“Good novels can bring readers a visceral sense of times and places unfamiliar to them.”
Cress Taylor, Historical Novelist (protagonist, At First Sight)
Michal Maňas - Own work, detail of central European (Northern) type of finished parchment made of goatskin stretched on a wooden frame (photo from Wikipedia Commons)
What makes you choose a book? The cover? The description? Do you stick with a certain genre, or are you eclectic? Does the setting entice you? If you read e-books, do you download the sample first? Always buy favorite authors?
What turns you off? Bad editing? Too many typos? Grammatical errors? Factual errors? Problems with the plot? Do you give the author a lot of chances? Or are you done the second time you find something you don’t like?
I love books set in places I know. Chicago brought me the delights of reading Penny Reid’s Knitting in the City series, Aven Ellis’ Chicago Buffaloes hockey romances, and Kelly Jamieson’s Chicago Aces. Places I’ve always wanted to visit had me reading Donna Leon before my first trip to Venice.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano’s books brought Sicily to life and made my eventual visit to Ragusa even more meaningful. Maybe you prefer imaginary worlds, science fiction, fantasy, nonfiction. I gravitate toward long books. But you may like short stories, essays, novellas.
Sometimes friends recommend books and I rush to read them. Sometimes not. I regret not reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society sooner. Same with Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, which sucked me in with its Oxford setting (and a heroine who is a historian). I tried Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles many times and resigned myself to only reading her contemporary Johnson Johnson thrillers, until I met Nicholas vander Poele. Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series changed my life.
Not long ago, a book was recommended to me—a historical mystery with parallel plots, one in the eighteenth century, the other contemporary. I downloaded the sample. I bumped on the first page. This line, on the very first page, stopped me. “I lifted the blush-colored paper …”
This part of the story takes place in the eighteenth century. Was there colored writing paper? Would this color be made? Google to the rescue. Most paper was white. The brighter the white, the more desirable the paper. Sometimes there was a blue tinge. Blush paper is nowhere to be seen.
This sentence probably wouldn’t have stopped most readers. Why wouldn’t paper be colored? My first thought was that because paper was made from rags, it would be the color of the garment. But blush. Hmmm.
I should clarify. I don’t mind looking things up. A new fact is like finding that my baked apple is filled with marzipan. The problem is when the author is wrong. Then it’s like a nasty flavor in a bag of assorted jelly beans. Do the research. Don’t assume. Look it up. That’s part of the process.
Later in the same chapter, paper and parchment are conflated. Which is it? Paper was made from rags, parchment from animal skins. Which brings me back to color. Paper can be produced with colors. Parchment cannot. It has the color from the skin that is used. You could bleach it, but no one would dye it. Not if you were going to write on it. A few pages into the sample and I’m done. My historian’s brain has rebelled. The story may be compelling, but not for me. Intentional anachronism for effect, fine. Maize or tomatoes in fourteenth-century Europe—nope. My tolerance is low.
On the other hand, if an author is purposely bending history in interesting ways, I might go with it. April White’s Immortal Descendants series is an example. Joan of Arc and a band a wolves terrorize fifteenth-century Paris. Interesting. An artist, who may be Artemisia Gentileschi hangs out with Mary Shelley. Intriguing. Edgar Alan Poe in a present-day Baltimore bar. Wow. The books are paranormal, time-traveling stories. Suspension of disbelief encouraged. And the wolves? They might not have hung out with Joan, but over the centuries, bands of wolves did menace Paris. I might never have known that if I hadn’t read Changing Nature.
The other day, I was in a discussion group and another writer/reader brought up the same book. She had a problem with a glaring inaccuracy in the contemporary setting. If I had gotten that far in the book, I wouldn’t have noticed that mistake because I don’t know the setting. For her, that error stood out because it’s the town she lives in. The reader needs to trust the author. We both lost our trust, and stopped reading, early in the book.
Even though my chosen field is history, I read very little historical fiction and I don’t write it, even though I made my heroine, Cress Taylor, a writer of historical fiction. Wish fulfillment? Maybe. I tried my hand at historical fiction and I was spectacularly bad at it.
If the story is compelling but there are a lot of typos, grammatical errors, and poor editing, I might actually persevere. Maybe even until the end. I have friends who have a zero-tolerance policy and will give up in disgust after the second mistake.
Does research only matter for historical fiction? The short answer is no. For example, Cress writes at a café. My first idea was to have her write at DropShot, located at Fieldhouse Jones in Chicago.
I had been there a few times with my Sunday afternoon writing group and I really liked it. Why, end the end, did I choose the now closed Toni Patisserie instead? The book takes place in 2013. Fieldhouse Jones and Dropshot opened in 2017. So I went with Toni’s instead. Would most readers have noticed if I’d used Dropshot? Probably not. But it would have niggled at me. The bonus—Cress’ love of eclairs. She couldn’t have gotten them at Dropshot, but she could gorge to her heart’s content at Toni’s.
Research matters. Accuracy matters. Just ask Cress—after she finishes that mouthful of eclair.