Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My biggest mistake

by Jorn Lier Horst, Norway
From "Krimfestivalen" with Chris Tvedt and Kari Birkeland
Last week there was a crime fiction festival in Oslo. 60 Norwegian and international authors attended and more than 11 000 readers visited the festival. I participated in one of the panels that focused on research. It seems that there is always a discussion about research in literature festivals. The conversation was not just about how we work to gather information, but inevitably went into what mistakes we writers had committed.

There is of course many things a writer must keep track of. Everyone can make mistakes, and the more readers you get, more people will point out your mistakes. And now I am not thinking typos, but logical errors in a story. Not necessarily big mistakes, but for a writer it is important to know which plants bloom when and which bird species live where. Dandelion at the roadside is for example completely wrong if the story is set in August (at least in Norway), and a sea eagle is an extremely rare sight on the southern coast of Norway. Some readers are botanists or ornithologists, others might be automotive experts for that matter. In my latest novel, The Caveman, the police calls for a Mercedes E300 1991 model. One of the characters is bound and locked in the trunk of the car, but can eventually get loose and kick down the wall between the trunk and the rear seat and manage to escape. It did not take many days after the release before I got a nice letter from an elderly man who made me aware of that this car model was equipped with a fixed steel plate in the rear seat that would be impossible to penetrate.
Mercedes E300, 1991-model
The headline of this post was obviously chosen to entice you to read. The observant reader will always find small factual errors in a novel. The Swedish author Henning Mankell told me once that he always left a bug in his books, but few had found them. He planted, intentionally, a mistake in each novel, so it was a breeze for dedicated readers to find it. However, during dinner he went as far as to admit that it was not so, but as he reckoned there always was a mistake or two in the books and in this way he forestalled the observant reader. A smart move, obviously - for you will always be able to find a flaw or two in all books.

In the translated versions of The Caveman you will not find the Mercedes-error. I changed the model year before the book went to translation. Yet I wanted to ask: Have you ever found a bug in a book you've read? And to my writer colleagues: Have you ever made a mistake, and do you dare to admit it for us?


  1. Of course there are mistakes in every novel. A novel is such a large and complex thing that...

    Let me draw an analogy to computer programming, which is what I've done professionally all of my professional life. :-) Before I'd become a professional programmer, while working at Hewlett-Packard as a lowly production worker, I walked past an engineer's desk one day and noticed one of those little sign cards that have humorous and philosophical sayings. This one read, "There is no such thing as a non-trivial bug-free program." In essence, a program can be so simple that it CAN be bug free, but once it reaches a certain level of complexity, to be non-trivial, it WILL have one or more bugs in it. Granted, this was written over 35 years ago, and computer 'science' has progressed greatly since then, but then so has the complexity of the programs.

    Writing a novel and writing a complex computer program share many similarities and suffer from the same "non-trivial bug-free" problem. The human mind simply can't grasp and hold all of the information and data and structures necessary in such a complex endeavor and do it without making mistakes.

    So it is in life, so it is in novels. Let your novel live! (Do the best you can, then to hell with the nit-pickers. :-) Life's too short.

  2. My biggest mistake was in my first novel, City of Silver, which takes place in Potosi, in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru in 1650. The 17th century pSanish city is still up there at 13,500 feet on the Altiplano of Bolivia. I had been there before I wrote about it. As you can imagine, it is pretty cold up there. I visited there with my claustrophobic husband, so we did not take a tour into the silver mine. In the first scene of the book, an Indian miner goes into the mine to retrieve a package he had hidden there. He feels cold as he descends. (I was always feeling cold in the town. Basements are cold. Caves in the US are cold. It made sense that Santiago Yana would find the mine cold.) But my assumption was WRONG. The deeper one goes into that mine, the hotter it is.
    One reader knew I was wrong. She had been to Potosi and into that mine. Fortunately for me, she told me that privately, and did not announce it to the audience at the library where we met. She was so delighted that someone had written a story about the city's history, she didn't care if I got that wrong.
    I love the idea of announcing that one puts in a factual error on purpose. With historical novels there is so much to know that I must have made a lot of mistakes. I need a place to hide. That excuse could very well be it.

  3. Jørn, there's a big one sitting out there that no one's picked up on yet--and I'm not about to announce it--but if the day of reckoning ever comes I have my answer all ready. "The character was lying."

    After all, you can only blame the line editor so many times. :)

  4. Hi Jørn. Great post. And hey, you want car stuff, drop me a line. I spent the best part of 25 years as a motoring photojournalist. It's come in very useful at times.

    I once managed to include a nine-day week in one of my books, but fortunately an eagle-eyed copy editor spotted it before it went to print. Now I keep a note of over which days the events of the book take place, just in case. Plenty of other errors, but I do my best to correct them in later editions ...

  5. Funnily enough we made a car mistake also. In Death of the Mantis, Kubu has problems with the petrol pump (at least he thinks it is the petrol pump) on his Land Rover in the Kalahari. One reader pointed out to us that the only Land Rovers of that type available in Botswana were diesels...