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Make No Misteak
A couple of summers ago, while one of my mysteries was wending its way through the editorial process, my editor gave me some incidental good and bad news. A fellow in one of the other departments had read my book and loved it. That was the good news. But, she went on, he had pointed out that there are no buses on West End Avenue. Early on I had my lead character take a bus down West End from around 87th Street to around 71st, and it seemed that no corresponding bus existed in what we persist in calling the real world.
Some years back I had lived at West End and 71st, and I used to see buses proceeding down the avenue before turning east at 72nd Street. I hadn't realized they'd only come from a couple of blocks north of there. I digested this information, looked at the manuscript and contemplated the aggravation involved in changing it in line with this unwanted bit of information, and decided the hell with it.
As is my frequent custom, I had several rationalizations. Manhattan buses, I pointed out, are by no means as fixed and intransigent as the stars in their courses. For all any of us knew, there might be a bus on West End Avenue by the time the book reached the stores. In any event, only those readers intimately familiar with Manhattan's Upper West Side would know the difference, and only the nitpickers among them would care.
"Besides," I concluded, "my book, like all fiction, takes place in an alternate universe. In Bernie Rhodenbarr's world, there are indeed buses on West End Avenue. After all, I'm not writing a New York guidebook here, you know. This is a mystery, a light one, a diversion, an entertainment. Who gives a damn where the buses go?"
I don't know if my editor was convinced, but she rather liked the line about the alternate universe. The book went to press with the bus on West End Avenue, and reviewers neglected to take me to task for it. Two readers did ask me about it, but they didn't seem awfully bothered, nor was I. The book did have two rather more serious minor errors—a typo had transformed the titular hero of a book of Smollett's from Launcelot Greaves to Laurence, and some other gremlin had reversed the death dates of Rudyard Kipling and King George V. (One reader apiece wrote in to apprise me of those errors, and I was grateful to both of them.)
I've thought about that bus route since then. And I've reached an astonishing conclusion.
I was wrong.
A Perforated Ulster
I was driven to this thoroughly unpleasant realization not by its results but by my own observations. Much of what I've learned about writing has been acquired by reading other people's work, and this revelation came about as I made my way a while ago through what may charitably be described as an indifferent thriller. One of the characters was from Ireland. "I was born in the County Ulster," he proclaimed.
Well, the hell he was. Because there is no County Ulster. Historically, Ireland is composed of four ancient kingdoms, Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. Nowadays journalists have made Ulster synonymous with the six-county political entity of Northern Ireland, but this is not strictly correct; Ulster properly includes as well three counties that were incorporated with Southern Ireland at the time of partition. But that's minor. What's more important is the incontrovertible fact that no one born in Ireland would refer to the County Ulster.
This doesn't mean the author's an idiot, or even an ignoramus. It's an easy mistake to make, and just unfortunate that no one caught it in the course of copy editing. What's more to the point is the effect it had on me as a reader.
My immediate reaction was twofold. First of all, I was at once shaken loose from my belief in the story. "Hey, wait a minute," an inner voice said. "There's no County Ulster for him to have been born in, which means none of this ever happened; it's not real; it's just a made-up story." Well, of course. They're all stories. But fiction works because a part of the mind forgets that it's fiction while we're reading it.
Another part of self, the detached observer, had another reaction. "This writer doesn't know spit from shoe polish," I thought, approximately. "If he can be that ignorant and that sloppy about such an obvious point, how can I take anything he says seriously?"
I don't know that I stopped reading the book at that point. But I certainly ceased to be a receptive audience for it, and I began at once to regret that West End Avenue bus.
I don't think the two errors are of equal moment. Bus routes do change while the counties of Ireland remain more or less constant. (Although a couple did have nomenclatural changes earlier this century, as a matter of fact.) All the same, it struck me that any departure from reality that could easily be avoided ought to be avoided. Why do anything that might provoke a reader into the reaction I've just described?
