Anthony Hays and Potatoes

On December 3, 2011, in book reviews, Books, Historical Fiction, by Milo
Anthony Hays Glastonbury Abbey

Anthony Hays Glastonbury Abbey

I like crime fiction and suspense thrillers.  I like them to be accurate, as much as possible.  As an author myself, I set high standards for my own work.  Of course, occasionally I screw up.  It is inevitable.  In a recent entry in my Arthurian series, I made the error of mentioning, in a list of foods served at a banquet, potatoes. Yes, I knew that potatoes were not around in 5th century Britain.  I made a mistake, one that nobody else caught either until one vigilant reader saw it. The reader claimed that she had almost tossed the book aside on reading that.  I thought that was a bit extreme. Little things like that happen. But what shouldn’t happen is when authors make errors simply because they assume they know what they’re talking about. That’s bad. And it gives all of us a bad name.

Many years ago, I was talking to a bestselling author of contemporary thrillers.  His books were set in exotic locales around the globe.  I mentioned that it must be great to travel to all of those places to do research. “Oh,” he said, offhandedly, “I never go to those countries until after the book is written. I use travel brochures.” His answer bothered me then, and it bothers me now.  Recently, while reading a thriller, on the bestseller lists, I was reminded of how dangerous that was. The Killing Way Review.

This particular author had set a short scene in Kuwait.  In the great scheme of things, it was actually a scene that could have been cut without harming the broader plot. Would that it had. The author’s protagonist, sitting at a restaurant in Kuwait, orders a vodka martini. Upon reading that scene, I completely understood my reader’s reaction to potatoes in 5th century Britain. Alcohol has been banned in Kuwait since the 1970s. If anything, restrictions have become even heavier in the last decade.  I know.  I lived in Kuwait from 1995 through mid 1998 and have kept an eye on things since. There is certainly a black market for alcohol. I’ve used it myself. There are a few restaurants that have private rooms where you can brown bag. I’ve even heard tales of houses that serve as sort of latter day speakeasies (courtesy of 1920s New York and Prohibition).  But there is not a public restaurant in the country of Kuwait where you can go in and sit down and calmly order a vodka martini. Indeed, you might actually get arrested for trying it. A slip of that kind is inexcusable. And it will make me look askance at the author’s work from here on out.

The Killing Way

The Killing Way

Readers read for a number of reasons – to be entertained of course, and to escape into another world.  But many of them read to learn as well. And today’s readers are, by and large, better educated and better informed than readers of the past. They like suspense novels set in faraway lands. They like learning about those cultures. But the quickest way to lose your readership is to make errors about things like the status of alcohol in many Arab cultures. Readers make an assumption that the author knows about that country or has actually visited it. When such an error emerges, it hurts everyone.

Maybe I’m making too much out of a simple vodka martini. But if such an easily recognizable mistake like that is made, how can I depend on the author’s description of other, perhaps less widely known elements of their book? How can I have any faith that their description of weapons and technologies are accurate? I really don’t want to be so horribly picky, but any old Kuwait hand would cringe at such an inaccuracy.

Okay, I’ll climb off of my soap box and stop rambling on.  But I can absolutely guarantee you one thing.  Never again will anyone find a potato being consumed in any book of mine set in 5th century Britain.  On that, you can rely.

The Killing Way published by Corvus in November 2011

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