J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City came out from Penguin in 2013. The sequel, The Seat of Magic debuted July 1. Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com.
Writers have an ingrained fear of being stuck in an elevator at a convention with the person who turns around and says, “On page 213 of Book 4, you contradicted a statement made on page 119 of Book 2. How do you explain that?”
I have to admit, I’ve got a bit of that reader in me. I’m constantly noting continuity errors in movies and TV shows. Don’t get me started on inconsistencies in The Big Bang Theory. And yes, I always noticed them in books. When I hit something that bothered me, I would go back to double check whether I’d simply misread something.
Now, I love the works of Anne McCaffrey. In high school, I voraciously read every word of hers I could find. But there were problems…
The first I noticed was one of the weyrleaders’ names–it changed between two books. In one book it was T’ton; in the next book it was T’ron. And given that this was in the dark ages before the internet, the logic behind that was a complete mystery to me. Had she changed it because the first version meant something terrible in some obscure language? Was it, perhaps, copyrighted? Was there a novella I’d missed where the character’s name was changed?
Or was it a mistake?
As I read on, I stumbled over more of these: dragons whose names changed; people whose names changed; family members switching without explanation. (It turns out that someone is maintaining a Wiki that has an entire page for this.)
Now this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of her books. I considered the inconsistencies a minor irritant. But I do have a strong recollection of thinking, “I’ll never make that kind of mistake. I’ll keep better records.”
(That’s called hubris, if you’re keeping track.)
Because of that resolution, my high school and college writings were accompanied by charts and spreadsheets wherein I kept track of characters’ names and birthdays and eye color and all other manner of silliness. I still keep spreadsheets and lists, decades later.
Jump forward in time. At a writer’s convention in 2012, I taught a session on Historical Research, and one of the things I told the class was, “You are going to make mistakes.”
One of the examples I used to illustrate that came from the writings of the splendid Jo Beverley. She talks candidly in the back of her Regency Romance novel Hazard about a mistake she made in a previous novel–she named a character without thinking. She gave a secondary character the surname de Vere. Most people won’t spot the flaw there, but ardent readers of Regency Romances may recognize that name as the family name of the Earl of Oxford, a line which died out in 1703. A Regency gentleman who claimed that name would be the focus of intense speculation as to whether he was the long-lost heir to the title. It was only after publication that other writers advised Beverley of the problem. Oops!
Beverley handled it with aplomb. In her book Hazard, she creates a tidy backstory that explains how the gentleman’s family name was changed to de Vere. (I won’t mention the family’s original name, as it’s quite amusing when it’s revealed.) And Beverley explained her mistake in her Author’s notes, just so that there’s no confusion about the path her choices took. I used her tale as an example of a good way for an author to handle mistakes they’ve made. I told people that they might as well own up to it.
Now Beverley has published fifteen or so novels in that series alone, (The Company of Rogues series), and has to keep track of every last name and relationship. I’ve never noted an error in any of her books, so she’s one of my idols in that way.
Even so, I never appreciated how hard that perfection was until I embarked on a series of my own, a Historical Fantasy trilogy set in 1902 Portugal. I published the first story in novella format (in 2010) and then rewrote it at novel length, followed by two sequels. I worked hard at getting all the little details correct.
But my childhood hubris came back to bite me in the butt. A couple of months after the first novel came out in 2013, a Portuguese writer commented that I’d misspelled one of the main characters’ names.
The character is named Paolo Silva. Uh….the Portuguese spelling of that name is Paulo Silva. No one caught this mistake in the short version of the story that was published in 2010. None of the people who beta read the novel or edited it noticed the incorrect letter either. Not until 2013, after the novel was already out there.
How did this happen? Well, every time you edit a story, there’s a chance to introduce a mistake. Until I was writing professionally, I never understood how easy it is to miss one of those. But this error wasn’t introduced in edits; it was there from the very beginning. When I first started writing the initial novella, it was set in Venice. Only for the first draft–I knew before I’d finished that draft that I wanted to change the setting. But three principal characters already had names: Oriana, Duilio, and Paolo.
I vaguely recall scanning a list of names and seeing that the Italian names were pretty much the same as the Portuguese, so I left them alone. At that point, I was just writing a little novella. I had no idea that it was going to end up a trilogy.
It wasn’t until three years later that I was hit over the head with my mistake: while the name Oriana turns out to be exactly the same in Portuguese, Duilio should actually have an accent mark (Duílio), and Paolo is just flat out wrong.
At that point, I began wondering whether I should change the character name’s spelling for Book 2. I agonized over that for weeks. Book 2 was already in page proofs by then, when changes become a bit of a hassle. And if I did change the name, I would be creating a discontinuity, all over an issue that the vast majority of my readers never even noticed.
Is this how mistakes cropped up in McCaffrey’s work? Tiny little errors made in the heat of the moment (imagine writer sweating over a typewriter here) that weren’t caught until it was too late to fix them? In that month, fretting over whether to change that name, I gained a new appreciation for McCaffrey’s dilemma. I forgave her the little tiny errors that bugged me when I was a teenager, because I’d learned firsthand how easy it was to end up there.
So I’m taking a page from Jo Beverley’s book and owning up to the mistake. I screwed up. It’s too late to change it. Perhaps one day I will come up with a plausible story of how Paolo Silva ended up with an Italian spelling of his name (although I doubt that will happen.) All I can do is hope that readers will be forgiving of me in turn…if they noticed the mistake at all.