Get the Details Right

I took this beautiful, historic-looking photo in Venice from the other side of a canal. Note the soda can left by a gondolier or a passenger. It destroys the illusion of being in the past, doesn’t it?

There’s nothing so jarring as to bump up against an ill-placed detail in a story. Especially in historical fiction. One phrase or out-of-place image can make the reader lose faith in the writer.

And good writing on some level, I think, is all about projecting authorial confidence to your audience. Here’s my story. I know what I’m talking about. Dive in. Keep reading. (Not that the characters need to be confident, or that the author needs to be confident, but more that the author’s voice needs that commanding ringmaster sort of authority.)

Details that are confused, mixed up or just plain wrong for the setting can frustrate readers or, worse, cause them to put your book down.

How do you find and eliminate clunker details in your writing? How do you fact check yourself?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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18 Responses to Get the Details Right

  1. jmmcdowell says:

    The modern black pipe stands out, too. 🙂 That’s a great photo to illustrate your point. I try to recognize such things, but for me, that’s an area where test readers play important roles. Their “fresh” eyes can find those glaring mistakes and miscues more easily.

    • Good point about the pipe, JM. Should have mentioned that!

      I have the same appreciation of my critique group’s fresh eyes. One member pointed out that my 19th century family had no servants and that was a bump for her due to their class. It was easy enough to add in a few brushstrokes. Back to our earlier conversations, I didn’t name them or have any scenes with them due to having too many characters already. That may change because it’d be fun to go into one of their heads, but for now they’re entirely offstage, doing things in other rooms.

  2. susielindau says:

    FSOG! Five seconds on Google. Yesterday I looked up recycling in Provence. It is so fast and easy! For conversation and realism, because my book takes place in France, I will ask my French friends to give me some specific input.

    • FSOG, I love it. Your novel takes place in France? Mine too! (At least the first third, which is what I’ve been working on for months.) I look up a lot of small details as I go along. I’m dropping French words in here and there, so hopefully by the time I’m done with this draft I will have found a French friend to check my work!

  3. It’s funny. I was a musician, so I’m always aware that most movies which show rock musicians are made by people who have no clue. I’m used to it, and I sometimes enjoy the movies anyway, if they’re good. My ex was (is) an equestrian, and she was the same way about scenes with horses. They always get something wrong.

    (Of course it is a particular pleasure when it’s done right. See, for example, Almost Famous. And I remember my ex’s pleasure at the dressage horses in Hair.)

    My point being that I do what research I need to (effects of poisons, layout of an Episcopalian church, recovery time after surgical procedures, whether pistols have clips or magazines), but I don’t sweat every little thing. I try to take into account how any (or few) reader will know the difference. After all, I write murder mysteries, and (like almost all mystery writers, and almost all mystery readers), I’m not writing from experience. It’s kind of a tradition in the mystery field. 🙂

  4. 4amWriter says:

    I recently read on a blog that the book “The Help” has a couple of historical inaccuracies. For instance, Shake n Bake is mentioned, yet that wasn’t invented until a year after the time in which the story takes place. There was something else off, too, in that book but I can’t remember what it is. I did not read the book; I saw the movie.

    I don’t know if I’d personally know about Shake n Bake, so I can’t say that I’d have picked up on it. But I have to admit, knowing about it now is disappointing. Supposedly the author cited being short on time and admitted to making those mistakes. For a book that took 44 +/- tries to get a lit agent’s attention, I have a hard time swallowing the “short on time” excuse. It’s a terrible excuse. I hold the author, as well as the editor responsible for not catching glitches like that.

    I believe it is so important to get it right. You can’t write a historical piece, whether it’s a story that takes place 25 years ago or 250 years ago, and not get it right. Otherwise, it can’t be historical, can it.

    • I didn’t know that about Shake n Bake! I do worry about tiny mistakes like that in my novel-in-proress. There’s not much information about some of my topics, such as the layout of workshops where they made barrel organs. I keep looking, and in the meantime, I have to make some of it up. I’ll keep reading and researching and looking for new insights, but it makes me nervous sometimes how much I will never know about this 19th century village I’m writing about.

  5. Boy, Laura, , just like it\’s tough to balance too many vs. not enough details in a story, it\’s tough ensuring what details are included are on the mark. That\’s one thing I worry about my current WIP, which is a historical fiction. I worry a lot about the dialogue, more than anything else. The best way I can think to research that is by studying personal papers and journals. But those are often kept in State Historical Societies, or the Library of Congress, and I can\’t travel that far away yet. I did find a book of fiction written about the time that my story takes place, and the book is set in the exact place as well. I’ve read parts of it, and I think it will work as a great study when it comes to time/setting/vernacular accuracy.


    • PS. Not sure what all those back slashes are all about. Something didn’t translate across the bandwidths. Kind of like the subtle mix-ups of details in historical fiction…kind of jarring 🙂

    • “Boy, Laura, just like it’s tough to balance too many vs. not enough details in a story, it’s tough ensuring what details are included are on the mark.”

      I’ve been thinking about this. I’m reading Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon, and there are points where I can feel the research he must have done. Details, names, places, dates — all accurate I’m sure, but not (I would say so far, not even halfway through the book) necessary. This is the first thing I’ve read by Pynchon (and I’ve read everything else he’s published) where the researched background doesn’t feel organic to the story.

      The general lesson I take from this (not specifically referring to historical fiction, which I’ve never written), is to get the necessary details right and eliminate the rest, accurate or not.

      • Great point. I’m getting to a place where I used a bunch of absurd, Pynchon-like details about a real composer. I have figured out how to use him better in the plot but I still have to streamline the details.

    • Christi, I’m on such a similar journey with my historical novel. I was worried about writing 19th century French dialogue and kept bringing exposition to my writing group (no dialogue!) until someone called me on it and I just jumped in. Now I’m more worried about all the small things I am inventing, like where the doctor is living in this town, and whether the lacemakers used linen or cotton. Some of the answers will come with more research (someone, somewhere knows the answer to the linen/cotton question), but if it was improbable for a doctor to live by the river, I have no idea.

  6. It happens a lot in fantasy too; terrible phrases that have no place in a book set in some distant elven kingdom.
    Depends how good the rest of the story is though, sometimes I can overlook it.

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