The morning after I sent off the final draft of my first novel, In the Court’s Hands, to Poolbeg Press I woke up at 6am with a question – Where did Beatrice leave her car?
Beatrice Barrington, the central character in all three of my novels, In the Court’s Hands, Now That You’ve Gone and the newly-published, Orchids and Lies, had parked her car, gone to work at court and then returned home in a taxi. Along the way, I had somehow managed to overlook her usual means of transport.
It was easily put right during the subsequent editing process but it left me wondering how it could have happened. What part of my writing brain failed to retain that detail or even notice the issue in subsequent read-throughs? I’d sent off the novel after completing it with great love and care. I’d worked and reworked it until it was as close to perfect as I could make it. How could I not have noticed that I’d left Beatrice’s car behind her? And if I’d made that mistake what other errors were there?
A friend of mine, who isn’t a writer, likened it to a continuity problem in a movie. We’ve all seen those. Among the most well-known is in The Wizard of Oz when Judy Garland meets the Scarecrow, played by Ray Bolger, and he sings If I only had a Brain. Her ponytails are short, then long, then short and then long again by the time the song ends.
That happened because the movie was shot in a stop start fashion with different takes brought together over a long period of time, in this case long enough for Judy Garland’s hair to grow four inches.
Writing a novel can be a bit like that – a stop start business. Few writers I know can afford to solely spend their time at their desk. And though I’ve heard of people who sit down and write in a constant flow until their novel is complete I’ve never actually met anyone who does that. Even full-time writers, with the luxury of complete immersion, take breaks to eat and sleep and occasionally go for a walk. And those of us who have other jobs must write in snatches.
I don’t find it difficult to pick up where I left off. The world I’ve created on the page is always there waiting for me to resume. So, although I’m not a plotter and liken my writing method to moving from one room to the next with a torch, I don’t forget the characters or how far I’ve got with their story. But I can forget the little things, like where Beatrice put her stenograph – she’s a stenographer – or whether she phoned Gabriel Ingram – her retired detective friend – like she said she would in the previous chapter. Or whether the man she met at the Smithfield Luas stop had wildly bushy eyebrows and no hair or wildly bushy hair and no eyebrows. It’s amazing how little things like that can become trip wires that necessitate many intricate reworkings once they’re uncovered. It would, for example, be fine for the man at the Smithfield Luas stop to be encountered in the next chapter gazing at his reflection in a shop window and running his fingers through his wildly bush hair but he’d look odd doing that to his eyebrows.
So what can writers do to minimise these little . . . let’s call them continuity quirks?
Since Beatrice’s car went missing in that first novel I’ve been trying to develop ways to prevent a recurrence. Scrivener has been a big help. I’m not a techy person and I’m definitely not using all the bells and whistles the word processing programme offers but among the options I do use is the character profile. As soon as I’ve written a character’s name and description I copy and paste these into a character page. And when that person reappears later in the novel I revisit the page to remind myself that she can’t be painting her elegantly curved finger nails bright green because they were gnawed back to their cuticles three days earlier.
I do the same thing for locations that I intend using more than once – copying and pasting each place description into a separate page. I know not everyone likes or uses Scrivener. There are other programmes that do something similar. Also, none of the software is organisationally any better than an index card pen and paper system. What matters is finding ways to keep track of the detail.
It’s known that the human brain often corrects while reading – it’s why you still know what I mean when I write about using a mumbrello in the rain even though my spelling is way off. But tricking the brain into thinking something is new can help. I find changing my work from Scrivener into Word before re-reading can make a difference not so much for preventing continuity quirks as finding them after they’ve been made. Even when I just change the font I can see my work with fresh eyes and spot mistakes more easily.
Another method I’ve adopted involves reading aloud. For me when I read aloud it seems to have a different impact on my brain than reading to myself in the normal way. It makes errors jar more though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it becomes a bit like listening to a piece of music being played as opposed to reading sheet music – if there’s a discordant note it’s easier to pick out.
Having said all that, I have yet to send an entirely flawless manuscript to my editor. And while Beatrice’s car hasn’t gone missing recently she did have a 29-hour day in an early draft of Orchids and Lies.
(c) Fiona Gartland
About Orchids and Lies:
“When a high-pitched scream perforated my peace at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin it seemed that it was not only audible but almost visible. It was as though the sound had made the light there vibrate – as though the plants and trees were altered by it.”
Court stenographer Beatrice Barrington is at the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin, when a woman runs screaming from the Palm House.
A man has plunged from the high walkway inside onto the flagstone floor below. He’s identified as gardener Paddy Hogan. An accident? Or could it be suicide? Examining the scene, Beatrice believes neither is likely. She begins to suspect Paddy has been murdered, though the local gardaí seem to believe otherwise.
Paddy’s sister Ava begs her to find the truth about his death and, though Beatrice has promised herself not to get involved and has been warned off by Detective Inspector Rebecca Maguire, she agrees.
And when her former lover, ex-detective Gabriel Ingram, returns from a long recuperation in Donegal, together they get drawn into the case. Investigating the lives of staff and visitors at the gardens, they uncover lies and deception but a motive for murder remains elusive . . .
Order your copy online here.