History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 November 2011


Not so very long ago, my editor's assistant called with a question from the copyeditor. In The Orchid Affair, my modern character, Eloise, makes a joke to her boyfriend about "Sit, Boo Boo, sit! Good dog." Did I mean "sit, Ubu, sit"? Or was it something else entirely?

Well, it was and it wasn't. It was really a reference to that old tv bit, "Sit, Ubu, sit" (does anyone else remember this?), but Eloise, being Eloise, had misheard it and thought it was Boo Boo, because that's the sort of thing Eloise does. It's a good thing she has lots of reference works in her professional career as a historian, because in daily life, she's constantly mis-hearing, mis-quoting, and mis-remembering. Not like I'm drawing this from personal experience or anything.

This little interchange did get me thinking, though. Is there a higher standard of accuracy for fiction? In our false world, must our facts be more true?

In real life, people get things wrong all the time-- or, at least, I do. As my Evidence prof in law school loved to point out, human perception is notoriously faulty. He had a favorite example he liked to call the Blue Bus Problem: in a community where the large number of buses are blue and a minority are yellow, if someone is hit by a bus, witnesses will likely claim the bus was blue, because they'll have expected it to be so, even if it wasn't. (Of course, I might be misremembering the Blue Bus Problem, which would just go to prove his point.) We see what we expect to see; we hear what we expect to hear. Memory garbles and hindsight corrupts.

My personal bugbear are song lyrics. In the past, I've come up with such classics as "You're my lover, not my Bible" instead of "you're my lover, not my rival" in Culture Club's Karma Chameleon; "You rocked me all night long" in place of "You shook me all night long"; and, one of my true triumphs, replacing OutKast's "Hey Ya!" with "Hang On". Hey, it made more sense that way. "Haaaang on!" Don't you agree? Naturally, I am always convinced that my version is correct-- until told otherwise while singing at the top of my lungs in a car or at a friend's wedding, just for maximum mockery potential.

On the other hand, in the fictional world, our characters are expected to get their details right. When they quote poetry, everything down to the last comma has to be completely correct, unless we tag it as "he misquoted". On one level, this bothers me. If we're trying to recreate the world, inaccuracy and misperception is a large part of that world. It also tells us a lot about characters' characters-- but only if the reader realizes it's deliberate. And there's the rub. If it looks like an authorial accident, you lose the reader's trust, throwing the reader out of the story. In fiction, that's Game Over.

There are ways around it; you can tag the misperception, have another character comment on it, or set up certain characters as unreliable from the word "Go" (Bertie Wooster, for instance, can misquote with impunity, as can my Turnip Fitzhugh). But, for the most part, it becomes safer, when the copyeditor calls, to say, "Okay, change it."

Would you change it? Or would you keep Boo Boo?


Blogger Jessica said...

Fascinating post, Lauren! I'm guilty of finding French errors (because it's what I do for a living, when it comes down to it) when authors use French phrases. I'll keep this in mind.

Honestly, though, I've caught so many real errors (arbitrarily changing the number of siblings a character has, for example) that the things you mention aren't even noticeable to me. Or maybe I just mis-remember quotes to begin with so I think they're right :)

PS I never find errors in YOUR books :)

7:25 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Then you're just not looking hard enough! : )

7:29 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, I think it's hysterical that Eloise thought it was Boo-Boo instead of Ubu. I used to have a friend in high school who thought the Go-Go's song, "Our Lips are Sealed" was "I Love Cecile." People in real life do get things wrong, it's what makes us fascinating and flawed individuals. I agree with your idea of tagging the misperception, having someone say "I do not think it means what you think it means."

7:32 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

You mean it's not "Sit, Boo Boo, sit?" I have always thought it was!

7:52 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

I know! Didn't it sound like that?

8:02 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I say keep it. It's part of her charm.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Kate Maxwell said...

I say keep it, too...with a friend or person nearby sniggering because she got it wrong... Like in 27 Dresses - 'Electric Boobs'! lol

8:22 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I say keep it! I love private jokes like that in books.

Of course, I also love unreliable narrators.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Ammy Belle said...

I have struggled with this for years! I would keep Boo Boo myself. I like mistakes, I think they add charm to the characters.

I myself have always wondered why no one ever mishears things in normal conversations in novels. I do it all the time. Like,

Mother: I am out for a bite.
Me: Whore you fighting with?
Mother: What are you talking about?
Me: Your fight. With a mysterious somebody?
Mother: *stares*
Me: Right, so - what were you saying?

And so forth ...


2:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren! Inevitably the errors I make are when I assume I know something - like thinking I know a Shakespeare quote so I don't look it up (the "Jack shall have Jill" quote from Midsummer is messed up in the hardcover of Beneath a Silent Moon but fixed in the paperback and trade editions). Thankfully usually the copy editor catches those or I double check with copy edits or galleys. Bu then again, Malcolm or Suzanne could easily be misquoting Shakespeare just like I do :-).

12:22 PM  

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