Sunday, August 14, 2011

Food for Thought

Grace Burrowes's The Heir is a litmus test book -- people either love it or hate it.  Not many people online have read it and said, "It was just okay.  I didn't love it but I didn't hate it."

Most of the chatter has been about the historical inaccuracies.  It's true -- the book is studded with them.  You could make a drinking game out of it:  take a drink every time she has a character mention something that didn't exist in early 19th century England, or do something they just didn't do, etc.

Actually, I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book because Burrowes has a pleasant voice.  Her characters didn't sound like refugees from the twenty-first century, even when they were spouting nonsense.  I was expecting to be much more enthusiastic, but she lost me with the intrigue that has to be resolved at the end for the protagonists to marry.  It wasn't very compelling, particularly as one would imagine a duke could marshal enough solicitors and cronies in the House of Lords to get the heroine's situation sorted out.  Oh, well.  Whatever.  I'm hoping Burrowes will get better, building on her strengths and diminishing her weaknesses.

Among the anachronisms -- the implausible running of the household, the multi-talented sole horse in the stables, the odd use of ducal honorifics -- I was most fascinated by all the American food the characters consumed.  Lemonade, for example.  There's supposedly a heat wave in London bad enough that everyone keeps drinking lemonade.  Two things are immediately clear.  First, Ms. Burrowes is imagining the American style of lemonade, which is made with lemon juice, sugar and water.  Second, she's never made it herself.

Supposedly the hero is fond of lemonade with a lot of sugar.  But if you just dump a lot of sugar crystals into some lemonade, the sugar doesn't dissolve.  The way around that is to make a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar, heat it just enough for the sugar to dissolve then cool it down, and sweeten the lemon juice and water with that.  Anyone who's made lemonade in any quantity would know that.

Burrowes's heroine, Anna, comments on the prohibitive cost of sugar in the early 19th century, and Wiki bears that out.  But where were the lemons coming from in mid-August?  Someone's orangery, presumably, but whose?  The hero's family estate might have a source of lemons -- but that many?  The characters were chugging lemonade like it was water from a well.  (Except for the brother who insisted on drinking "cold tea."  I mentioned that to Brit Hub 2.1, and he said, "Oh, my gawd!"  Cold tea is anathema to the British.  And don't even get me started on how it's impossible to find iced coffee -- even today and even during a British heat wave.)

Next up: cookies.  I thought we all knew the Brits eat "biscuits."  The word "cookie" comes from the Dutch "koekje" or "little cake" and entered the English language here in North America.  The British know the word, obviously, but the only comestibles known as "cookies" in the UK are things identified as American, like "Maryland cookies."  (I've never met a Maryland Cookie, here or over there, but Wiki says it, so it must be true.)  Come to find out, the actual foodstuff has been around for a long time (here's the Wiki article), including throughout Europe.  It just wouldn't have been called a "cookie" in early 19th century England.

Finally, muffins.  I suspect that Burrowes was imagining our sort of muffins -- cup-shaped with a rounded top -- but actually the "English muffin" sort of muffin -- flat and dusted with cornmeal -- was eaten in 19th century England.  The "muffin man" shows up in Austen's Persuasion, and muffins are consumed by characters in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.  Here's the Wiki article on the flat, intended to be toasted, sort of muffin.

The real problem with such gustatory anachronisms isn't that they ruin the book -- that's still a matter of taste (heh heh) for the reader -- but that they take one, at least someone food-oriented like me, out of the story.  Every time Burrowes had her characters quaff some lemonade or eat a cookie, I would think about the history of food more than the characters.

Here's my real question, though: where's the editor in all this?  Aren't we all supposed to be steeped in the basic elements of the Regency romance?  Wouldn't an editor have circled the first instance of the word "lemonade" or "cookie" and scribbled in the margin, "Are you sure?"  With global search-and-replace, it would have been so easy to change that to cider.  Or tea -- regular hot tea, which yes, the Brits drink in ALL weather.  (Or, as it's known in my transatlantic household, "the sweet elixir of life."  Someone here is an addict.)


  1. 1) most editors believe it is the author's job to get those facts correct, and trust/assume the author has done her best.

    2) most editors do not have time to fact-check a book, even if they wished to; sometimes a copyeditor will take the time, but often they also apply #1.

    3) if publishing in America, most editors and CEs are American. Those errors do not stick out as WRONG to an American.

    4) many editors do not want to run the risk of imposing their own voice on the author and focus instead on the story. I haven't read this book, but it would *probably* be the same story if they were drinking ginger beer and eating Savoy biscuits. Apply rule #1, and the editor moves on to story-related questions like, this chapter is confusing, and could you add more explanation of the mystery here?

    So... the real answer to your question is that it's the author's job to get this stuff right. Do your own research. Hire a research assistant if you prefer. Ask the question on an appropriate email loop. Have some eagle-eyed critique partner or beta reader look at it. Don't EVER expect the editor or CE to clean up your research mistakes, because they generally don't.

  2. With regard to point #1, yes, I can well imagine that the editor would assume Burrowes (a lawyer in real life) got right all the legal details.

    But we're not talking about some obscure or arcane bits of information. The transatlantic nomenclature of British biscuits and American cookies is pretty widely known.

    Should Burrowes have caught that, or had a beta reader catch it? Of course. But are you really telling me that if an editor saw the word "cookie" and thought, "Really?" she wouldn't have circled it and queried the author? That surely doesn't involve doing the author's research for her, just raises the question.

    I find point #3 hard to imagine, particularly when it comes to the plethora of Regency romances. But even if a substantial number of readers won't notice the difference, it must also be true they won't notice if the book gets it right. So why not get it right?

