Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Louise Spiegler on Editing and Historical Fact-Checking

So I brought in my manuscript of The Jewel and the Key, which had just come back from the copy-editor, and laid it on a table in all its marked-up, dog-eared glory.

One student actually gasped. There were a few heartfelt moans.

Here was a manuscript well on its way to publication, and to my students’ horror, it was completely scribbled over by not one but two editors. There were suggestions about word choice, arguments about grammatical usage, alerts to contradictions in the text and occasionally – oh, balm to my tender writer’s soul! – a terse “ha!” to indicate I’d actually been funny or a brief “nice” to let me know a turn of phrase was effective. And of course, there'd been a lot of more in-depth revision before this.

“You know what?” I told the students. “Writing really is revision. It’s the bulk of what writers do. And it really is “re-envisioning”. Cutting things that don’t work. Adding explanations. Shading and shaping and re-imagining.”

And I think they got it. At any rate, I got a lot of good re-writes out of them afterwards.

Of course, in writing historical fiction there is even more to revision than the many steps I've mentioned here. There’s fact checking, for one thing and that means.... realizing you have made historical errors.

Historical errors! Oh, the pain of writing a scene you are totally happy with, and finding out that one mistake may blow up the whole premise.

Luckily, in The Jewel and the Key things were only that dire once or twice. More common was what I call ‘the bridge experience’. I'd written a scene set in 1917 where my characters are driving a Model T across the University Bridge over the Seattle Ship Canal.

It felt like a great opportunity for me to hook Addie, my contemporary heroine, into the spookiness and mystery of time. For her, this cityscape is achingly familiar, yet irremediably strange, like a ghost of her modern hometown. Or is modern Seattle a ghost of what she's experiencing in the past? I loved this scene. And, as many writers point out, it's the scenes you love that often cause the most problems.

Because that the bridge wasn’t built until 1918 -- a whole year later. And I almost didn't catch it.

So if my poor characters had chosen that route, they would have been bobbing around in the chilly waters linking Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

I cannot tell you how often this happened.

What I learned is that you can’t take anything for granted, and even if you’ve checked already, well – try just one more time.

On the other hand, the fact checking was sometimes the most fun. One day I walked from King Street Station through downtown Seattle to make sure I had my facts straight about landmarks that still survive from the book's time period.

At the Arctic Building, a doorman insisted on showing me the stained-glass ceiling of the card-room where Gold-Rush millionaires met to play poker (high stakes, naturally). He told me about the frieze of the building, which is still decorated with carved walrus heads. Apparently, the carved tusks were once real tusks from real walruses! They were replaced with fake tusks in the 1920s because the real once kept coming loose and plummeting to the sidewalk below, much to the consternation of passers-by. Fortunately, no one was impaled.

So that was fun. But sometimes, getting in touch with the places that inspire your story can be positively magical: a confirmation of the mystery and power of the past.

Since my story pivots around a grand old theater in Seattle, I managed to snag a backstage tour of the Moore Theater, in downtown Seattle and gathered more information than I could have possibly imagined.

tayed behind after the tour was over and struck up a conversation with one of the custodians. She was a gentle woman of about thirty, who told me that she worked the late-night shift after the shows.

I asked her how she liked working nights.

“It’s peaceful,” she told me.

"Not lonely?"

She shook her head. “No. Because even when I'm here by myself, I know I'm not alone.”

I stared and asked her what she meant. With a chill running up my back, assuredly.

“I know it sounds crazy, but late at night, I feel the presence of those who were here before."

"You mean -- who? Ghosts?"

"I don't know what you'd call them. Presences. The actors. The tech people. The people who came to see the show.” She smiled. “And the people like me who cleaned up afterwards.”

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