Saturday, March 5, 2011

Yikes! Writer Bloopers

"What are you cooking?" she asks, looking into the pot he stirs.
"Pesto," he answers.

It's been years, if not decades, since I saw the movie in which that exchange occurred. I no longer remember the name of the movie or the stars or any of the plot, only the huge mistake the writers had made and the scorn I felt for them. It would have taken only a few minutes to look in a cookbook to find out how pesto is made—only seconds if the Web were already around—but they didn't bother.

I work hard not to make factual mistakes in my stories that will lead to readers ridiculing me and possibly never reading my work again. Even so, I had the humbling experience this week of almost sending out a short story with two mistakes in a single sentence in the first paragraph.

This story takes place on an Indonesian island in 1598. To describe the setting without an info dump, I have one of the lead characters, a Portuguese sailor, admiring a few features he can see from his ship. One of the features was a vast sprawl of flowers, and in my final round of polishing, I decided to add a smoking volcano.

I checked online to see whether any of the volcanoes were live; a smoking volcano would be silly if none were. Yikes! It hit me then for the first time that volcanoes erupt and I had not checked any on the island had erupted in or shortly before 1598. Luckily, none had. But an eruption could have changed the look of the island considerably and possibly forced a relocation of the story to a different part of the island or a different year.

Second yikes! To make the description of flowers more specific, I went Google-surfing to find out what colors the flowers the island is known for are. That was when I discovered that the "flowers" were in fact the many species of brightly colored corals that the Portuguese saw in the clear tropical water under their ships. I not only had to take out the reference to flowers in the lead paragraph, but also add a mention of sharp-edged corals in an underwater scene.

I thought of the pesto-cooking writers then and felt a little sympathy. If I had skipped researching these two important points, I wondered what else I hadn't researched enough. The story is on submission now; if it gets accepted, I may find out from alert readers.

What is the silliest mistake you've ever made in a story or book? Did you catch it before it got published? Did any readers write to you?

I'll be blogging again on March 21, the second day of Spring. May you make no factual mistakes in your writing between now and then!

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I misspelled some of my own invented words in the second and third Talera books, and that ws despite having a series bible for easy reference on those kinds of things. I did correct 'em for the ebook releases though.

G said...

With some of the stories I've written (unpublished as yet), I've gone on research blitzes to make sure that what I'm writing is plausible in the realm of the story I'm writing.

As for mistakes that really stand out, I've made a few in my latest manuscript. There was one instance in which I had a character wear a particular kind of bathing suit and a beta-reader was thoughtful enough to point out that it was pretty much impossible for someone with the character's chest size to wear a bathing suity like that (she spoke from personal experience).

The other involved some light BDSM, and again, my reader was thougtful enough to point out that the end result I gave never happens in real life (again, she spoke not from personal experience, but had friends who did that stuff).

I definitely try to be as accurate as possible, which means for my wrtings, asking my female friends some point questions about certain things that I up until recently, I had no real clue about.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I've done similar things, especially with characters' names. It makes me feel a little silly.

G, it sounds as if the stories you write can't always be researched on Google. Good thing you have adventurous friends and friends-of-friends. (And, yes, bathing suits are annoying. If you have a medium-size chest, most suits fit you. But for everyone else, all bets are off. This is part of why women hate shopping for swimsuits.)

Liane Spicer said...

My critique partner scrawled a note in the middle of the manuscript for my second novel: "Who's Shari?"

Yes, thank goodness for friends who critique. Shari is the main character in my first novel who apparently sneaked off and hid in the second.

So far, no bloopers that got through to the final print. Or if there are, no one has mentioned them yet.

G said...

For the most part yes. I use Wikipedia a lot (and Google/external links that the articles have), but since I grew up using the public library for all kinds of things, I verify what I read in Wikipedia with what I find at the library.

Everything else, I ask my friends/co-workers, who have long gotten used to me asking pointed questions about clothing, physical appearances, etc.

KeVin K. said...

Well, I once made a fool of myself with a publisher. I'd submitted a story in which a key element was a falling orbiter -- a fictional vehicle similar in shape to the NASA shuttle but 100 times larger. Altering it's flight (fall) path was pivotal to the action. The editor bounced it back because their tech guy told them I had the aerodynamics all wrong. Since I used to fly sailplanes, aerodynamics is one of the few bits of engineering I think I have a handle on so -- egocentric newbe that I was -- I challenged their expert. And got properly schooled on the realities that a) 1,700 tonne objects -- even ones with wings and control surfaces -- do not fly like a Scheizer 1-26 and b) when the editor tells you something needs to be changed for factual reasons, change it.
(Happy ending: Suitably contrite, I rewrote the story and made the sale with the second submission.)

Jewel Amethyst said...

I had two teams play football on Thanksgiving that by their conference and schedule were unlikely to meet for a Thanksgiving match-up. A friend of mine and avid football fan picked it up, but only after it was published. Needless to say, no other reader commented on it.