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Time, place culture: Getting the setting right in your novel

Time, Place, Culture: Getting the Setting Right in Your Novel

This is another blog post based on a comment in a Facebook group (I seem to be getting into a habit, don’t I?). This was a conversation about editing.

One author commented that there are several changes she’d like to make to her debut novel, a historical romance published in 2017. Apparently, her research for her next novel has highlighted some inaccuracies in that first novel.

It should come as no surprise for you to know I’ve read the novel in question. It probably also won’t come as any great surprise to know that I found several inaccuracies in the setting.

The overall editing and proofreading in this novel was as good as I expect from a major Christian publisher.

The problem was with an element of editing that falls somewhere between developmental and line editing (both of which I addressed in a recent post).

Editing for Fact

Authors often make unintentional factual errors. I’ve found these fall into three main categories:

Time:

Using anachronisms, words which are too modern for the time setting of the novel.

Place:

Getting physical or geographical details wrong.

Culture:

Getting cultural details wrong e.g. a British character using an American English term in a time setting where s/he would have been unlikely to have known the American term (or vice versa).

Here are a few examples:

Danish (as a breakfast food):

Danish pastries were developed in Denmark in the 1850s. They spread to the United States during World War One, but it’s not clear when they were first introduced to England. My experience is that while the modern commuter might eat a Danish pastry for breakfast (or a pain au chocolate), breakfast at home in the 1880’s was more likely to be some form of cooked protein (bacon, eggs, kippers).

Entree (as part of a meal):

The entree is the main meal in modern USA, but the entree is the a small dish served before the main meal in England (and other Commonwealth countries). It took me a while to work out why the characters kept eating entrees, but never got to the main meal.

Marketing:

In Victorian England, marketing was the daily activity of going to the market to buy fresh produce to eat, not an activity undertaken by companies to sell products.

Schelp:

Schelp is an American English word derived from Middle High German via Yiddish. It dates from the early twentieth century, so an English woman in the 1880’s is unlikely to use the word.

Yard:

A unit of measure in British English, not a term used to refer to part of a property (the English have gardens, not yards).

These aren’t major mistakes.

None of them affected the believability of the plot (although I have read books where the factual errors did ruin the plot for me).

Also, using the correct English term (e.g. entree) may confuse American readers where the term has a different meaning in the USA. It is a balancing act.

But mistakes such as marketing and schlep brought me out of Victorian England and took me to twenty-first century America. And anything that draws the reader out of the story is a bad thing. We read to be drawn into the fictive dream, not thrown out of it.

This was brought home again by the story I was reading this evening, set in England in 1940. It’s a setting many of us know through such classics CS Lewis’s Narnia stories. So why did the English characters hide in a closet? We’ve all heard of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. So why did the American author feel the need to change “wardrobe” to “closet”?

How can authors stop this happening?

The best way to stop these kinds of errors is to be an expert in the time and place you are writing about. But that’s not always possible—we can’t all dedicate years to studying a specific period in history. And readers don’t want endless contemporary women’s fiction offerings about the challenge of balancing home, work, and family, and still trying to find room for hobbies and faith in the modern world.

Readers want variety.

Which means writers have to write more than what they know.

Which means research.

The research is rarely the problem. Authors research, and find out so many fabulous details that the challenge becomes what to leave out, not what to put in.

The real problem comes when the author adds information they haven’t researched. It’s an old problem: we don’t know what we don’t know. So we use a word that’s wrong for the time setting or location without realising it.

How do we avoid errors in our setting?

We need to find people who have knowledge of the areas we’re not personally familiar with:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Culture

With the novel that prompted this post, the answer would have been to find a beta reader or freelance editor who knows British English (perhaps someone who is English or has lived in England), and who knows something of the geography and history. I’ve read novels where the main character saw Oxford while traveling from London Heathrow to Bath. Nope. Not unless your driver is taking you for a ride, literally and figuratively.

Different novels will require beta readers or editors with different backgrounds and different knowledge. For example, an author writing about Native Americans or people of colour would benefit from finding an early reader with the appropriate racial or cultural background.

An author writing for a traditional publisher might think they don’t need to hire an editor or find beta readers with specialist knowledge. Won’t their publisher do that for them? First, obvious errors will affect your chances of gaining a publishing contract.

Even if you do get a contract, an increasing number of traditional publishers are outsourcing their editing. This means authors may or may not be assigned an editor with knowledge of the time, place, or culture of their novel. And many editors don’t undertake fact checking—research is the author’s job.

It’s your job as the author to get your facts right.

Authors, what steps do you take to prevent factual errors in your novels?

Marketing 101: Place

Where do you sell your books?

Trade Published

If you are trade published, whether through a major or small publisher, the publisher will be responsible for distribution. They will ensure your book is listed with the main distributors so bookshops can order it on a low-risk sale-or-return basis. They will ensure Kindle and epub versions are available with the major online retailers (including Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble).

It is their job to negotiate with book sellers (whether independent bookshops, book chains or general merchandise stores) to stock your book. They will work with the big online retailers (Apple, Barnes & Noble) to promote your book. This is the huge benefit of a traditional publishing contract with a major publisher: they will have established relationships with the major chains, which means your book is more likely to be made available in stores or be given prime positioning online.

