Monday, May 30, 2011

Dashiell Hammett, copy editor's friend, Part II

Dashiell Hammett marked his 117th birthday this week by alerting me to what may be a mistake in a new crime novel. In this new book, muzzle flash in a suddenly dark room lets one character pick out another's facial features.

Eighty-one years earlier, Hammett had written the following in "Suggestions to Detective Story Writers":
"It is impossible to see anything by the flash of an ordinary gun, though it is easy to imagine you have seen things."
Discuss.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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25 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

That's an easy mistake to make in the heat of composing. I shall be careful in the future. I wonder if lightning acts the same way. I suppose it depends on how blinding it is. Distant lightning would probably make things more clearly visible in a room.

Alas, a writer's job is hard. How many teeny details like that do you suppose happen during the writing of a 90,000 word novel?

I rely on readers to catch the really bad mistakes of this sort.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's an easy mistake to make in the heat of composing — and an easy one to check in the cool of editing.

One reason I did not name the book is that the mistake is a small one (though Hammett might have disagreed). But how many small mistakes does it take to distract a reader's attention from the story? If I were a novelist, I'd want everything possible done to make sure my book never answered that question.

Another reason is that for all I know, modern guns may provide illumination that predecessors did not.

A third, of course, is that Hammett was wrong. But he does provide salutary reminders that every detail must be checked.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lightning does illuminate dark scenes sufficiently for an observer to pick out details. I have experienced this. I have no such experience of guns, which is why I have to rely on Hammett.

Gun matters are easy to check. I have seen lists of gun mistakes -- things that guns do on screen and on the page that they could or would not do for real.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

One advantage US writers have over UK ones is that its pretty easy to go down the range and fire some guns. UK based writers make a lot of mistakes about firearms because they've only seen them in the movies. For the US based writer there's no excuse at all.

I remember one novel I read where someone wrote about the kick of the .22 rifle against his shoulder which I thought was pretty funny.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, the Crime Scraps blog wrote about a crime novel that gave the weight of a handgun as 3 kilos.

But a range would not have helped in this case unless it was plunged into darkness before the shot.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I read another novel from the 80's that said "the revolver had six slugs in the cylinder and there was one in the chamber" which is a pretty interesting gun.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, there are seven-shot revolvers, but from what I know (and that's little), a revolver has a separate chamber for each bullet, each chamber being brought in line with the barrel for firing.

That same "Suggestions for Detective Story Writers" has an entry about revolvers, if I recall correctly. It's worth reading, if only because Hammett's brilliant example will conclusively refute anyone idiotic enough to claim that precision and research somehow impinge on creativity. (Don't laugh. Upon having a mistake pointed out to her, a reporter once told me I was being "too literal.")

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I once had a go at estimating how many details there were in my first book. Since I write historical mysteries set in ancient Greece there are a lot more things to get right than for a contemporary novel. I think it was about 300! Of those, about 100 were major points, in the sense that they were germane to the plot.

It's impossible that I could have got everything right. I've yet to be called out on anything though.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I have just read an interesting piece by an author on the hazards of writing historical novels. I plan a post on it in the next day or two.

I don't envy any author of historical fiction. All I can suggest is that you do your research, then make a large offering at Delphi before sending your books off to the publisher.

You've obviously acquired a fair bit of knowledge in your field. Do you have stable of classicists who vet your books?

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter,

Yes, there is a certain amount of prayer to the Olympian Gods involved.

For the first book, a professional archaeologist & classicist who specializes in 5th century Greece very kindly read through the entire ms to check me. That was Prof. Margaret Miller, who needless to say got a big thank you in the acknowledgements.

I came up clean (to my surprise) except for the design of one large statue, and clothing details, which is why the books are now so meticulous about what people are wearing! She also helped me out with the floor plans of Persian palaces and gardens in the second book. I've had guru-level assistance on early Zoroastrian religious rites and early coinage (a fraught subject).

I've become a lot more confident since I wrote Pericles Commission. Not only do you build up a store of re-usable knowledge, but you get a good feel for what's trustworthy and what isn't.

I see this as part of The Game. In a contemporary mystery there's a fun contest between author and reader to solve the puzzle (I'm a huge believer in fair play). With historicals, The Game extends to getting the details right, and if a reader catches me out, well, that's part of the fun.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I was going to suggest that you consult an augur just to see if you would catch the error.

Is your readership well schooled in classics and history? Do they join you in The Game, in other words?