OK. Cut, as they say in the movie business, or Fast Forward, as they put it on tape recorders. My next book about Bernie Rhodenbarr had a couple of discussions of the price of silver, which at the time of initial writing was some where stratospheric, up around $40 or $50 an ounce. By copy-editing time, silver had plummeted. My editor asked me if I'd like to change the book's mathematics.
I thought about it and decided against it. For one thing, the price of silver, like that of any commodity, is very much subject to change, and substantially more so than even the scheme of New York bus routes. For another, the high price I cited had indeed existed, and reflected reality at the time the book was written. I concluded that I was comfortable with the book as it stood, despite its not jibing with current reality. After all, in years to come the price of silver will unquestionably fluctuate, and I would hardly respond by making corresponding changes in future editions.
The more I think about this whole area, the more confused I get. On the one hand, it is not fiction's job to hold a handmirror to reality. I've written more than a few books set in areas I haven't visited, and I'm sure my Yugoslavia has precious little in common with Tito's Yugoslavia, and I don't care. On the other hand, I have a certain horror of committing any County Ulsters of my own.
A common out is through the use of a fictional terrain, whether it be Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Wolfe's Catawba or Ed McBain's Isola. I trust every reader of McBain's 87th Precinct novels knows the city in question is New York, but by changing the names of the streets and neighborhoods, by creating a fictional equivalent of New York, McBain is able to write eloquently about the city without wasting hours poring over maps and street guides, and without taking innumerable research trips to determine just where the hospitals and precinct houses are and what they look like. He can depict them as he wants them and put them where he wants them and not worry that some reader will straighten up in his chair and say: "Wait a minute! That's wrong!"
I set most of my own books in New York, and have not as yet been tempted to rename the city. It seems to me that the gains are offset by the loss in reader identification. I've noticed that one of the things readers particularly respond to in my recent novels is the city in which they are set, and those readers specifically acquainted with the neighborhoods in question seem to respond most strongly. I find this interesting, and I might do a column on this aspect of reader identification if I ever sort out my thoughts on the subject. For one reason or another, many of us evidently get a special kick out of reading fiction set in areas we know well. "That's it," we say. "He's got that right. I know that candy store. I passed that bar just the other day. He knows his stuff, all right."
Of course, you have to pay for this kind of identification. If you're going to make it work, the candy store had best be on the right corner, the bar correctly described. And yet one doesn't want to pay too much attention to trivia.
On the other hand—and aren't you beginning to feel like one of those eight-armed Hindu idols, with all of these other hands all over the place? On yet another hand, a book I may write one of these days may be set in a town in the west of England, and if that's the case I may well change the town's name and let geography go hang so that I don't have to pay slavish attention to reality. I think it would be too much trouble to be accurate, and that there would be relatively little payoff in increased reader identification; how many readers, after all, would be familiar with the town? Easier to make up my own town, lay it out to my own purposes, and concentrate on characters and story.
John O'Hara laid particular stress on getting things right in his fiction, and his research was prodigious. Here's his foreword to Ten North Frederick, one of several novels set in the fictional terrain of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania:
This, of course, is a work of fiction, but I have also taken liberties with those facts that sometimes help to give truth to fiction. To name one: the office of Lieutenant Governor was created by the 1873 Constitution, so it would have been impossible for Joe Chapin's grandfather to have been Lieutenant Governor at the time I state. There are one or two other deliberate errors of that kind, but I hope they will be pardoned by the alert attorneys who are sure to spot them. If this were straight history, and not fiction, I would not ask to be pardoned.
Well, I wonder. The word that gives me pause is deliberate. I can't banish the suspicion that it came to O'Hara's attention after the book was written that the lieutenant governorship existed only after 1873, and that he decided reasonably enough that making the change would be more trouble than it could possibly be worth. The foreword serves its purpose, though, don't you think? Should someone steeped in Pennsylvania history encounter an error, even one that O'Hara didn't know about when he wrote the foreword, he's prepared to overlook it. "Oh, yes," he'll say to himself. "This is one of those deliberate errors of O'Hara's. It's not a real mistake."
