Saturday, October 12, 2019

How Careful Research Helps Authors Avoid Smelly Writing Mistakes

Research. If you write historical fiction, it’s unavoidable. In fact, if you write any type of fiction, you ought to be doing some kind of research. Fortunately, I love to research while I write because I enjoy learning about the time period my characters hail from. In the rush to create a completed novel, however, there’s always the danger that I’ll make “smelly” little mistakes. I almost made a particularly smelly one today.

I’m always on the lookout for anachronisms—those pesky little details that don’t belong to a specific time period. Etymological mistakes are frequent culprits. For example, in an early version of my current manuscript, my 1890s protagonist observed that she was in a vulnerable situation which made her, in essence, a “sitting duck.” The problem? The idiom “sitting duck” wasn’t coined until World War II. It wouldn’t occur to a young woman from the Victorian era to use such a phrase to describe the situation she’s in. In fact if a person from the future told her she was a “sitting duck,” she would have no idea what he meant.

Another smelly mistake almost happened when a particular scent became an important part of my plot. Hopefully, most readers would never spot the error, but the perfectionist within me cringed when a little extra research showed me where I went wrong.

In an early chapter, I needed my protagonist to smell like a character she’d been tasked with impersonating. It was easy enough to find a perfume that was in vogue in the 1890s (in fact, the one I chose remained popular enough that the company still produces and sells it today), but I made a major mistake in how I described its fragrance.

It turns out that perfumes have three “notes,” or fragrance combinations. These are a) the top note, b) the heart (or middle) note, and c) the base note. If you’ve ever purchased a perfume or cologne only to start wearing it and find out it doesn’t smell so good after all, the culprit might be found in the notes. At the first whiff, you may have detected cinnamon, orange blossom, orchid, or a combination. This top note might last for a good twenty or more minutes. Eventually, however, it will break down to the heart note. Now you’re smelling leather, rose, or whatever other fragrance the perfume has become, but when you arrive at work an hour later, something awful happens. Your coworkers detect the pungent aroma of moldy grass clippings and eau de sour milk every time you walk past them. You can’t even stand to smell yourself! How did you ever think this perfume smelled good on you?

Part of the problem is the base note. Part of it is your particular body chemistry. Of course, none of this information will make it into the final draft of my novel because if it does I’ll have made yet another mistake. (Anyone ever read the cetology chapter in Moby Dick?) It will, however, inform my decisions about how I describe the perfume’s aroma in key scenes that come later in the story.

Research! It makes novels more authentic and believable, and it can even lead to exciting new plot ideas! The key to making it your ally is to get your facts from legitimate sources and then pursue the new questions the “answers” evoke to see where they take you.

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