I’m pretty open minded when I read other people’s works, especially if it’s something I borrowed from the library or got as a freebie. What really chaps my hide: when the writer doesn’t do basic research or gets basic facts about something wrong.
I started a book recently, where the main character is a kindergarten teacher. The opening chapter has the MC holding a meet-and-greet for the parents of the new students. So far, okay.
Then this MC hands out syllabusus, or is it syllabuses? (both spellings used in adjoining paragraphs.) Then he mentions a precocious three-year-old who will be in his class.
That’s when I metaphorically threw the book against the wall.
a) The plural of “syllabus” is “syllabi” – although, the OED does grant that “syllabuses” can be used. Syllabusus, though? Not a word.
b) In what world are three-year-olds in Kindergarten? In most states, the youngest age is 5. Something easy to Google.
That’s what really gets me. Not the fact that it’s wrong so much as they didn’t even bother to get basic facts right. If you’re writing a teacher, a mechanic, a soldier – at the very least, do a little research. Make sure you use the right terminology, you know the correct length of a tour of duty for the specific branch of the military.
No, teachers don’t just get off school at 3:45 p.m. and lollygag the rest of the afternoon/evening. There are things like grading papers, preparing upcoming exams, lectures, etc. Most teachers work way more than a 40 hour work week. (Yes, I saw this in another book. This one featured a high school teacher.)
Also, chefs, especially head chefs, of any restaurant aren’t going to show up to work at 4 p.m. and then get off work at 10. What planet is this dude living on? I know something about this because I’ve read a few of Anthony Bourdain’s books and I watch a lot of shows about restaurants and cookery, but also, a minute on the Google gave me Job Monkey’s Chef & Cook page and many, many others.
It might seem ridiculous to spend the time on these small details, but it’s those little bits of verisimilitude that make a story grounded.
Heck, for Matters of the Blood, I spent ridiculous amounts of time and ended up with pages and pages of research on hunting deer, butchering deer and biological facts about various kinds of deer…something I barely used in the book itself. But I needed it to be right – or if not completely right, enough so that it made sense and didn’t jar the reader out of the story.
I’m never going to claim to be an expert on everything I put into my writing, but I definitely intend to get the core things correct. And I expect that from every author I read.
Many-times-award-winner and longtime buddy, Laura Lippman once said that it’s the little things that trip you up. The stuff you think you know. She put a minor fact in a book that turned out to be wrong, because she thought she knew it and didn’t bother to double check. Of course, that’s the first thing a reader discovered and wrote her about.
So I look stuff up.
Do I always get it right? Nope. But I know that I did my best to find out the information, and that’s okay. I’m human. I will make mistakes. But I don’t want those mistakes to be because of laziness or assumptions.