Posted by: kimberlysullivan | October 21, 2016

Does sloppy author research drive you crazy?

2016_september_researchI recently picked up a novel by an author who seems to set some of her stories in Italy. This one was set in Rome – my city. It had a gorgeous cover, and I’d never read any of her work before, so I picked it up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy anything about the book: the plot, the characters, and the writing style were all unappealing to me, but what drove me completely crazy was the haphazard ‘research’ that went into this book.

And, since it was published by a major publishing house, it begged the question: Why didn’t any of the editors catch the sheer quantity of errors?

After all, the novel was set in Rome, not Pyongyang. A few tourists do actually pass through here and have some idea of what the city is like: absolutely none proofed this book?

Before I sound unreasonable, all authors make some mistakes. I read an excellent book by an Irish author where her American characters living in America sounded suspiciously Irish. Fancy a beer, anyone? I read a book where a Swiss character claims that one of the official languages spoken in one area of Switzerland is English. I read an Italian author with a story partially set in New York who seemed to have some orientation problems in the Big Apple. One story set in Spain had a character often calling the US and mixing up time zones (having the US east coast six hours ahead of Central European Time, rather than behind). In these cases, the stories were strong enough that I could ignore these little slips, and otherwise the research seemed pretty solid.

But when you fill a book with so-called descriptions of a real place, I think you should make some effort to ensure they somewhat hit the mark.

This novel filled Rome with yellow taxi cabs, bike messengers, and hot pretzel vendors on each corner. Italian women sold bunches of daisies on the Spanish steps. None of those things exist in Rome. Italians went around inexplicably addressing women as ‘signorita‘ (apparently a mix of the Spanish señorita and the Italian signorina).

The main character goes to one part of the city and admires views of monuments that are in an entirely other section of the city. One character decided to have an early morning walk up and down the steps outside the Colosseum (none exist). A Roman restaurant boasts window views of gardens in different sections of the city – the New York equivalent might be a restaurant with spectacular views both over Central Park and Prospect Park. Pretty cool, huh?

Characters are constantly eating baguettes in restaurants (in almost two decades in Rome I’m not sure I’ve even seen baguettes in Roman restaurants) and dipping them in bowls of olive oil à la Olive Garden. The food is all wrong, the wine is all wrong.

Okay, even if the writing had been stronger, this probably still would have annoyed me.

What do you think, readers (and writers)? Do these slips bother you if they become overwhelming? Or are you able to overlook them? Have you read stories where culture and setting are completely off, but you still love the story?


Responses

  1. When I know a place I have to say it does bother me. I am drawn to books set in places I know well for the familiarity but then do find myself looking at the little details. If they aren’t right I do get frustrated. It’s worse if I know the author is local to the area.

    • Haha. Yes, I suppose we readers are allowed our quirks. As a reader and writer, I understand there can be small errors. But when it’s one after another, I find myself quickly losing patience. That said, when an author gets it ‘right’ I love to get lost in the story and the setting.

  2. Yes, yes, yes. If it’s too many mistakes like this, it’s extraordinarily annoying and even more disappointing. However, it seems really easy to slip it all past agents and editors if they have no idea. I don’t think this kind of fact-checking occurs much anymore with fiction publishing (sadly, I think it is decreasing in non-fiction, too). Probably the most egregious error you mention (for this language teacher) is the made up Italian signorita. I want to say, “Come now, author, that should have been the easiest thing to look up” of all the errors you mentioned.

    It sounds like the author’s research solely consisted of what they’ve seen in movies. Extremely disappointing.

    • Yes, Janet. For language lovers (like us), it’s particularly frustrating.As someone who has learned lots of languages, I’m constantly learning and looking things up. If you choose to use a language that’s not yours in your book, look up the words at least! But I think you hit the nail on the head. It makes me suspect that ‘editorial services’ provided by publishing houses are minimal if you’re not a major author. I can’t believe these are items even an editorial intern couldn’t have picked up had she bothered to read the manuscript.

  3. […] with details vs story and continued later with realistic vs authentic details. This past week, Kimberly Sullivan asked if sloppy research – ie, getting the details wrong – in a story drives you crazy. How much is too much when […]

  4. Ah yes, those little details count and yes I’ve read some terrible mistakes in books about/set-in Ireland. My personal favourite is when a passenger is met at baggage claim in a European airport (something which is possible in some American airports but is totally against security in European airports). Unfortunately it can be tricky to research some of these things without a friend in the right country and sadly most publishers can’t afford to have editors to check such details (most editing is done by freelances these days) – the onus is on the authors to get it right the first time – yet another job they do for free.

    • Hi Grace! Too true, remember the good old days when all major US airports allowed for this type of baggage claim pick-up/meet-up points. Security concerns means this is rare even for us now. But agree with you – it’s all up to authors now.


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