Thursday, February 19, 2015

Louise Spiegler on Editing and Historical Fact-Checking

One of my favorite moments in the long process of getting The Jewel and the Key published occurred in my English Composition class at Cascadia Community College.

It was one of my favorite groups of students ever. There were Iraq War vets, an aspiring detective, a boy who worked in an exotic-animal clinic, a bar-tender and a poet and lots of other really interesting students from their late teens to their forties. And everyone was a hard-worker. You can see why I loved them.

 As in all my composition classes, there were opportunities for students to revise their writing (and not incidentally, garner a higher grade). However, for many students, revision is a tough sell. Their understanding of revision is usually proof-reading -- a valuable and under-used skill in itself. But it’s not all there is to revision, as my experience as a writer amply illustrated.

So, to demonstrate that revising is more than just replacing commas, I showed them my manuscript of The Jewel and the Key, which had just come back from the copy-editors in all its marked-up, underlined, question-marked, dog-eared glory.

Some students actually gasped, and I think there may have been a few heartfelt moans.

Here was a manuscript well on its way to publication, and to their 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.

“You know what?” I told the students. “Writing really is revision. It’s really the bulk of what we do as writers. Cutting scenes that don’t work. Developing character more. Adding explanations. Checking facts. Shading and shaping and re-imagining. That’s all part of it.” And I think they got it. At any rate, they were a terrific class and I got a lot of good re-writes out of them.

But, of course, in writing a historical novel, there’s even more to revision than that. There’s historical fact checking, which means that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you find historical errors.

Historical errors! Oh, the pain of writing a scene you are totally happy with, and finding a mistake that may blow up the whole premise. Luckily, in The Jewel and the Key things were not usually that dire. More common was what I call ‘the bridge experience’. In one scene, my characters in 1917 are driving across the University Bridge over the Seattle ship canal in a Ford Model T. It felt like a great opportunity to hook my heroine, Addie, into the spookiness and mystery of time, because she is from the 21st century and the cityscape is both achingly familiar and irremediably strange, like a ghost of her familiar modern hometown.

Except that the bridge wasn't built until 1918. So my poor characters would have actually been bobbing around in the chilly waters of the Ship Canal.

I cannot tell you how often this happened.

What I learned is that even if you've checked a hundred times, well – try just one more.

On the other hand, the fact checking could also be the most fun part. At the Arctic Building, a doorman insisted on showing me the ornate stained glass ceiling of the poker-room where Yukon Gold Rush millionaires used to play for high stakes. The walrus heads on the frieze of the building are Seattle landmarks and I’d included them in the novel. What I learned from the doorman was that the tusks were originally actual tusks from actual walruses!

Fake ones were installed in the 1920's because the real tusks kept getting loose and plummeting to the sidewalk below, much to the consternation of passers-by.

Luckily, no one was impaled.

So that was fun. But sometimes the historical footwork can go beyond fun and feel positively magical.

For example, when I took a backstage tour of the Moore Theater, one of the grand old theaters in Seattle, I gathered more information than I could have possibly imagined for The Jewel, the theater I invented for my novel.

But I found something more: a confirmation of my sense of the mystery and power of the past.

I stayed behind after the tour and struck up a conversation with one of the custodians. She was a soft-spoken woman of about thirty, who worked night shift after the shows.

“Do you like working nights?” I asked.

“It’s peaceful.” Then she paused and thought a minute before continuing, “And in a place like this, I can always feel the presence of those who went before.”

I felt a shock of recognition.

It was her own experience she was talking about. But when she explained, I felt how close it was to what I’d imagined and written about – the feeling that was so strong in certain places for me and for other people who connect to the past.

“It’s as though they’re still there somehow. The actors. The tech people. The people who
 came to see the show.” She smiled. “And the people like me who cleaned up afterwards.”

The Jewel and the Key: Amazon 
The Amethyst Road: Amazon Barnes and Noble 


  1. Hope your students learned revision is something all writers must do. I enjoy historical research but wonder about changing a few dates and details to suit your plot.

  2. That's a good point, Mary Louise. I know I've seen historical novels for adults where the author mentions at the end that they shifted details of it, such as having something available a few years before or after it really was. Are there higher standards for children's books? I suspect Louise could've gotten away with having the bridge in an earlier year. It's hard to believe any young readers would have noticed, or cared. However, it's possible a teacher or reviewer who was also a local history fanatic would, and it would bring into question other historical details. But an authors note identifying creative liberties would clear that up, and possibly give teachers material to use in a classroom discussion on fact versus fiction.