Writing Tips: In Praise of Editors – or – Where to Research?

OK. This is a subject I’ve moaned about before, but still, here goes. It’s more interesting in so many ways than the latest grief to hit the Eurozone.

Research is always a hot button. ‘Can you help me? I’m looking for …’ is one of the most common questions I get – at least once a week.
So let me tell the following little story.
Last week, while going to be interviewed for a documentary, I was interested to see that a fellow twit on twitter had my name. Out of pure interest, I had to ‘friend’ him and now, no doubt, Mike Jecks up north is following my tweets, as I follow his.
And then I was interested to find that, according to that arbiter of all that is accurate, Wikipedia, apparently I have a distant relation up in the north called ‘Alan’, who also has a son called ‘Michael’.
I guess there is a relationship between these two stories. But, and it’s a biggie for me, it just highlights how dangerous a tool (or weapon) Wikipedia is for a researcher.
You see, I have a brother – which since I’m a pedant, I will call a ‘close’ relative – called Alan. He is a very pleasant guy, who does not, quite categorically, live in the north of England. I know this pretty much for certain, because phone calls to him used to cost a lot, since they all needed the prefix 64 – for New Zealand.
Now, he could have fibbed to me, and been living high on the hog in Manchester, but I doubt it. His business (Alan Jecks Insurance Brokers, or AJIB) is pretty well established in NZ, and I cannot see any reason why he’d make that up. So, someone who went to Wikipedia to learn all they wanted about my family would have been sadly misinformed, first as to our relationship, and second in terms of his location.
I know. It’s a daft example. But there is a serious point behind it.
You see all the time I get emails and facebook requests for information about things and people. Folks write to me for recipes for medieval food, for dates of battles (or to try to correct me on dates for battles, how far a horse could travel, what sort of money was available etc).
Many of those who complain about my facts do so from that unenviable position of greater knowledge, mostly gleaned from the internet.
And much of it is, to be polite, ballocks.

Occasionally you see a setting like this that will kick off research into the setting or the building.

Today I had a chat with my editor. A rare, but really pleasant thing, to talk to my editor. She is knowledgeable, she likes my period, and especially my writing (you’d be surprised how often editors don’t much like the books they’re working on). My copyeditor was discussed. And I like discussing Joan, for the simple reason that she is a real professional. She first looked over my work with book 3 in the Templar series, and continued all the way through to book 28 with one gap. Since moving to Simon & Schuster, she’s also copyedited books 30 and 31, and now she’s going to get book 32, whether she likes it or not.
I like her hugely – and the big reason why is, she is my first line of defence. When I write my books, I check every detail as far as I can. I read voraciously: books on history, on biography, on the morals of the period, the Church, politics, horses, armour, geography, the law, wills, divorce, mercantile ventures, shipping, money, religious Orders … bloody everything.
Yes, sometimes I get something wrong, and when I do it tends to be my fault. It is vanishingly rare that books misdirect me (a well-known historian got the date of the French King’s wedding wrong by two years, which mucked up my work for a while). But the copyeditor, if she knows her period, will save a lot of trouble. She is the failsafe who makes sure of details.
And that, after my long digression, is why the internet is a massively dangerous tool. Still. Books are checked, read and rechecked, while information on the web can be cobbled together haphazardly and dumped on the net.
I think the two books of mine that have resulted in the highest number of complaints are still The Last Templar and Belladonna at Belstone.

Sometimes there’s no alternative than to get out and look at places, see how they are in their landscape. That is good research – better than reading a Wiki about them.

