Check your facts! Hunt the MacGuffin!

I’ve just finished reading a novel. OK, so it was a historical romance. So sue me…

The premise sounded pretty good – witty, amusing, and fun. The execution, however, let down the premise quite significantly.

Firstly, there was the business of the ring. Everyone was looking for it, but it was never satisfactorily explained why this was. Clearly, the ring proved something about someone to some other people… but what, and how? I was left with the very clear feeling that the ring was, in fact, the most classical example of a MacGuffin I’ve ever come across.

Have you ever read a book like that? You spend most of your time trying to figure out why everyone is running around looking for X, or avoiding X, or doing X, and wondering whether:
a) the author has just missed out massive amounts of plot that would have explained everything (enthusiastic editor, maybe? Word limit?)
b) you are much more stupid than you had hitherto suspected or
c) it’s some kind of zen. What is the meaning of the ring? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Of course, the whole point of romances is for girl to meet boy, girl to lose boy, then girl and boy to get back together again. In that sense, everything other than the relationship is one big MacGuffin. It’s just that I like my MacGuffins to at least make sense. If you’re going to have an espionage plot on the side, do try to have it make sense. (Although see b and c above.) I’m now going to spend the next several days trying to figure out exactly what was going on, and wondering whether I’m wasting my time because even the author didn’t know, so what hope have I got?

Moving on from MacGuffin mania, I’d like to point out that authors who write historical fiction should, occasionally, do some research. Even fantasy authors can’t get away without it, and they get to make up the whole world as well as the people in it (please note: swords are not as heavy as people seem to think they are). Writers of historical novels have a much harder job because some difficult person has already been along and filled in all the background detail.

It really jolts the reader when a relatively important plot point is the existence of a birth certificate that may, or may not, be fake…. in a novel set before the national register of births was started (in 1837). Previous to this, births were registered with the church – usually the local parish church.

Then there was the street urchin with his pockets full of bills. In Britain, a bill is either the sticky-out bit on the front of a duck, or an accounting of monies to be paid. Only in America is it something that you can pay with. In the USA, the first dollar bills were issued in 1862. In Britain, paper money below the value of £5 was not legal tender until the Bank Notes Act 1833 (about ten years after this novel was set). And if a street urchin had a pocket full of £5 notes, that would make him an exceptionally well-off street urchin, given that this would run to thousands of pounds in today’s money. (Actually, I’d think myself quite well off if I had a pocketful of fivers in today’s money…) So unless our street urchin had a pocketful of reckonings (why?), he was either extremely well-heeled or a time-traveller.

These two instances of complete absence of research show a common problem: the author takes things for granted. Like American authors referring to ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance in British cities – Americans think in blocks (authors seem to, anyway); British people don’t. Probably because American cities are usually built on a grid system and British cities aren’t. We don’t think in blocks because we don’t have blocks – at least, not in the mathematical, distance-marking sense. But you’d have to look at a map of a British city to know that, or better yet, visit and discover that the streets bend, curve, and meet each other in unpredictable ways. Blocks designed by Salvador Dali….

But it’s very easy to assume that a thing (like a birth certificate) that is an important staple in your own culture is the same in the one you are writing about. You don’t think about birth certificates: everyone has one. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid introducing gaffes like this is to know enough about your period to have a general ‘sense’ of what’s right and what’s wrong, and where you need to do a bit of fact-checking.

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5 comments

  1. The situation is even more confused here in Australia. I saw some guy on a quiz show saying he would ‘take the 5th’ – we don’t have one – and he was supposedly a law student! Most kids here know the first American president, but not the first Australian prime minister. Maybe we need a certain amount of research just to live our daily lives…

    1. I know what you mean. My husband’s a teacher, and we were discussing the curriculum the other day: oddly enough, the (probably dodgy) report in the press that – shock horror – too many kids don’t know who Winston Churchill was. Should there, therefore, be a core knowledge base that everyone should have? And if so, what should this include?

      Regarding people introducing concepts into a setting where they don’t fit or don’t make sense, there’s a series of fantasy books out there that are set in the usual sort of made-up fantasy world. However, the religion is Christianity. And that always kind of spoilt the books for me – how do you have Christianity in a fantasy world? No Jerusalem… No Egypt. No Holy Land at all, in fact. And, of course, no Greeks – so no ‘Christ’. So where did it come from? I always assumed that the author was so steeped in Christianity in her daily life that she literally couldn’t conceive of a world without it.

      1. Wow, that’s odd! Is the religion actually called Christianity, or are there just parallels, like in the Narnia books?
        I hope it’s not true that British kids don’t know who Winnie was. My son’s a history buff, and actually went to his school’s ‘dress up as your hero’ day as Churchill!

      2. Well, the information came from a source I regard as highly suspect, so I’m not taking it too seriously!

        The books did indeed refer to Christianity, not a fantasy-world parallel. The characters celebrated Christmas, among other things… Very jarring, from a reader perspective.

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