Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of fact accuracy, is brought to you by romance novelist Jackie Weger.
Word Art: Those Pesky Throwaway Lines
One of my most embarrassing moments as a writer happened when I was standing before two hundred or so writers, editors and publishers critiquing manuscripts as a subtext in a talk on Write What You Know. There I was standing on the podium, ego rattling away on the topic when a little old lady in the second row hollered out: You didn’t!
She stood and told the entire audience that I had a character in a book set in Louisiana perking coffee. Not in Houma, Louisiana folks. Cajuns drip their chicory-laden coffee. Not only that—they don’t use Half ‘n Half. Coffee is lightened with evaporated Carnation or Pet milk—right out of the can. Coffee is sweetened to the consistency of pudding with good old pure white cane sugar—not brown, not Splenda, not Sweet ‘n Low. No ma’am.
The awful thing was that I did know folks in Louisiana dripped their coffee. But when writing the scene, I typed in a throwaway line—the heroine ‘perked’ coffee. What was I thinking? Quick—somebody get a shovel and bury me alive–right here, right now.
What happened when that darling old lady reader got to the word ‘perk’ in my book? She stopped reading. I lost my credibility. She was so annoyed there was no way she was going to enter into a fantasy of romantic fiction. It was just one awful four-letter word and it ruined the book for her—and probably every other Louisiana native. My fault.
I’m not the only author who made an error that ruined a book for a reader. I have a favorite thriller writer. I downloaded his new book the minute it hit Amazon. After chasing the bad guy through a number of countries, the hero catches and disposes of the villain in Panama, killing him and dumping the body over the balustrade of a fancy hotel onto the deck of a ship exiting the Panama Canal. Oops. There isn’t a hotel in Panama that overlooks any one of the three locks. Every lock is fenced and there’s about a half-acre of ground between the mechanical mules that guide the ships and that fence. I was really happy that this error occurred in the denouement of the book because it didn’t ruin the book for me. Perhaps I’m the only reader that noticed the error. And therein lies the rub—it only takes one person to know what you don’t know, didn’t learn, or let slide—to undo all the pride and creativity we put in our books.
I began my writing career back in the dark ages. We didn’t have internet, Google Earth, search engines, Walmart, or reality shows. Back in the day, if you didn’t know, you had to get out in the world and find it. When I was writing No Perfect Secret I needed to place two scenes in a restaurant. I spent a week in Washington, D.C. Had my little checklist—Library of Congress. Tick. State Department. Tick. Nice condo for the hero. Tick.
I had dinner in a fabulous French restaurant, but no way was hero Frank Caburn, man to the bone and reared on a Midwestern farm–going to eat escargot or those tiny portions the upmarket French are famous for. Men bred in Middle America eat beef, bread and potatoes. I had to put him in a restaurant with real beef on the menu.
In an intrigue I bought last month the author introduces her characters by telling the reader the characters stole the Mona Lisa in the past and now the thieves are looking for something else to steal. Talk about a throwaway line. What was it for? To give the thieves credibility? Hello. The Mona Lisa is a very small portrait behind specialty glass, rife with sensors, and barriers to keep a viewer five feet away. Guards move the viewers along. The author did not give the reader any plausible scenario how that piece of art could have been stolen. As a reader I am very forgiving of the improbable. The writer must convince the reader she knows about museums and security systems, about old masters, how they are stored and how they are displayed; and especially how to market stolen art work, the value of it and the people who would buy it. Stolen art never stays with the thief. Old masters are not something auctioned on e-Bay. It was one throwaway sentence. Did the author mean to insult a reader’s intelligence? Nope. She wanted to suggest her ‘thieves’ were skilled at their craft.
Recently I read a book in which a man broke a leg and was left propped against a tree while the hero ‘ran a hundred miles’ through a jungle to get help. It was a throwaway line to hint at the hero’s sensitivity and loyalty. I’ve lived in jungles and I can tell you one does not run a hundred miles through a jungle. Moreover, if you leave someone propped against a tree over night or several overnights—something is gonna eat him.
