reading.

And using the same device over and over again in the same story WILL make me scare my dogs by throwing the book against the wall.

Unknown said...

"Conversate" is a word that's kind of like "anyways".

Merriam Webster Online has added it, but it is not correct. It doesn't mean anything bad, but it's not something you can do because you may converse or you may have a conversation, but you may not conversate.

It made its appearance in the language in the 70's, but more recently it has gained popularity through rap and MTV culture.


"Hey hooker, lemme conversate which you."


"Sarge, I got to conversate at you for a minute."

Unknown said...

"Sometimes we pick things up without knowing where they've been."

Hehehee. Too true.

EmilyBryan said...

Louisa--Agreed on the "give me a new twist" demand. Depending on who you ask there are only 7 or 20 or 31 stories in the world. The trick for authors is to scramble up these elements in a fresh way. How many times has Cinderella been retold with brilliant success? And plodding failure.

EmilyBryan said...

Saranna--Well, that explains it. If "conversate" comes from popular culture it's no wonder I'm ignorant of it. I'm pretty stupid when it comes to things post-1900.

Nynke said...

Historical inaccuracies do glare, and they can pull me out of my suspension of disbelief for a while, but if the story is otherwise good, I usually let myself be pulled back in.

Novels that I put down never to pick them up again usually have wooden characters and/or ditto dialogue, and plots that are so generic they can't compensate for that. Basically, I'm with Mary Anne and Louisa there.

When there's a factual error, I often try to come up with valid explanations for them - in the case of Saranna's 'conversate' example, I'd say it's the kind of mistake that people in real life will make every now and then, and that was probably true in the 19th century, too. Of course, that's not a *really* good way of suspending my disbelief, and I didn't even have strong associations with the word to begin with!

And there's another typo in your blog, Emily - 'Ms. NTTimes' caused me some puzzlement when I was scrolling through the text from bottom to top! Maybe using a spellchecker could help? (That said, I hope there's no typos in this comment - I did reread everything at least once!)

Unknown said...

I'm originally from the UK and I have a masters in history and sometimes I get fed up when authors say 'but I want it to be that way so I'm writing like that'-regardless of the time period, the social morals etc etc.
I'd quite like the British to have won the War of Independence, but I'm not going to write it that way because, well, it would be wrong (I'm joking here)

Class, particularly is very hard for people who live in a less class-ridden society to understand.

If something pulls me right out of the story I do find it very hard to trust the author again.

EmilyBryan said...

Yikes, Nynke! I guess I need a keeper. I'm plagued with typos today.

EmilyBryan said...

Kate--So I'm assuming you understand Jo Beverley's hero demanding the other man's shoes. Definitely a class thing.

But that's part of why I love historicals. It's a chance to see how people lived and thought and interacted in another age and society. If an author wants to make up the details, I'd suggest writing fantasy.

lynneconnolly said...

I worship this post. You are so right, Emily!
You don't have to notice the inaccuracies, or even know anything about the period to be dissatisfied with a book that contains them.
I've seen complaints about shallow characters, and things that don't "feel" right. If characters don't behave true to the period, then they just float in space, and they don't have the depth and vitality that comes from a complete understanding of the times, or as complete as the author can make it.
I've never completely understood an author who wants to write a historical, but hates doing research. For many historical novelists, the research comes first. They wrote the books because they discovered something intriguing about the period, something they wanted to explore. unless it was (God forbid!) for the money.

EmilyBryan said...

Lynne--I love your passion for historicity!

Anonymous said...

I got to this article through a link on a link of a blog I follow, got here late, but found it interesting just the same. I just want to point out a few things.

There is getting history wrong in things which physically would not be possible (potatoes in medieval Europe) and then there are things which do not seem likely but might have if you look deep enough ( corn in old world antiquity, if you look at what the word meant) . Sometimes things which can have an educated reader snort ( famous example, Heyer´s heroine called Tiffany for example) can actually be historically correct.

I won´t address the adoption and name change, except to say I am less sure than you that it would have been impossible, I can think for example stepdaughters getting their name changed to stepfather´s has happened, and husband´s names changing to their wives names ( when money and titles and status are involved of course) but about the comments above about titles not being able to go through the female line, well, that is not an impossibility. You can not dismiss it as historical inaccuracy on its own because it MIGHT: Scottish, or very old titles, or titles with special conditions attached to them or even just randomly for sufficiently popular people. I think the first duke of Marlborough´s title went through his daughter? And in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Collins´ entailment, which does not make sense if one generalizes the "only through the male line".

EmilyBryan said...

Anonymous--Yes! You're right. There have been rare instances when a title can pass to a daughter. If fact, I use that in my upcoming Mia Marlowe novella in IMPROPER GENTLEMEN. My hero's mother was a baroness in her own right.

But there was no legal adoption until the mid 20th century in the UK.