It’s Never Too Late. . .

In which I talk about learning, errors, the importance of questions, the value of knowledge, and an embarrassing story that makes me laugh to this day.

I’ve been at the writing gig for many years now and I’ve found two constants in this endeavor: one is that everything changes–editors change, houses change, styles change, public tastes change; and two there is always something new to learn, whether it’s research, vocabulary, genre, or grammar. People often speak about the changes, but I get excited about the learning. Call it the nerd in me, but I love to learn a new word or some minute grammar point. And don’t get me started on research. For my last manuscript, I had to visit a brewery, take a tour and taste some beer. It’s hard work.

Today, my competence in English is solid. Of course I make errors, but they’re more likely to be typos or skipping words because my thoughts are faster than my fingers, or just not seeing mistakes on the page because I’ve stared at the screen for too long than actual lack of knowledge. But it wasn’t always the case.

In the past couple of days, I’ve seen several mentions of the fight over one space or two after a period. It reminded me of my very first term paper. US History (I still remember the title: The German-American Bund: the Fritz Kuhn Years: 1937-1939).  I have never taking any typing classes (thus the reason for so many typos when I write), and the requirement was ten typed pages, double spaced. It was my first typed paper. I had to borrow the typewriter (in return I bought a new cartridge for the owner–remember those?), get some unlined paper (I bought onion skin–yuck), and hunt and peck my way to ten pages. But I did it. And being the kind of student I was, I was the first person in the school to turn it in. Done. Relief.

A few hours later, my roommate (I went to boarding school, remember?) said that the teacher had held it up to show how not to do a paper, that it wasn’t doubled spaced. Well, I went straight to the teacher and told him he was wrong. I had double spaced. He said it didn’t look like it, but I told him again he was wrong because I had double spaced.  And indeed I had–type a word, space, space, type another word, space, space, and so on for ten pages. I thought it an odd requirement at the time, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized where I had made my error. I think my paper was actually 1.5 spaced as regards the line spacing.Photo on 2012-06-21 at 16.37 #5

Ask questions, people. Questions are good things. (By the way I received an A- for the paper. Thanks,Mr. Waples.)

–Gabi

Books I’m reading now:

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen by JK Rowling

Research

I am working on a novel that features a heroine who is a master brewer. Her brewery and her job plays a big role not only in the plot but also in setting, and her characterization. Which means research. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I like it much better than wine. So I have done some basic research so I can get the first draft done. Then I shall have to delve into the world of brewing deeper.

Research can be tricky that way. You need to know enough about the subject so that you don’t get nasty letters about the errors you made, but you also have to avoid the temptation to show off to the reader and share every picayune detail that you learned. I have yet to write a book where I haven’t had to do some sort of research. Even when I’ve set a novel in a familiar place, like San Diego, I still pore over maps (and Google Earth–what a great writers’ tool that is) to make sure I get details right. And still sometimes you have to fudge things. In one of my books my hero and heroine waltz, but the year is 1798, and while all sorts of research exists about the waltz in the Regency in England, I couldn’t find anything about it in the New World. So I fudged it. I know it came around mid-century in Austria and Germany, and I know that many, many Germans immigrated to the US (I believe it was in the 1830’s what a member of the House put forth a bill to have German declared as our national language. It failed.), so I fudged it. Bottom line I am writing fiction, and it wasn’t a crucial element to the story.

Unlike some novels I’ve read where wrong details rip me from the story completely. Like the novel I read that was set in Venice, and the hero and heroine drove to a masquerade in a coach and four. In fact they traveled around the city that night (in the story) and only on the fourth excursion did they ever climb into a boat. Excuse me? In Venice? No horses in Venice, except the bronze ones that grace St. Mark’s Plaza. And if you’re setting book in Venice, why are you not using boats to get around anyway. Or the novel that was set in contemporary New Mexico and the hero was anticipating a typical New Mexican meal of red and green chile. Uh, no. Chile is a condiment; it goes on top of everything, not eaten as a meal by itself. Or the novel where the German hero calls the heroine “messy” as a play on the German word “Messe” which means fair…but not fair as in the adjective, but fair as in a convention or conference, like a book fair. Pulled me completely from the story. I literally stopped reading and shouted, “Oh my God. You’re so wrong.” False cognates exist in all languages so you can’t make one of your running jokes based on something that makes no sense. When I first met my husband, I kept asking him to index when he drove. I finally realized I had taken the false cognate for signal in Hungarian and because it sounded English, used it in my everyday language. And we’ve all heard a story about telling someone you are “embarazada” in Spanish.

Yes, historical novels require more research, but as I said above, I have written a single novel without some research. Even the paranormal ones. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to my current WIP, and decide which of the local breweries to visit to get my details correct. Hmm, I may have to visit more than one.

–Gabi

Books I’m reading now:
A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare