Nothing distracts me when I’m reading like inaccuracy for what happens given the setting of the story. A few years ago I met a nice guy at Main Street Books, our local independent book store, and bought his book. I loved his well-written Civil War novel set in North Mississippi for the first three quarters of the book. Then he had his soldier protagonist return to Iuka, Mississippi, where he had fought for a couple of months, expecting to renew his romance with a young widow where he found his surprise two-year-old child. So far, it could have happened just like the author told it. Then he made the grandmother, the widow’s mother, delighted to see the soldier and destroyed all credibility. In Iuka in the 1860s, the grandmother would only have been thrilled to have hung him from the highest tree. Today’s morals in yesterday’s stories do not work.
A similar instance came when I was reading middle grade and young adult books along with my friend who was on the Newbery Committee. She had asked me to give her my opinions about the books I read. You can guess how little effort it took to talk me into that project! One of the books had two “nice” girls in the 50s who swore like sailors regularly in front of the mother with no reaction on her part. Wrong again – not in the 1950s! One swear word, especially from a girl, in a mother’s earshot would have called for major mouth washing with a bar of Dial soap.
I read a historical novel with a conversation between a Southern Captain and a Yankee Colonel after the Civil War. I thought I’d missed something when the captain used, “y’all” as a form of address. I traced back several pages to find the other people in the discussion. Not there. The author should have let a Southerner read her text! It took me back to my school days when a couple of boys had this huge argument with our English teacher that “you” being both singular and plural would never work. They insisted that “y’all” made a perfect plural for “you” and should be used in the entire English-speaking world. [On another issue, be sure to note where the apostrophe is. My daughter becomes Anna-gone-Bananas when she sees it spelled “ya’ll.”]
The trouble with being so picky is that I’ve lost a very good line from my as-yet-unpublished middle grade novel set in 1946. As Jimmy shows the new preacher’s daughter the school and points out the cafeteria, he says, “They cook the food with a lot of fatback and not much imagination.” I was thrilled, as writers are, when they create a wonderful sentence until I got the issue of The Journal of Mississippi History that dated the beginnings of the school lunch program to 1947. I even have a plate and bowl from the community school cafeteria, given as souvenirs at the recent 175 anniversary church celebration. [See my “Up from the Ashes” blog.] I, too, have to get it right.
Wonder what kind of story I could write that is set after 1947? I hate to toss such a good sentence.