What we do as writers is take ordinary people and places and raise them to the level of word art. Word art is how you weave story action making a fictional character or a place believable for a reader. When you place a story in someone else’s backyard, you need to know the fence lines, the culture of the community, its likes and dislikes and what binds it together.
I still cringe when I recall that little grey-haired lady calling me on how I had a character brew a pot coffee. It was a throwaway line, not word art. It did not have to be in the scene. Recalling my mortification has kept me humble and not quite so careless.
In our new electronic world if we write a throwaway sentence that bumps a reader out of the story or annoys because we got it wrong—it could be on the Web within hours—with an audience of thousands—not a mere two hundred. Embarrassing? Yes. Worse—a review could short sales. Do you have any throwaway lines in your manuscript?
Thank you, Jackie.
Writing for Harlequin Books Jackie Weger published sixteen romance novels. Weger wrote the first African-American romance published by Harlequin, A Strong and Tender Thread, soon to be rereleased in digital format by Liquid Silver Books. Weger lived in St. Augustine, Florida for twelve years renovating a hundred-year-old house in historic Lincolnville, a community established by freed slaves in 1866. In 1995 she put her career on hold to care for elderly and handicapped members of her family. In 1999 she moved to Central America with her companion dog, a Shar-pei named Simon. She and Simon lived in a small Dry Pacific Rainforest village in a thatched-roof bohio while making intrepid excursions into the Darien, the San Blas Islands, and outer islands in the Pacific. Weger also volunteered at a Sister’s of Mercy mission where she taught women in poverty. Returning stateside in 2002, Weger enrolled in university, earning an AA, a BA in History, and in December 2006 graduated summa cum laude from the University of Houston-Victoria. In 2006 Weger attended a semester at Queens College, University of London, spending free time traipsing around the U.K. and Paris. “You don’t need a hotel room in Paris—just live at the Louvre.” Weger returns to Panama often, dividing her time between now established homes on Isla Taboga and the pueblo el Cacao. She has recently revived her writing career producing novels for Liquid Silver Books. Her first e-book, No Perfect Secret was released July 2012. Beyond Fate was released December 2012. In the spirit of Retro romances, Liquid Silver Books under their Liquid Gold imprint contracted with Weger to bring to the e-book market five of Weger’s back list. In addition Weger is self-publishing several others. Eye of the Beholder will go live on Amazon on June 06, 2013. Weger is two-hundred pages into a new novel with a target completion date in early 2014.
Weger lives in Hockley, Texas, a small community Northwest of Houston with a man, a dog and seven feral cats.
You can find out more about Jackie and her writing via…
- Amazon ebook collections
And more about Jackie’s books…
Eye of the Beholder
Twenty-four year old Phoebe Hawley is on a quest to find a place for her homeless family. Phoebe is Alabama tough, country smart and sapling thin. On the road with two siblings, twelve year-old Maydean and five year-old Willie-Boy, Phoebe is out of money, out of gas and out of patience. Now the only things she owns in abundance are Hawley backbone and Hawley pride–neither of which she can trade for food or gas.
A collision with Gage Morgan puts Phoebe’s mission in even worse jeopardy–until Phoebe discovers Gage Morgan owns the perfect place for the Hawley clan.
But Gage Morgan has a bruised ego, a tight fist on his wallet and an iron fist on his heart. Once Phoebe discovers Gage is too wily to succumb to her schemes to pilfer his wallet and claim his home, she has to try something different to win his heart.
But will Hawley backbone and Hawley pride step aside to let her do it?
What does a woman of integrity do when her husband doesn’t come home, her dream job is put on hold, and her mother-in-law becomes unhinged?
Buy a dog? Bury her misery in chocolate? Or consider an affair? Anna Nesmith feels like some mad god is urging her to go to bed with Frank Caburn, enjoy it, and then get on with her life. But that isn’t what the mad god has in mind…
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