By Lisabet Sarai
As I’ve discussed in other blog posts, I almost always set my stories in some specific, real location. Frequently my settings strongly influence the plot and the characters. Even when they don’t, I like to be precise. I can more easily imagine the action as it unfolds when I know where it’s occurring. (Indeed, I sometimes confuse my mental images with actual memories.) I believe that anchoring my tales in space (and time) makes them more concrete, more involving and ultimately more believable.
However, this tendency to be specific introduces some risks not experienced by authors who stay vague about their settings. I need to include convincing details—and there’s always the chance I’ll get something wrong.
If I’m lucky, a beta reader or editor will pick up on my mistake. My paranormal cat shifter romance The Eyes of Bast is set Manhattan. When my husband read the manuscript, he pointed out that my heroine was taking the wrong subway line going uptown to her apartment west of Central Park. I found this annoying, since I’d actually researched this bit of information—obviously I’d interpreted the subway map incorrectly. (DH lived in New York City for more than a decade. I tend to believe him.)
Alas, DH doesn’t like BDSM stories, so often I don’t get the benefit of his sharp eyes!
Most though not all of the places I write about are places I have at least visited. On the other hand, there may be a significant time lag before I use the location in a story. I wrote Raw Silk, which was set in Bangkok, more than a decade after I’d lived there. In my recent revision of that novel (coming out in a new, expanded version in February 2016!), I fixed a number of geographic and cultural errors I didn’t notice in the first three editions. (I also provided some cues to anchor the book in an earlier time. Someone reading it now, thinking it was contemporary, would be baffled as to why none of the characters have mobile phones!)
One of the worst mistakes I’ve made (that I know about!) occurred in my second novel, Incognito, which unfolds in a historic district of Boston called Beacon Hill. I lived in Beacon Hill for a year and a half, but that was nearly five years before I wrote the book. There’s a steamy exhibitionist scene that takes place in a late night subway car. I was quite specific about the stations where the heroine gets on and off the train. Caught up in the action, though (at least, that’s my excuse), I completely forgot that a transfer is required between those two stops! Anyone familiar with the “T”, as they call it in Boston, would realize this immediately. (I was able to fix this in a recent re-edit, too.)
You may ask why any of this matters. It may be that most readers won’t notice this sort of error. However, those who do are likely to form a very negative impression of the author, as sloppy and ignorant. People tend to feel proprietary about places they know.
These days if one individual takes offense at your book, the rest of the world can find out pretty quickly. I haven’t even read FSOG, for instance, but I know from reviews and blog posts that it’s full of geographic errors (not all that surprising since it’s set in the U.S. state of Washington while the author is British).
So I do careful research when I can—but I’m not a research slut like some authors I know. I’m likely to check the Internet or the library when I’m not sure about something, but I don’t spend days immersed in my sources. Problems are most likely to arise in situations where I really believe I know some detail that’s actually wrong (or out of date).
Of course, geographically related mistakes aren’t the only sort that can occur in writing. Erotica authors, in particular, need to worry about errors in describing sexual practices. It’s a bit dangerous to write about BDSM without some serious research. I’ve read some scenes that made me want to throw the book at the wall (metaphorically) due to inaccuracies—especially, the unrealistic extremes Doms were inflicting on their subs. When it comes to sex, though, I think readers are more willing to accept distortions of reality—first because they’re looking for fantasy anyway, and second, because many of them have no experience at all with the activities described.
There’s one particularly egregious error in Raw Silk that I couldn’t figure out how to fix. My heroine Kate is “forced” by her master to perform nude in a live show in a Bangkok sex bar. She’s disguised as Asian, wearing a black wig to cover her auburn curls and make-up that hides the freckles associated with her Irish background. Everyone agrees she looks Thai. When she sheds her G-string, though, her masquerade should have been obvious—she has, after all, bright red pubic hair!
I was terribly embarrassed when my own Master pointed this out to me, many years ago, though nobody else has ever mentioned it. (Like many masters, mine is a stickler for detail.) In my recent round of edits, I decided not to mess with the problem. Any mention of the issue would distract from the intensity of the scene. And aside from having Kate be shaved (which wouldn’t fit the time period, her personality, or my personal preferences), I couldn’t think of a good solution anyway.
Fiction isn’t required to be realistic of course. Readers know this. At the same time, concrete details can increase reader involvement. Mistakes in those details, on the other hand, can yank the reader out of the narrative and generate negative emotions.
Just one more thing we authors need to worry about!