Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, musing about pet peeves (not to be confused with peevish pets, which is the topic for an entirely different blog). I’m talking, of course, about the pet peeves we have as readers. We all have them—things that drive us nuts when we come across them in a novel. They range from petty annoyances like typos that you can skip over without too much difficulty to howlers that pull you out of the story and have you fighting the desire to throw the book across the room.
I’m especially picky when I’m reading mysteries set in the times and places with which I am most familiar. For Kaitlyn that’s present-day Maine. For Kathy, it’s sixteenth-century England. It is some consolation that books are generally better at getting things right than movies and television, but not much.
So—novels. What are my personal pet peeves?
In novels set in today’s Maine (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) it’s scenes set in real places the author has obviously never visited. I remember one description of Portland International Jetport, supposedly as it was when the novel was written (awhile ago now, but “present day” at the time), in which a huge issue was made over the fact that if a character didn’t have her luggage claim ticket she wouldn’t be able to collect her suitcase. Huh? I’ve flown out of Portland at least once a year for more than three decades now and I’ve never seen anyone at the luggage carousels checking baggage claim stubs. I know—picky, picky, picky—but that detail pulled me right out of the story and left me mistrustful of the details used in the rest of the book.
Law enforcement errors are especially grating. If the scene is a fictional town or village (or unorganized territory) the writer has some leeway, but in Maine a sheriff is always an elected county official who rarely investigates crimes himself. A large town or a city would have its own police department. A small town would be more likely to make do with a town constable. The state police patrol huge rural areas and they are the ones who take over the investigation on all homicides except those that take place in Maine’s largest cities. As for jails, that’s a hot button issue where I live, in Franklin County, and in some other Maine counties, as well. We once had our own jail. Now, thanks to a state-mandated reorganization of corrections facilities, prisoners have to be transferred, at considerable expense, to jails in other counties after only a brief stay in the local “detention center.”
As Kathy, writing historical mysteries set in the sixteenth century, I’m very conscious of the mistakes other people writing about the same period have made because I am trying so very hard not to make the similar goofs myself. A little research could prevent most of the worst ones, the common errors that just keep turning up, even in novels written by people you’d think would know better. These are the historical equivalent of the smell of cordite—errors that are repeated because the writer has seen them so many times in other people’s novels that he/she assumes they’re right and doesn’t bother to check.
A surprisingly large number of otherwise intelligent, research-savvy authors appear to be unable to grasp forms of address, in particular how to refer to a knight and his lady. It is really not that difficult. It’s Sir Firstname and Lady Lastname. In my Face Down series, Sir Robert Appleton is addressed as Sir Robert and his wife as Lady Appleton, not as Lady Susanna. Not everyone in the sixteenth century got this right, either, but the rule is (and was) that Lady Firstname signified that the woman was the daughters of an earl or higher. Lady Firstname, the Lady Firstname, Lady Lastname, and Lady Title indicate four different levels in precedence in the English aristocracy. I see writers mix up these forms of address in print so often that I frequently go back and check to make sure I’m not the one who goofed.
This particular problem probably stems from the fact that most people just aren’t fussy about getting it right. They weren’t in previous eras, either. In wills and other documents from the sixteenth century knights’ wives are often referred to as Lady Firstname. For example, “I give unto my sister, my Lady Lucy, my border of upper billiment of goldsmith’s work.” This doesn’t, however, mean that the young woman making the will was using the correct form of address. To make a modern comparison, it is incorrect to continue to refer to Catherine, duchess of Cambridge as Kate Middleton. Does that stop most people (or newspapers or television commentators) from doing so? Nope. Does constant use make it correct? Also a big no. Writers, more than anyone else, should be scrupulous about forms of address, in the same way we are expected to be scrupulous about following basic spelling and grammar rules.
Okay. Getting down off my soapbox now. But this is a post about pet peeves, and boy is that ever one of mine!
The other thing that makes me crazy, when an author is using real people as characters, is if he or she doesn’t bother to do enough research to get the character’s approximate age, actual title if there is one, and the names of his or her spouse and children right. I realize it’s not always possible to be sure a real person was in the right place at the right time for fictional purposes, but these days the basic names, dates, and titles aren’t all that hard to find. In addition to the Dictionary of National Biography, The History of Parliament, and Wikipedia (this last should be used with caution), there’s always my A Who’s Who of Tudor Women to consult.
So, those are my pet peeves. How about you? What things drive you up a wall when you come across them while reading a mystery novel?