Note that vanity publishers will tell you they distribute through Ingram, so any bookstore in the US can order your book. That’s true. But just because they can doesn’t mean they will. It usually means a shop will order your book if a customer specifically requests it, but only then, because the vanity publishers don’t necessarily offer books on a sale-or-return basis (as the major publishers do. This is one reason retailers are happy to purchase books from those publishers: because there is no financial risk).

Self-published

If you are self-published, you will be responsible for all distribution, include deciding where you would like your book will be sold, negotiating with retailers, and setting up accounts with online retailers.

If you’ve used a print-on-demand service such as CreateSpace, Lightning Source or Lulu, your POD printer will send the book to whoever ordered it. If you chose the cheaper per unit method of offset printing, then you will have upwards of 1,000 books sitting in your garage (or lounge!), and you will be responsible for fulfilling all orders.

If you also have an ebook (as you should) version, you will also need to arrange conversion of your book into the required formats. The general advice for self-publishers is to publish directly to Amazon, and to use Smashwords to distribute to other retailers (such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, Sony, Google and Diesel, although you may want to submit to Apple separately). Of these, Amazon is probably the most important.

Why Amazon?

There are several reasons why most self-publishers choose to publish through Amazon:

Royalties

Amazon royalties are as high as (or higher than) any other ebook distributor and they are paid on a regular basis (although you do have to earn a minimum of $100 in royalties to be paid).

Customer Interface

Amazon is easier to browse and easier to search as a customer, which means customers spend more time there and buy more. The other online retailers have an inferior interface, and Kobo is particularly bad, even if you are searching for a specific author. When I used to shop at Kobo (in the days before you could buy a Kindle in New Zealand), I’d still using Amazon for searching, then would search on title and author for the book at Kobo. Even then, I’d only find it around half the time—which represents a lot of lost sales.

Amazon Associates

Amazon has an affiliate marketing programme that pays for referrals on paid books, including ebooks. This encourages book bloggers and websites to include Amazon affiliate links in their posts, to drive web traffic (and sales) to Amazon.

Customer Recommendations

The Amazon site and recommendations are designed to show the customer the books they are most likely to buy, regardless of publisher or price. Other sites (such as Barnes & Noble) are designed to show the books they want to sell—which are usually higher priced traditionally published books.

For a self-published author, this means Amazon is the one site that will promote your books for you, if you can show (through sales) that your book is something a segment of people will want to buy. Other sites will promote the books the publishers pay them to promote, or the books chosen by their merchandising teams (which are almost certainly trade-published titles).

Next week: Price

Marketing 101: Introduction

Anyone who has ever done a course in marketing will have heard of The Four P’s that form the basis of marketing strategies – Product, Price, Promotion and Place. But how does that apply to publishing? Over the next few weeks, my Saturday posts will look at what you need to know about the Four P’s and what you can do to successfully market your book.

I’ve read several current books on the subject of book marketing, and I’ll be reviewing each of them over the next few weeks, with my posting on Wednesdays. While most of the books are aimed at those who are self-publishing on Amazon and other sites, some of them have information that is useful to all writers, regardless of where they are on the publishing journey, and whether they are trade published or self-published, as there are many common principles.

As the author, your level of input into the development and implementation of the marketing plan will depend on whether you are self-publishing or have a publishing contract. Different publishers will have different levels of expectation of their authors, and this should be covered in your contract. However, all publishers expect their authors to participate in marketing to some extent, and having established relationships with readers should improve your chances of getting published.

Have a Marketing Plan

The first step is to have a marketing plan (to echo Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind). What do you want to achieve? Do you want to sell lots of books? Do you want to make lots of money? Do you want lots of people to read your books? (Those goals might be mutually exclusive.) What must you do to achieve that goal?

In my view, it’s never too early to begin thinking about marketing. For example, one of the first decisions an author needs to make about their book is what genre it is. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Is it a devotional or a self-help book? If fiction, is it contemporary or historical, romance or action? If you’re not sure what the different fiction genres are, I suggest you reread my series on genre.

Know Your Genre

Knowing your genre will help you understand your target market: an essential piece of a marketing plan. If you don’t know who your target reader is, you won’t know how to connect with them. This is one of the key points in Karen Baney’s book, 10 Keys to Ebook Marketing Success.

Knowing your genre will help you determine your author brand: the way you want readers to see you and your work. Understand what you are, and ensure all your marketing efforts (including tweets and Facebook posts) reinforce that brand. You don’t need a fancy tagline (although a tagline is a way of keeping your marketing efforts on track), but you do need to consider and manage your brand. Joanna Penn discusses this in How to Market a Book.

Understand Your Author Brand

It’s never too late to develop and implement a marketing plan, but the earlier you understand your author brand, the earlier you will be able to begin developing and implementing a marketing plan (including that all-important platform) that introduces and reinforces that brand. An established platform will be an invaluable asset if you are seeking traditional publication, as agents and commissioning editors are more interested in authors who understand the need to be active on social media. And an established platform is essential if you decide to self-publish, as it gives you a built-in group on which to focus your marketing efforts.