Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Half a Dog Won't Hunt: Writing in a 50% World

Two years ago, I had bilateral knee-replacement surgery. The left knee is nearly perfect. It works fine. The right? That's another story. It's nearly as bad as it was before surgery. I got 50% of what I expected.

Back when temps were over the century mark, my air-conditioning went out. Zilch. Nada. The fan wasn't even blowing warm air. I called the office of the apartment complex where I live, and within a half hour, maintenance had yanked the old unit and wrestled a different one into place. (Notice I didn't say a "new" one.) The fan worked on that one, but it didn't cool. I got 50% of what I expected. After another call to the office, I actually got a new one that cools. Huzzah! 100% at last!

Years ago, I worked in advertising for Sears, Roebuck, and Co. (Yes, it went by its full name before they truncated it, hacking off more than 50%.) I loved my work. I laid out ads, designed and built floor and window displays, and wrote ad copy. When floor managers would go to lunch, guess who got to cover for them. Yep. Me! I loved that, too, because if it was a slow day, I hauled out the hefty books from which the department managers ordered their stock, and I studied, so I knew why this sofa's construction was better than that lower priced one, how muslin differed from percale, how to determine which tire tread would best suite a customer's needs, and how to tie a four-in-hand knot. I also loved those times when business was bustling. The problem-solving element of sales I found exhilarating.

Times have changed. In this 50% world, the part that has been lopped off is service. Seldom can sales clerks tell customers where to find items, especially if it's something outside their department. (In days of old, we had to memorize department names and numbers before we were let loose to help customers.)

Our writers' craft requires 100%. We can't get by with a 50% approach to research, for example. I'm not sure how writers of yore avoided anachronisms, since I'm constantly chasing down internet rabbit trails to verify some fact such as when certain words entered the common lexicon. My work in progress is set in 1935, so Tillie, my ten-year-old protagonist, can't use a bobby pin to hold her hair back, nor can she say to her best friend, "Hey, toots, wha'cha reading?" Neither term was recorded as in use prior to 1936.

As I wrote novel #2, partially set in 1860, I had to toss away a beautiful handgun. I loved that weapon. As guns go, it looked good. It was a revolver that had some shotgun features, too--a gun the southern-Indiana deputy in the story would cherish. Problem was, I learned the following:
  1. it wasn't invented until mid-Civil War; 
  2.  it was a Southern weapon
  3. only a few hundred were manufactured
  4. for the most part, it was a favorite of Confederate officers
A pre-Civil War sheriff's deputy wouldn't have had one. What if I had done only 50% of the research necessary to discover the truth?

Consider the many genres of fiction--Regency romance, Amish, bonnet, biblical, historical, thriller. The list is endless. Writers who excel in their genre possess an amazing abundance of esoteric knowledge about that genre. Recently I asked an Amish friend if she reads Amish fiction. "Yes," she said, "but only by the writers who get it right." To get it right, Vanessa Chapman, Wanda Brunstetter, Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall, Beth Wiseman, Amy Clipston, etc., can't settle for less than 100%. Even if they've lived among Plain communities, they constantly check with contacts for accuracy's sake.

The same dogged determination that drives us to get the facts right should propel us through the other aspects of our writing, as we thoroughly get to know our characters (I like to interview mine, as I've written about before), our setting (sometimes I draw up house plans or layouts of a town or farm to use as reference), and the plot.

The world around us may settle for "50% off," but we dare not. Neither publishers nor readers will tolerate it.

"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord. . . " ~Colossians 3:23

Write on!
Because of Christ,


  1. Sharon,

    Excellent blog. Thank you for sharing.

    One author I read (and interviewed for this blog) had some research lapses. In the first book of her series, she mentioned a board of an organization which included Senators of various states including Massachusetts, California, and New England. In her third book, she had a killer who mentally rewrote and sung to himself songs by Billy Idol, the third of which he put in a note, called "Don't You (Forget About Me)." Problem: That song was done by Simple Minds. In the writer's defense (maybe I should have been a defense attorney): she lives in Australia and her publisher is a small outfit that focuses on a specific issue which this novelist dealt with (she's that publisher's only novelist).

    And your description of working at Sears reminded me of my first job at a restaurant. My first job was to memorize the menu and the prices for each item. This place had an old fashioned key cash register, not one where you push the item.

    Have a blessed day.


  2. Jeff~

    Ah, the great state of New England! Such a lovely place. [smiling] Recently I heard someone refer to the country of Africa.

    Regarding jobs, one summer, I worked at a little hamburger joint (not a chain), and, like you, we had to memorize the menu and prices, so when a customer asked a question, we could actually answer. An amazing concept!

    Write on!
    Because of Christ,

  3. I don't read John Gresham because of his 50% approach in the first (and only) thriller I read. He made a couple of legal errors that any second year law student would recognize. Gresham is a lawyer, and he have could done it correctly without harming his plot, so my conclusion was that he's lazy. Most people wouldn't notice, of course, but even one reader lost is one too many.