“Dear Author: about that dumb error you made on page …”

I doubt there’s an author alive who hasn’t received a scolding by some alert reader for committing the unpardonable sin of — well, making mistakes in our books. Author Michael Palmer cheerfully talks about his medical thriller where tumbleweeds appeared in Colorado. Gun aficionados love to point out the numerous novels by various authors where revolvers sprout silencers. And then there are the grammar cops who love to remind us that the word “lay” must never, ever be used in place of the word “laid”.

I’ve just received a note from just such an alert reader pointing out that my Boston geography leaves much to be desired. He’s right of course — the errors I made, having to do with a scene that takes place in the Public Gardens, are well nigh impossible for me to explain, because I’ve stood in precisely that spot numerous times, have walked across the intersection mentioned in the book, and normally I can tell east from west. But in VANISH, “Arlington Street” somehow became “Huntington Street,” and I sent Jane Rizzoli walking in completely the wrong direction.

It’s hard to explain how we make mistakes like this. Mistakes that we KNOW are mistakes, if we just paused to give the scene a second look. As an author, I can tell you why they probably happen: because I’m so focused on the excitement of the scene, on getting the action down as quickly as I can, that I don’t always notice when I scribble down errors. (This despite the fact I keep a detailed map of Boston on my desk at all times.) It’s a little bit like mixing up the names of your own kids — of course you know which kid is which, but you sometimes call them the wrong names anyway. And once the wrong information gets typed into the manuscript, you’ll probably read right past it again and again on later drafts, never realizing that it needs to be re-checked.

Of course, there are some errors that can really only be chalked up to plain ignorance, not mere carelessness. And in the matter of automobiles, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and plead complete cluelessness. I don’t know a thing about cars. If my husband asks me what kind of car a friend of ours just bought, I’ll say: “a black car.” In BLOODSTREAM, I wrote about a 1945 Ford that had sat in character’s barn for twenty years. I had no particular reason for choosing that year in the story; it just popped out on the page.

Of course I got taken to task for that one. As a reader (a guy, of course) later pointed out, Ford made no cars that year.

I’m always grateful to readers who alert me to these mistakes early in a hardcover’s release, because I can usually make the corrections in time for the paperback.

And every time I feel like kicking myself for letting an error slip through into a book, I remind myself about those hapless rocket scientists who forgot to convert yards to meters … and lost a multi-million dollar spacecraft on Mars.

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