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

The vast majority just want to read a fun mystery. They're trusting me to get the details right. A lot of people have remarked they enjoyed exploring the world as much as they did reading the mystery. To that extent historicals have something in common with the world building you find in fantasy, particularly in the case of ancient settings.

I know for sure a small number of readers are total experts. I've had one very erudite conversation on the precise building date of the Long Walls that ran from Athens to Piraeus. This reader felt I'd placed them too early. Our opinions differed by 4 years, on something that happened 2,471 years ago! I always learn something from those queries, but it's remarkable how much interpretation plays a part in what appear to be historical facts.

My experience is the professionals are very, very supportive.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I drew a similar parallel between historicals and fantasy after hearing David Liss on a panel at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. Both subgenres call on the author to build worlds.

I'm not surprised to learn that professionals are supportive; they know how big a job you face. It's probably semi-knowledgeable amateurs like me who are the biggest pains.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Semi-knowledgeable is fine with me.

I'm gratified no one has written to say I forgot to put in the Parthenon. (It hasn't been built yet...there'll be a later mystery set during its construction.) I was sure someone would, but it seems general knowledge levels are actually very high.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I maintain that a little bit of knowledge can be more dangerous than none.

A Parthenon mystery might bring you complaints from readers wondering what all those damned house painters are doing ruining that gorgeous white marble.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

This was a six shot revolver but the author thought she could get a round down the barrel as well.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have to admit that, never having been around guns, that's not the kind of thing I'd have bothered to look up if I had not learned that writers frequently got the details wrong. And there's an argument for publishers to pay experienced line editors.

May 30, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Adrian, never doubt the ingenuity of women when it comes to firearms.

Especially if they're pointing one at you.

May 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Peter, are you saying Hammett got it wrong? That you can see details during a muzzle flash? :) Sneaky devil! But the example he cited is not a situation that should disqualify a novel.

As for me, I think guys get entirely too hung up on gun technology. All those lengthy descriptions of fire arms, probably taken straight from the manufacturer's handbook, bore me silly.

For historical novels, the research comes first, during, and after. But beware: only about 5 % of your accumulated notes should actually make it into the book. That is from the material that actually applies to the setting and plot. There is usually twice as much that ultimately wasn't useful.
Readers sometimes think they know this sort of thing better than the author. They are usually wrong, though I did accept the criticism from one reader who objected to my giving the arch villain the same name as one of the most saintly monks in Japanese Buddhism. (This could have been explained away by the fact that the villain was no monk and had taken the name on purpose as part of his attempt to hide his identity.)

May 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, a casual remark about women and guns got me in some trouble at Bouchercon last year.

May 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I suspect Hammett got it right, since his assertion is part of a list of things that detective-story writers of his time got wrong. Since I've never fired a gun in a dark room, I have to allow for the possibility, however remote, that he was wrong. In any case, he very cleverly allows for the possibility that one can imagine seeing things by a muzzle flash.

One ought not to copy one' technical research on guns unaltered into a piece of fiction. But a line editor ought to suspect something is amiss when an author has a light handgun weighing 3 kilograms (rather than 20 grams). I've just read a novel that describes guns in some detail, but this worked fine. The noel was set in the American West in the early and middle years of the last century.

As for just 5 percent of the research finding a place in a novel, that makes sense. I would imagine the ideal is to so steep yourself in the period that you start feeling at home in it, and therefore are less likely to commit anachronism.

May 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Yeah, I would't piss off women who know how to shoot, Peter.

Luckily for the world, that would not be me.

May 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The woman who was the subject of my remark did not just know how to shoot, but she was an expert. Good thing she's a fictional character.

May 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

At the present time, I have no need to know anything about guns. But when I work on the 18th c., this becomes important.

Hammett's "flash" does sound as if it played a significant role: i.e. identifying the killer. That would be an "ouch".

I tend to be very forgiving as a reader. (Unless there are gross grammar errors).

May 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The flash belonged to another author, not Hammett, and it serves more as atmosphere than as a turning point in the plot. That is, it does not reveal a killer's identity to the police or anything like that.

I may be less forgiving a reader than you are, partly by inclination and partly by profession. A word used anachronistically will take me right out of a story. Errors of other kinds that might have been caught by a bit more line editing are evidence of my profession's being coaxed into irrelevance. It's hard for me to feel sympathy toward such errors.

May 31, 2011  

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