Research with care, my friends.

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

jparry

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When a beta reader complains about a certain word, I typically remove it. Readers always give a justification for why my word choice was incorrect, and their justifications are terrible. :) For example, one reader pointed out that I used a 300-year-old word in a 5,000-year-old setting, not realizing that there wouldn't be any English words left if I followed their advice completely. I still removed the word, since something about it ruined the illusion for the reader.

A problem is that some beta readers want to show how smart they are, so they will try to point out supposed anachronisms they can find. I'm trying to distinguish between: "This beta reader was pulled out of the story so I should rewrite that section" vs. "This beta reader guesses that other people will be pulled out of the story and wants to prevent that by being super knowledgeable." I defer greatly to the experiences of the former group. I try to ignore criticisms from the latter group, because there's no satisfying them.
 

Alessandra Kelley

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When a beta reader complains about a certain word, I typically remove it. Readers always give a justification for why my word choice was incorrect, and their justifications are terrible. :) For example, one reader pointed out that I used a 300-year-old word in a 5,000-year-old setting, not realizing that there wouldn't be any English words left if I followed their advice completely. I still removed the word, since something about it ruined the illusion for the reader.

A problem is that some beta readers want to show how smart they are, so they will try to point out supposed anachronisms they can find. I'm trying to distinguish between: "This beta reader was pulled out of the story so I should rewrite that section" vs. "This beta reader guesses that other people will be pulled out of the story and wants to prevent that by being super knowledgeable." I defer greatly to the experiences of the former group. I try to ignore criticisms from the latter group, because there's no satisfying them.
As a reader I was once pulled out of a story set in 1790s Philadelphia when a character used a twentieth century word.

But now I'm questioning that. I hadn't thought about it until you brought it up, but I probably would not have blinked if the word was used by someone presented as speaking their native language in a different context, such as an ancient Sumerian or a 1790s person in China.
 

frimble3

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As a reader I was once pulled out of a story set in 1790s Philadelphia when a character used a twentieth century word.

But now I'm questioning that. I hadn't thought about it until you brought it up, but I probably would not have blinked if the word was used by someone presented as speaking their native language in a different context, such as an ancient Sumerian or a 1790s person in China.
Makes sense, if you are using a language of a different era, for an audience who speaks that language, they will know the difference.
If, however, you are translating a foreign language, you should translate into what would be most accessible to a modern reader.
 

HankChenaski

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To me this was the writing gods punishing Boyle for unnecessary detail. I don't see how including that list of obscure ingredients served the readers. I read three or four and skimmed the rest. He was showing off his research and got burned.
 
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benbenberi

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To me this was the writing gods punishing Boyle for unnecessary detail. I don't see how including that list of obscure ingredients served the readers. I read three or four and skimmed the rest. He was showing off his research and got burned.
Strong disagreement. Specific details are one of the ways a good writer enlivens and deepens their portrayal of a historical setting. It's easy to coast along the generic surface of a period. Using the right details make it real.

The problem here was not that the writer used too many details, but that he didn't do enough research to recognize they weren't real but made up for someone else's fantasy world. If he'd really done his homework & paid even a little attention to the source of the information he wouldn't have made that particular mistake.
 

HankChenaski

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Strong disagreement. Specific details are one of the ways a good writer enlivens and deepens their portrayal of a historical setting. It's easy to coast along the generic surface of a period. Using the right details make it real.

The problem here was not that the writer used too many details, but that he didn't do enough research to recognize they weren't real but made up for someone else's fantasy world. If he'd really done his homework & paid even a little attention to the source of the information he wouldn't have made that particular mistake.
In most cases, yes detail is good and helps making a setting or situation come alive. That doesn't happen in this case, by simply listing ingredients in a formula. It's tedious and lazy. I could have listed every piece of the firing mechanism in a matchlock musket in my novel, but since that would be boring for everyone but the most extreme firearms fanatic and it wasn't relevant to the plot, I didn't. There is a limit to detail and Boyle reached it with his list of arcane ingredients that mean nothing to the vast majority of us.
 
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Lakey

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In most cases, yes detail is good and helps making a setting or situation come alive. That doesn't happen in this case, by simply listing ingredients in a formula. It's tedious and lazy. I could have listed every piece of the firing mechanism in a matchlock musket in my novel, but since that would be boring for everyone but the most extreme firearms fanatic and it wasn't relevant to the plot, I didn't. There is a limit to detail and Boyle reached it with his list of arcane ingredients that mean nothing to vast majority of us.
This is obviously a matter of personal preference, so I want to stress that I’m not trying to change your mind—but I agree with @benbenberi about this one. The detail—if accurate and well-rendered—is the reason I read historical fiction. “I made the red dye” would be a lot less interesting and engaging to me than a couple of sentences laying out the process and ingredients. And in this case, the ingredients might not seem so arcane if they were the real ingredients rather than a list of magical items invented for a video game.

:e2coffee:
 
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HankChenaski

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“I made the red dye” would be a lot less interesting and engaging to me than a couple of sentences laying out the process and ingredients.

:e2coffee:
"I made red dye" is basically what he's provided us with. He used two verbs, "used" and "employed", two of the vaguest, flatist verbs in the English language. Did he grind them, reduce them, distill them, boil, bake, pound, shred, chop or condense? If he'd told a story with his description with strong verbs, then his inclusion of the ingredients would work. What he was doing here was seeking the credit for doing the research, however flawed, without putting in the work by making it an active, interesting part of the story. Instead he provided us with a list and a couple lazy verbs, so the sentences don't work. He's gone halfway and therefore has given us a boring couple sentences to skim or read and quickly forget. "I made the red dye" would have been better, because it at least would have wasted less of the reader's time and the word count.
 

