Lois Leveen


February 19, 2012

Fear of a Red Tractor

When it comes to historical fiction, the devil is in the details.

Fear of a red tractor. That is what keeps a novelist up at night.

Remember the good ol' days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?

Okay, maybe those days weren't so good. But these days, everyone's a literary critic. Including Dr. Miller, who's also my dentist.

Last year, he told me about a book he'd been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of a field wherein there sat "a red John Deere tractor." He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, "everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor."

Only an Oregon dentist can make New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.

But Dr. Miller was onto something. Writers are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that *real* detail wrong, you have blown it big time.

As it happens, one of my New York editors, the lovely Laurie Chittenden, is originally from Virginia. She suggested that the bird's nest I'd tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that's the state tree of Virginia.

Now, I'm an obsessed lunatic. I'd already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page 1 of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.

As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I'd made a reference to a straight razor. You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any nineteenth-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my big purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and Xed it out.


Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone's dad used). Until then, they were just razors.

I swear, sometimes writing historical fiction is like pulling teeth. Just joking, Dr. Miller!
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