I interviewed Giller Prize winning author, Will Ferguson, a week or two ago for a new TV show I’ll be hosting on Rogers TV which is going to be called (surprise!) “Getting Published.”
One of the more interesting discussions we had concerned the fact that he set the book in Nigeria, a country he’s never visited. (As an aside, Alan Bradley’s Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was set in a small British village, although Alan, at the time, had never been to the UK either.)
I asked Will if he fretted about people finding mistakes about Nigeria in his work, or Nigerians perhaps reading his book and not liking it. It’s certainly something I’ve worried about, with the Inspector Ramirez series set in Cuba. Now, I’ve been to Havana — I was there in 2006 during the two week time frame that I’ve set the series in –but that hardly makes me an expert in all things Cuban.
Will said that of course it concerned him, but on the other hand, all he could do was his best. We both agreed that you have to do a pile of research once you move outside your own country but even within it, it’s easy to get things wrong. For example, Will told me how he’d interviewed a Calgary policeman and asked him what kind of car would most likely be involved in the motor vehicle accident that starts off his winning novel, 419.
“A Pontiac Oldsmobile,” said the policeman, and Will relied on that in the book.
But there’s no such thing as a Pontiac Oldsmobile, he discovered, when a number of readers pointed out the error. It would be like saying something was a “Toyota Honda.” Only later, checking his notes, did Will realize the cop had said “Pontiac [comma] Oldsmobile.”
Now Nigeria is a country that is so dangerous as to be virtually inaccessible to outsiders. Will had to rely on the Internet and other sources for his facts, as did I, when I decided to set my series in a country that not only doesn’t share information about its police force but makes it illegal to even photograph them. And like Will, where I couldn’t find the information I needed, I had to invent it.
Lots of authors get stuff wrong. After all, we can’t be experts in everything we touch in our writing. I recall being at Harrogate at the Crime Writers Festival in 2009. A panel of doctors and pathologists went through five or six bestselling novels and pointed out in every single case where the author’s medical facts were wrong.
I actually think it’s amazing how we can write eighty or a hundred thousand words that require us to cover a multitude of disciplines and only make a few errors. But when we do, boy, readers notice.
I remember reading one of Ian Rankin’s books when he wrote in the name of Jack Harvey. It’s about an American hired killer, and written from his point-of-view. Rankin made the mistake of having his character refer to a flashlight as a “torch.” It reminded me right away that the character was written by a UK author, not an American one. I’ve already had a reader point out to me that the date I had in The Poisoned Pawn for when ration books get issued was incorrect (it will be corrected in the next edition).
What Will and I both laughed about after the interview was about how you can get readers to pretty much suspend disbelief about almost anything. You can have them believe in ghosts, and space travel, and even Martians, if sci-fi is your genre. You can get them to buy into imaginary characters and love them like old friends.
But get a fact wrong and they sure let you know in a hurry!