The Last Templar received twenty one complaints from the very first fan letter. It was enough to make my editor enormously anxious. That letter, had I not disproved each of those nasty little niggling details, could have spelled the end of my career as an author, because the writer took a dislike to my writing for some reason. Editors who have taken a punt on a new author do not like to have people declare that ‘He even got the date of the siege of Acre wrong’. Fortunately I was able to reassure her. The complainer had not researched his material well.
The second, Belladonna, received quite a lot of complaints from religious readers. There are still three complaining reviews on Amazon about my writing, my characterisation, my research – basically declaring my effort to be below any sort of par. Which is nice, because all the cases they complained about, and which I mentioned, were culled from the visitations of Bishops Grandisson and Stapeldon. It is pretty obvious to me that the reviewers concerned would have disliked any book that insulted the Catholic Church.
Sadly, many now think that a page on Wikipedia is as safe as a comment in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
It isn’t. It never can be.
The DNB is compiled by the world’s experts in specific people. They edit their works and condense their own lifetimes of research so that the DNB can be trusted. Not only that, editors and copyeditors go through their work and double and triple check. And if there’s anything contentious, a range of other folk get involved. Which is why printed books tend to be reliable.
This, in large part, was what I was explaining on camera last week. It is why I seriously like editors and copyeditors.
Publishers have rigorous procedures to go through before a book appears on the shelves. Ebooks are easier, faster, and democratic. Which means they run the risk of being dross.
Take the example of the old days. A writer who started a book, it was reckoned, had a one percent likelihood of finishing it. One in a hundred. Because writing, actually, isn’t all that easy.
Then, having completed his version of War and Peace, he posted it to a nice lady editor in a publishing house. There would be a less than one percent change that it would get into print.
That is: a one in ten thousand chance that having started to write a book, it will ever end up in print.
It’s better than the Lottery, but not exactly hot odds on making yourself rich, let alone a millionaire.
In the sad old days of yore, the writer would sigh as the rejection letters materialised, and then get on with book two, grimly setting his jaw in determination to get something else published. He was, after all, only one of the nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine in ten thousand to have received the rejection.
However, now, with the modern, glorious internet, we have this new opportunity.
Now, when the rejection letter appears, the writer shrugs, gives a sneering two finger salute to the foolish publisher, and throws the manuscript down the line at the internet. There he will see his glorious prose receive the reward it deserved.
So it may, so it may. But the reward may be exactly that which the publisher expected.
Sadly, many of these struggling authors will discover that their efforts with one novel will not succeed. Yes, some (50 Shades of Grey etc) will become wealthy. Most will remain desperately writing in the hope that their style will one day appeal to someone other than their mother.
And readers will keep on searching for the next good book. Searching ruddy hard amongst the towering lists of books that now infect hard drives all over the world!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m about to become an epublished author. Already my first six books are out there through HarperCollins’ imprint, Avon, and all the recent titles are available from Simon & Schuster, but I’m going to publish a superb thriller too fairly soon. I’m joining the ranks of electronic authors.
But I still have a suspicion that until there is a rigorous organisation that can read manuscripts, check them, give them a stamp of approval, and then put them up on the internet with a recognisable mark, like, say, a brand, to prove that they have been through a serious process, it will remain damn hard to find the good books.
Oh – I know, let’s call these places ‘Publishers’.
Because, as an author, if I’d been on the web, and I saw my books being torn apart, like Belladonna and Last Templar have been on Amazon, by people who enjoy the vicarious thrill of ripping into a published author, I would have had my career and means of earning an income destroyed.
So, you see, I like publishers. I really, really like editors like my own, and copyeditors, and proofers. They all help make my books work.

And hopefully after months of work, you will receive a pile like this.

And I look forward to a day when the web is rather better organised, and I can go onto it and find some on-line publishers with books I can buy safe in the knowledge that they’ll be readable and will have their basic facts checked.
So, when you want to write and research a decent book, do as I do.
Turn off the wifi. For facts about history and people, go to a library and see which books have the best indexes, which have the best sets of notes, and then use those books for reference.
Because you can trust books.

9 Responses to “Writing Tips: In Praise of Editors – or – Where to Research?”
  1. Brilliant piece. Should be read by everyone, in or out of the business.


  2. Ann Slicer says:

    I find this is sad for people to comment on your very excellent work,they need to get a life,do they know what upset they are making,maybe they do that why they do it,sad people,
    I and many thousands of people love your work and all you do to get facts right and enjoy all you do
    so to hell with them,go fot it Micheal and I really cannot wait for your next book


    • Oh, don’t panic. A few silly twits on Amazon won’t stop me writing. It’s just annoying that three people who shouldn’t have got so grumpy can have such an effect on overall ratings. But that’s life. As more people add positive comments, their negative ones will gradually disappear.


  3. Shelley Ashford says:

    Yes I agree with you – Wikipedia can not always be relied upon for accuracy. But…. as history is generally written by the victors (until recent PC years but I digress), the victors dictate the history. As written history was an expensive thing to do, and severely biased (remember Shakespeare’s versions after the fact – yay for Richard III), how different is it from the incorrectness of Wikipedia.

    We need a real TARDIS and lots of official note takers of history to note the events….but even that has it’s own issues. Personal perspective, are both sides “right” or both sides “wrong”, he said, she said, I was just a soldier, given tactical orders for the noble’s strategic goal – you get the picture.

    Having said that, as a thought that flitted through my mind (somehow it always takes longer to type than think it), I really appreciate the efforts you go to to get the stories accurate…or as accurate as they can be with the available information.



    • Thanks, Shelley – and yes, I spend ages trying to make sure I get the facts right, but there is a special breed of reader who really wants to find problems, and who will trawl through novels searching for any slips. I think I am enormously lucky, generally. I do not seem to have that many complainers. Most folks, when they spot an issue, drop me a line in a friendly manner so that it can later be corrected. But there is no excuse for sloppy work, and not doing the research is very sloppy indeed!


  4. Thanks for the recognition of editors and the work they do!


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