Ah, well. "There's tricks to every trade but mine," said the carpenter, hammering a screw.CHAPTER 2
A Writer's Library
Virtually every writer I know is a reader. Most of us were readers first, and our enjoyment of the printed word was often one of the factors that led us to find this silly business attractive in the first place. I've known a few people who came to writing without a prior addiction to reading, and they invariably got the habit in due course. Perhaps they started reading heavily to find out how other people were handling problems of craft. In any event, they're readers now. Accordingly, just about every writer I've known has tended to live in the presence of books. We put up shelves and surround ourselves with books, spending immense tax-deductible sums acquiring more and more of them, spending still more money and incalculable time and effort packing and shipping the little devils when we move from hither to yon and back again. We won't take possession of new quarters unless they afford ample space for our books, and we don't consider ourselves moved in until the books are out of their boxes and placed in orderly fashion upon our shelves.
More often than not, we don't even think of this as a matter of choice. Their enrichment of our leisure hours aside, books are tools of our trade. Ours, after all, is a profession that requires little in the way of capital investment. It's possible, to be sure, to spend thousands for one of those word processors that does everything for you but get your lead character out of the doldrums, but in a pinch any of us can get by with a battered manual portable and a stack of yellow sheets—or, come to that, a few sharpened pencils and a lined pad. Why, a college kid doing odd jobs has more dough tied up in a power mower and other tools than it costs us to set up shop.
For a whole lot of years, I was a positively compulsive acquirer and retainer of books. I operated under a stunningly simple rule: to wit, no book that entered my possession (except through borrowing) was permitted to leave it. If I bought a book, I kept it forever. No matter if it turned out to be unreadable. No matter, indeed, if it turned out that I already had a copy of the damned thing. If I owned a book, it was going to be mine for life.
Sometime in the late '60s, my bibliomania began to change. I came to the realization that I owned too many books to too little purpose. Perhaps a third of my library consisted of books I had read once and would not read again under any circumstances. Another third, say, was composed of books I had bought for some reason I could no longer recall, books I had not read and had no intention of reading, ever. These two classes of books, I had to recognize, constituted not an asset but a liability. They kept me from finding the book I was looking for. They got in the way.
Packing and Pruning
So I began reducing the size of my library. I gave away innumerable books to libraries, to the Salvation Army, to other institutions. Next time I moved, I reduced my library further. I got rid of several thousand paperbacks that time around (including, I blush to recall, a few dozen copies of my own works left behind by mistake). Each move since then has seen my stock of books further reduced, until I reached a point a few years ago of setting aside only a small area for books and pruning them as they accumulate.
Not long ago I once again prepared to move from an apartment and went through the process of packing some books and carting others to bookstores and thrift shops. I find this liberating, but then I find divesting myself of possessions a freeing experience in general. At the same time, I find it helps me to focus on what books are genuinely and enduringly important to me, as tools for living and tools of the trade. A timely note advising me that WD was planning a reference books issue further centered my attention on the topic, and led me to consider just how books are useful to me, and just what ones I find indispensable for the production of my own fiction.
The most useful single book I own is Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. There's a copy on my desk right now—there's always a copy on my desk—and I suppose if I had to be stranded on a desert island with only one book for company, that's the one I'd take. I couldn't begin to guess how often I pick it up to check something, wander from one entry to another, and surface an hour later, having lost track entirely of what sent me to the book in the first place. You would think that by now, after all these years, I would have read every blessed word in Bartlett's, and perhaps I have. All the same, it seems to me that I never open the book without finding something new, and I'm not sure it's hyperbole to argue that a thorough familiarity with its contents is as good as a college education.
How does it help me in my writing? It's especially useful in my mysteries about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, which so teem with literary allusions as to suggest I'm better read than I am. But I think it enriches my writing in less obvious ways as well. I seem to find things in its pages that tend to stimulate the flow of fictional ideas, and any book that has that effect can sit on my desk forever.
Excerpted from The Liar's Bible by Lawrence Block. Copyright © 2011 Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 23, 2012
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Posted May 24, 2012
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