Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I Did That on Purpose

Ed McBain used to tell of readers who’d point out inconsistencies in Isola geography between books written years apart. One even sent McBain what amounted to an atlas of every location he’d ever mentioned in all the 87th Precinct novels. (If memory serves, this included hand-drawn maps.) McBain couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or concerned. I mean, the guy clearly loved the books and bought them as soon as they were available. On the other hand, what kind of holes was he filing in his life that he took that kind of time living in Isola’s alternate universe?

All writers are subject to this, though not to the same extent. Readers love to point out errors. Sometimes it’s out of affection and a desire to see a favorite author get something right. Sometimes it’s a way to show their knowledge of a certain field is superior to the author’s. (Or at least that they think it is. Readers who point out perceived errors are not always correct themselves.) And some are just pricks playing “Gotcha” in the hope of proving (to themselves, likely) that while this big shot author may be making money off his writing, he’s no smarter than I am.

Authors respond in different ways. Some ignore any such comments. Some engage, either to agree with the reader and apologize for the error, or to point out the reader’s error. The latter can be fraught with peril. Among my favorite panels at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conferences is when the guests of honor get together to talk about their mail and detail some of the exchanges they’ve had over accuracy, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. The stories range from hilarious to chilling.

Some authors argue, which even I, argumentative as anyone, see no profit in. Even worse are those who argue publicly when a reviewer points out an error in a forum such as Amazon or Goodreads. There’s no upside to that. It deteriorates into a pissing contest no one can win and the author can’t help but come off as the bad guy, punching down in weight class.

The best response to readers who point out errors, the one I’m adopting right now and from this point forward, the one I’m pissed I hadn’t thought of, and the one I consider PFG (Pure Fucking Genius), comes courtesy of Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series. (Which I cannot recommend highly enough.) It’s from an old blog post I stumbled onto while reading a recent entry.

In short, when a reader points out an inconsistency with fact in one of the Duffy books—say, a road not yet built when the story takes place—Adrian explains that Duffy’s fictional world exists in an alternate universe where the road had been built. He freely cops to inconsistencies such as a character’s eyes changing color during the book: Sorry, mate, you caught me out there. I’ll see can it be changed for the paperback. Facts are more fluid and may need adjustment to get to the greater truth. (To a point. The Duffy books take place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I believe the chances that Queen Elizabeth will come to an untimely demise are roughly equivalent to Lord Mountbatten surviving his attack.)

The Duffy books are historical, but the principle applies to non-period works. I actually made a conscious decision to do exactly this in Penns River without realizing it. Penns River stands in for three small, adjacent cities in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve even gone so far as to make a Google map of “Penns River” that encompasses the three cities (and one township) that make up Neshannock County. I use actual street names and locations so I never have to worry about McBain’s conundrum of forgetting where I put things.

This also allows me to create places as needed. Just because I used Leechburg Road and Drey Street and the coffee shop on Tarentum Bridge Road doesn’t mean any of this is real; there is no such place as Penns River or Neshannock County in Pennsylvania. This frees me up to create whatever else I want, such as a casino in an abandoned shopping mall, or to decide Ben Dougherty lives in the last townhouse in the row near the top of Garver’s Ferry Hill. They exist in that fictional version of the Tri-Cities. Reader response to Worst Enemies and Grind Joint implies the technique is effective.

Let’s hope that remains true in Resurrection Mall.

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