    Yes, the author is responsible, but the book does bear the publisher's imprint and everyone knows that there is an editor who looks over the manuscript before it's published. Doesn't it behoove the publishing staff to catch stuff like this, ask the author to deal with it, and then move on?

    Apart from anything else, it would give bloggers like me WAY less to write about.

  3. Ah, but you are assuming a depth of attention and level of persnickety-ness some editors don't have. I've seen editors heavily re-write a book and insist on major changes (ex: "You should add something like a dragon here"), and editors who don't change a single word, ever. Really. And there are authors who love that second kind of editor, because they feel unfettered and free, even if only to make glaring errors.

    I don't know any authors who love the first kind of editor. But MOST authors really appreciate an editor in the middle, who would circle an out-of-place word and write "?" in the margin.

    But the real dirty secret of publishing is...every editor I know is spending less and less time on each manuscript. Publishers want to get books out faster. Editorial staffs have been thinned by layoffs. And if a Regency writer gets orphaned (her editor leaves) and gets assigned to a new one who doesn't know as much about the Regency, well, those little circle things don't happen.

    And look how much blog fodder the mistakes create.

  4. Here's the part of this I don't get. Grace Burrowes is a new author (The Heir is her first published book; one can imagine it's actually her second book, as there's an already-paired-up couple in The Heir who might well have been the protagonists in a book of their own).

    An agent had to have read the manuscript for The Heir. Agents do ask for changes, often before they'll sign a client. The manuscript was then shopped to publishers, and an acquiring editor "bought" it. That may be the same editor who read through it and asked for clarification. Perhaps there was a copy editor.

    At least two people, maybe three, read the manuscript for The Heir and asked for changes. It seems unlikely that Ms. Burrowes had to fight to keep her lemonade & cookies on the earl's table (wrought-iron, on a terrace of a townhouse in London), so I'm going to guess these people never stopped to think, "This sounds wrong."

    Honestly? I'm more unimpressed with the publishing professionals than with Ms. Burrowes. According to you, they either just green-lit a book with a ton of anachronisms (some of which really could have been fixed with a couple clicks on the keyboard) because they didn't recognize them as anachronistic, or they did recognize them as anachronisms and simply didn't care.

    It's easier for me to imagine a publishing professional who doesn't care than an author who doesn't care.

    Yes, Ms. Burrowes has gotten a lot of online attention from these oddities. That may well have driven up sales of the book on the grounds that people wanted to see for themselves what the fuss was about. But I'd like to believe that if she doesn't write increasingly tighter and less error-prone books, she'll lose some of her readers.

    I'd also like to believe that the publishing professionals who took her on in the first place have a vested interest in helping her improve her writing.

    Maybe that makes me naive.

  5. I have no idea if they green-lit a book they thought was full of inaccuracies; THAT sounds off to me. I'm just saying....those inaccuracies might have slipped by them, as well. Sometimes things that seem wrong are correct, and things that seem perfectly reasonable are wrong--and if you don't recognize you're in the latter situation, you won't even think to go spend a quarter hour checking. It's not always a question of caring v/s not caring.

    I read an interview with this author where she indicated she DOES care a lot about research, and that she had a CE who helped her as well.

    Which only leads me back to Rule #1 of publishing: It's your book, and your job to get it as right as you can. Rule #2: Don't ever expect anyone else to care about it as much as you do. And Rule #3: you're gonna make mistakes, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. You can only grimace gracefully, beg pardon, and resolve never to make *that* mistake again.

    That's all I meant to say... No slight intended, nor any accusation of naivete. There's just a lot of variability in editorial input and oversight, and even with the best of each, there's going to be mistakes.

  6. No, no -- I didn't mean the "naive" comment sarcastically. I really *could* be naive about this.

    I accept everything you're saying, but then it's just amazing how delusional an author can be if she didn't think about stuff like the gallons (pre-metric) of lemonade she had her characters drinking in the context of 1) did they drink that there & then? 2) could they get the two key ingredients there & then? and 3) how do you make lemonade anyway?

    (In case you've not read the book, as one commenter put it, "the author must have stock in the Minute Maid company," that's how often lemonade is mentioned.)

    There are other problems -- Liz at Something More details many of them here. But not all of those bothered me. And, truthfully, only the single horse (doing unnecessary double duty as a mount and as a carriage horse) really struck me as glaringly absurd.

    "Cookie," though -- I just don't see how anyone who has ever been to the UK, or read about the UK, or talked to anyone who's been the UK could not know that while the food itself exists in the UK, it's not and never has been called that. And according to your perspective, Ms. Burrowes didn't know to check that (Wiki really does have entries on everything!), her beta-readers didn't scratch their heads, her agent didn't squint her eyes a bit, and the editor(s) never went, "Hmmm."

    That's a lot of people who don't know something pretty basic. It makes me sad.

  7. Hi Magdalen
    I'm on vacation, so I missed this when it was first posted. Add me to the OMG-cookies and lemonade?? group. Also, add me to the "meh" crowd with regards to the book as a whole.
    My biggest problem with the story was the pacing. The first quarter of the book was nice and taut and hinted at a mystery to follow. Then the big middle of the book is a rather (IMO)ho-hum romance(threat? what threat??) and then the last quarter--oh, let's get back to the bad guy and solve the mystery, so our two main characters can have their HEA.
    I started her second book, in hopes that it was more polished, and gave up about a third of the way through when I realized that I didn't really care about the characters. So now I am conflicted about trying the third one when it comes out.
    Barbara (commenting from a friend's computer)


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