A novel my wife started recently has her erupting like an active volcano.
She likes the characters. The prose is lucid. The plot is interesting enough to hold her attention. The novel is enough of a fun read that she has decided to finish it.
What keeps triggering explosions is that the author didn’t trouble himself to learn anything about the historical period in which the story is set.
I haven’t read the book myself, but she says that early on the characters are getting around on bicycles – a good twenty-plus years before the modern bicycle was even invented and a good thirty or forty years before they became commonplace. (She looked this up to confirm her suspicions.) There are many other such anachronisms. Technology aside, I gather the female characters behave more like post-feminist, twenty-first-century women than respectable ladies who grew up inside the severely constricted social norms of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Readers like my wife send chills up my spine.
As it happens, the chapter I am now working on involves my protagonist taking a side trip to early twentieth-century New England. I am trying to get things right, but it isn’t easy. For example, would the house where most of the action takes place have had electric lighting in 1909?
As best I can tell, the answer is probably not. In that era and that place, if you lived outside a good-sized town you were dependent on oil lamps and candles. I came to that conclusion after I spent some time on the net as well as checking literature written at the time that includes details on such matters. Edith Wharton’s stories were very helpful. As a bonus, my wife told me of a rural-New-England relative of hers who lived to be over a hundred years old and talked about still trimming oil lamps in her middle-class home as late as 1918.
Despite my best efforts, I have doubtless gotten something wrong. You don’t know what you don’t know. But you have to respect your reader enough to do at least a little research where your story overlaps with the real world.
I gather from what some writers have said in print and from comments I’ve heard from authors at book fairs, that there is a lot of pressure from publishers to dumb-down fiction. The idea seems to be that you don’t want to write over the heads of your readers because they won’t like it. Publishers tell you to avoid vocabulary over a sixth-grade level, eschew sophisticated ideas in your stories, and generally assume that your reader is too dim to notice things that make no sense whatsoever.
In a world where badly written, sadomasochistic soft porn currently rules the venerable New York Times best seller list, this is probably good advice if you want to make a heck of a lot of money. But, you know, I think I’ll ignore it. I may be writing popcorn genre fiction, but I will damn well make the best popcorn my abilities permit. I respect readers like my wife too much to do otherwise.