Looks harmless enough, doesn’t it?
But Solanum lycopersicum could cost you readers.
I got this the other day:
“I started reading Silk Road a couple of days back and was enjoying it very much, just as I had enjoyed one of your other books.
However, when I reached Page 164 I found these words: “…green fields planted with tomatoes and aubergines…” I don’t know about aubergines but I do know, as do most people, [my italics] that tomatoes were not introduced to European cuisine, let alone further east, until the 16th century …
Until I saw these words I had been impressed by the breadth and quality of your research but this is such a basic mistake that I just don’t feel I can read on – it’s not possible to enjoy an historical novel once one realizes that the facts can’t be trusted. I thought I’d point this out so that the mistake can be amended in future printings.”
So there you have it. The case for the prosecution rests.
I have admitted my guilt and have taken to my bare back with chains. I leave on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela within the week.
Unless someone, somewhere, you know, needs to take some valium.
For example, I read a disturbing quote on Goodreads recently – (‘Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction’ – if you like HF it’s a fantastic group) – from an author whose book one of the members was reading.
“ … he describes a character (a real historical person) travelling somewhere by bus or drinking a cup of tea. He worries that he, as a writer, is being disrespectful by just assuming that the character would have caught the bus and not the train. Or maybe in real life he hated tea and only drank coffee, and because the character is now dead he can’t put the record straight …”
Look, I don’t mind someone taking me to task for my prose, plot structure, characterization, pacing. I pay a lot of attention to these things, to my story-telling ability – because getting this right is my obligation to anyone who buys a book of mine.
As Bernard Cornwell said in a recent interview: “If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician reformation, then write a history book but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key.”
But I’d point out that Cornwell is meticulous in his research as well. As I always try to be. I don’t know how this one got through. I spent a year researching SILK ROAD, paying close attention – among many other subjects – to Tatar politics and dynastic succession after the death of Chinggis Khan, the Nestorian church, shamanism among the nomadic tribes of the steppes, Crusader politics, the topography of Shang-tu, (a city that long ago ceased to exist) … shall I go on? The list is endless. None of it was easy.
And I occasionally make mistakes.
Ken Follett, whose eleven hundred page epic The Pillars of the Earth has rightfully been lauded for its exhaustive historical research also contains … hush my mouth … errors.
For example, the many encounters across social classes depicted in the book are unlikely – as the nobility spoke Norman French and the lower classes didn’t. Sugar – which is mentioned several times – was not available in England then. A priory storeroom contained hops – but hops were not used for food production until centuries later.
(But as far as I can ascertain he was spot on about tomatoes – 1-0 to Ken vs me.)
Do these few errors negate the years of study, the mountains of research, that went into Follett’s astonishing book? According to Ms X – yes. Come on, Kenny baby, get your shirt off, we’ll go and self flagellate together.
What galls me most is that researching SILK ROAD nearly cost me my life.
Reaching the Mogao caves near Dunhuang, for example, meant renting a Chinese four wheel drive and a driver and taking a day’s drive into the mountains north of the Taklimakan in far western China.
Just as we got back to Dunhuang the steering rod broke and the car slewed off the road. Five minutes earlier we were driving along an escarpment; the slewing would not have been into a ditch but off a hair pin bend and down a five hundred metre cliff .
Perhaps our fall would have been cushioned by that tomato field I saw at the bottom.
That research trip was some of the most uncomfortable traveling I’ve done in my life. I’ll tell you about it some time; the projectile vomiting, the three puppies and the two men sharing the sleeper bed above mine, all those forty eight hour bus journeys …
I didn’t list that as part of my bibliography or my sources. I love a bit of adventure. But I naively expect the trouble I go to will earn me just a little bit of leeway with vegetables.
Sorry – fruit.
But apparently not. You get one chance and one chance only with Ms X. And when you come to write that historical novel you’d better know your agriculture or you’re – well, history.
I have since asked my publishers to recall all unsold copies so they can be pulped but they seem strangely reluctant. My editor even had the gall to say: ‘Christ it’s only a freaking tomato!’
That’s not the attitude!!
I am now editing my upcoming novel, set in the time of Alexander, and rewriting it in the Thraco-Illyrian dialect spoken in Alexander’s native city of Pella in the fourth century BC.
Okay, no one will be able to read it. But it will be authentic.
And yes, I’ve checked and double checked; not a single tomato between Macedon and the Jhellum River. The Empire is safe.