Woollybear

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A list that serves no purpose but to list can be tedious, but like most things when writing, if it serves two or three purposes it might earn its keep. This list begins with nightshade, an immediate tipoff to poisoning, and so while the narrator is telling us that she makes dyes for fabrics she is also telling us she knows how to use her ingredients to other ends. The list builds tension. The scene could have begun on the next paragraph ("I was overwhelmed with fear as Abrila and I entered...") , but that building of tension (I at least felt suspicious at the 'nightshade' and the next components sound toxic, although the fake feel also screams out--to the original point of the thread) would have been lost.

The purpose of the list here was not how dye is made but that she knows how to kill people from the ingredients she uses for dressmaking. "I made the red dye" would not accomplish this, and "I made a batch of poison" would have been met with confusion... How do you know how to make poison?

The gods might not like lists, but they smile upon us when we find ways to make any device pull or punch above its weight. Words etc that do double or triple duty.
 
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HankChenaski

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A list that serves no purpose but to list can be tedious, but like most things when writing, if it serves two or three purposes it might earn its keep. This list begins with nightshade, an immediate tipoff to poisoning, and so while the narrator is telling us that she makes dyes for fabrics she is also telling us she knows how to use her ingredients to other ends. The list builds tension. The scene could have begun on the next paragraph ("I was overwhelmed with fear as Abrila and I entered...") , but that building of tension (I at least felt suspicious at the 'nightshade' and the next components sound toxic, although the fake feel also screams out--to the original point of the thread) would have been lost.

The purpose of the list here was not how dye is made but that she knows how to kill people from the ingredients she uses for dressmaking. "I made the red dye" would not accomplish this, and "I made a batch of poison" would have been met with confusion... How do you know how to make poison?

The gods might not like lists, but they smile upon us when we find ways to make any device pull or punch above its weight. Words etc that do double or triple duty.
If that was his intent, then he could have simply ended the sentence with "but almost all required nightshade", unless all those other ingredients are also poisonous, and we're supposed to know that. Not only would that be shorter but it would be more effective because we'd focus on the nightshade which seems to be the only ingredient relevant to the plot. Then he could have resumed at "the resultant mixture ...."

The only justification I can see for this list is it's first person POV and maybe this is Boyle's way of showing his character likes to get lost in extraneous detail. If that's the case I'm glad I don't have to read the whole book but I'll give him points for effective characterization.
 
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Brigid Barry

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I love historical fiction, and the reason I love it is the details (when they're done right). The good news is that if you just want to skim over things in your own novel then you certainly can, but I don't think it's right or fair to criticize others for putting in the extra time and effort to make things as immersive as possible. The MC is going to be thinking about the ingredients as they make whatever they're making. I have seen numerous books (historical and otherwise) containing enough ingredients that the reader could theoretically make whatever the MC made.

Different strokes for different folks, as my aunt would say.
 
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HankChenaski

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I love historical fiction, and the reason I love it is the details (when they're done right). The good news is that if you just want to skim over things in your own novel then you certainly can, but I don't think it's right or fair to criticize others for putting in the extra time and effort to make things as immersive as possible. The MC is going to be thinking about the ingredients as they make whatever they're making. I have seen numerous books (historical and otherwise) containing enough ingredients that the reader could theoretically make whatever the MC made.

Different strokes for different folks, as my aunt would say.
"I don't think it's right or fair to criticize others for putting in the extra time and effort to make things as immersive as possible" - But it's not immersive. It's filling the page with lazily researched ingredients that weren't even accurate. Even if they were accurate, simply listing them is not immersive for the reasons I've posted above.

"The MC is going to be thinking about the ingredients as they make whatever they're making" - The MC will be thinking a lot of things. It's the author's job to decide what's relevant and what's not, or present the irrelevant details in an engaging way. Boyle did neither here.
 

Lakey

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Folks, I think we’ve all made our points about what Boyle might have been trying to do here and what might have made it more effective — let’s table that debate and get back to the thread topic, which is the perils of incomplete research.

:e2coffee:
 

Siri Kirpal

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Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I recently got a hankering to reread a scene in a historical fantasy I read a long, long time ago. I discovered the following:

The heroine attends La Gioconda, an opera by Puccini, in San Francisco. One small problem: La Gioconda was composed by Ponchielli, not Puccini.

During that outing, the heroine also buys a copy of Lord Dunsany's The Queen of Elfland's Daughter. One problem: The outing takes place before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and The Queen of Elfland's Daughter wasn't published until 1924.

Both of those would have been easy enough to fix if the author had taken the few minutes needed to check facts.

My apologies if someone has mentioned them upstream.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

Chris P

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Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I recently got a hankering to reread a scene in a historical fantasy I read a long, long time ago. I discovered the following:

The heroine attends La Gioconda, an opera by Puccini, in San Francisco. One small problem: La Gioconda was composed by Ponchielli, not Puccini.

During that outing, the heroine also buys a copy of Lord Dunsany's The Queen of Elfland's Daughter. One problem: The outing takes place before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and The Queen of Elfland's Daughter wasn't published until 1924.

Both of those would have been easy enough to fix if the author had taken the few minutes needed to check facts.

My apologies if someone has mentioned them upstream.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal

I was totally thrown off when reading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. When Carol first arrives in Gopher Prairie, the local movie theater marquee reads "Fatty in Love." Because there are no other clues to when the book takes place leading up to this point or for quite a while after, I Googled and "Love" starring Fatty Arbuckle came out in 1919. Well and good, but imagine my confusion 2/3 of the way through the book when WWI breaks out, and Carol runs off to DC to work for the War Department. A forgivable error, but it took me out of the book and completely rewired my temporal context of the book.