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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Does Accuracy Count in the Golden Heart?

Oh, goody. This morning my blogger account is in German. Previously Google was re-setting me in Spanish, which at least I could read to change back to English, but my German is really poor.

I would like for today's blog topic to be more of a discussion instead of passing on information, since there is no right or wrong answer to the question.

We usually think of accuracy as something historical writers have to worry about most, but accuracy is a problem for all writers. It's not just historical details we have to get right.

We all know we can write in a fictional street in Chicago which is right between two real streets and if we do it well, readers will accept it even if they live right where that non-existent street claims to be. On the other hand, when Nora Roberts had a character in a book set in Oregon pumping his own gas at a gas station, she found out almost immediately after publication that Oregon is one of very few states where self-service gas is illegal. What's the difference?

Historical writers have to worry about more than historical accuracy. They have to know enough to capture the historical ambiance of their era. If they have their hero in a conversation with King George III, they can't have Hero say, "Now George, you know we can't..." Readers of the Regency or Georgian period will dent their walls with the book because no one outside the royal family, not even the king's closest advisor, would have addressed the king by his name. Yet we all know Hero isn't real and therefore he can't be accurate, and we're squeezing this non-existent man into reality in a way that surely would have split the fabric of time if it could actually have been done. What's the difference? Why do the nuances of dialogue and tiny details matter?

If we're writing fantasy, science fiction, or paranormal, we're writing about big impossibilities. This is world-building on a grand scale. We have to carefully construct our fictional world, then make sure we keep it consistent through the entire story. If the reader know Hero has the ability to fly, we know we'd better make sure we substantiate why in chapter twenty-three he suddenly can't get off the ground.

There are thousands of details authors have to worry about when writing fiction. Grammar, spelling, paragraphing, writing techniques- all also count when we're talkng accuracy. Story structure. When the sun sets. Can Hero and Heroine waltz to the Blue Danube in 1847? Does Hero's voice sound consistent throughout the story? Getting it accurate is a major problem from the first word to the last.

Yet we're writing fiction. By definition, fiction is a story that isn't true. Not only that, when we throw in too many factual details, we create other problems. Some things may be completely true but readers have great trouble accepting them. Waltzing and Electricity in Regency England come to mind. Both were known, but not in quite the ways they are today. Adding lots of detail sometimes actually makes the stories less believable.

So how much does accuracy count in your Golden Heart entry? Will your judges rip your manuscript to shreds because you as an author haven't been around long enough to know everything you need to know? Don't you have to actually write before you learn some things? How do you know when you've got it right? Or wrong?

I'll admit that, as a judge, I'm able to spot a lot of errors in Regency and Medieval stories, but if I'm judging non-historical categories things can get by me. But even in my chosen categories I'm not one to count big on little historical details. On the other hand, if the historical verisimilitude is fractured like a shattered drinking glass with things that throw me out of the story, I have to consider the ambience lost. I want to feel like I'm back in time, participatng in the story, and if I don't get that feeling, my score for the story will go down.

I'll also admit some things like bad grammar and meandering plot can really push my buttons. As a judge, I have to work at deciding how much these difficuties really mean to story quality and how much my personal distastes are involved.

All Golden Heart judges are pretty much like that. I'm guessing about half of the judges in any category are not judging their primary writing category since they can't judge a category they enter. But many of them read very widely, and they're likely to have pretty good knowledge of the category they are judging. Some of them have a lot of false knowledge, like the one who told me in a different contest, "They didn't have newspapers in 1804".

But even setting aside the luck of the draw in judges, there's still the problem of how much fact you need to make a story take on the sense of reality it needs to capture the reader and hold her? Or how much is too much?


At 1:22 PM, Blogger Dianna Love said...

Great topic Delle and you point out some wonderful examples of how lack of detail pulls a reader out of the story.

I think that is key - the accuracy that will pull a reader off the ride. I judged a romantic suspense entry in a contest a couple years back where the scene was really interesting...until she had someone with a Glock "spin the chamber." That's a glaring boo boo, but I simply noted it and suggested the writer go to a gun store for an education even if he/she did not want to shoot a gun.

I think the subtle details bring a story to life, but if the story is well written I may not see small things, only something obvious.

So I would say for those entering contests that if you've done a fairly good job on accuracy and have vetted the story through several objective readers, an editor or judge is not going to boot a book just because of one or two "small" boo boos.

As for historicals - I love them and am so impressed with those of you who write them as I'd never get the details right.

You must have done a great job with accuracy on your book Sins of the Heart that came out in June. I loved it and what a terrific cover.


At 2:22 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Perfect accuracy is probably not as important as we'd think--at least to the average reader. Dianna's Glock example would have gone right over my head, but I'm likely to zero in on Prinny being called George (a huge mistake in the Beau Brummell TV movie, by the way).

My advice is to be as careful as you can be about accuracy. If you have a very hard time finding out the answer to something, chances are your readers won't know the answer either, but try to get specific details correct.

You just never know what a judge is going to hone in on to take points off. Err on the side of accuracy. If you do get a judge who believes there were no newspapers in 1804, that's what makes the contest a bit of a crapshoot. You can control your mistakes; you can't control someone else's

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Hi Delle, this is a good question. I hope accuracy counts, although if I judged a historical I guess I might miss some important things...especially if the story grabbed me. In that case I probably wouldn't notice as much. Must ponder this some more.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I probably would have caught the Glock error since I've hung around gun guys so much of my life, and I would have giggled. But that's probably all. I know a good copy editor would catch it in time.

I think what I want most in any story is to feel the ambiance. To feel immersed in the story. I'd rather have the author persuade me I'm walking over the weathered wood of a pier on a foggy night, and if she missed a detail or two, I'm fine with that. What I don't need is a lengthy discourse on the black tar that coated the ship's lines. It doesn't even need to be mentioned. An author can often elide over information about which she isn't sure, and she'll be a lot safer than making a raw guess.


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