Remember the good ol' days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?
Okay, maybe those days weren't so good. But at least back then, the dentist was probably too busy to be a literary critic, too. My dentist, however, is another matter.
Last year, while giving my molars the once over, the dear old DMD told me about a book he'd been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of "a red John Deere tractor" sitting in a field. He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, "everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor."
Only a West Coast dentist can make a New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.
Authors — and our editors — are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that "real" detail wrong, you have blown it big time.
As it happens, one of my New York editors is originally from Virginia, where much of my novel is set. She suggested that the bird's nest I'd tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that's the state tree of Virginia — it would sound more specific, less generically Southern.
As it also happens, I'm an obsessed lunatic. I'd already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page one of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.
As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I'd made a reference to a straight razor.
You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any 19th-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and crossed it out.
Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone's dad used, before disposables came along). Until then, they were just razors.
In writing a novel based on a real person, I focused on crafting a compelling story. Which means sometimes I intentionally deviated from what I knew to be true. I've also unearthed new facts about Mary Bowser since drafting the novel (I told you I'm an obsessed lunatic — of course I’m still researching), which means those details aren't in the book. Sometimes when I was writing, I made something up that I later learned was true, or close to the truth, which gives me goosebumps.
Still, I'm sure there are things I got wrong without realizing, in those devilish details. So if you happen upon a big ol' red John Deere in the field of my fiction, please forgive me. And don't tell my dentist.
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Lois Leveen is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and in literary journals and anthologies. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser