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Three authors fail to 'write what they know', with disconcerting results

Avoid throwing ashes from the Empire State Building
Avoid throwing ashes from the Empire State Building
Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images

Are you an aspiring writer, debating whether a newbie like you might locate your novel within a time and place you have yet to experience? Or are you considering whether you might flesh out a protagonist with character flaws researched on the Internet?

Click on the photo links to discover how three novels written by published and even award-winning authors might dissuade you from taking this route. Listen to their prose, but learn from their blatant research mistakes!

I found issues within the following novels:

  1. Avoid throwing ashes from the Empire State Building as Carole Radziwill did in "The Widow's Guide to Sex and Dating"
  2. Do not insert a disability as a prop as Maggie O'Farrell did in "Instructions for a Heatwave"
  3. Research changes in locale for mirrored themes, unlike Jhumpa Lahiri did in "The Lowland"

Readers depend on writers to get it right. Good luck!

Avoid throwing ashes from the Empire State Building
Avoid throwing ashes from the Empire State Building Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images

Avoid throwing ashes from the Empire State Building

Carol Radziwill, in her humorous debut novel "The Widow's Guide to Sex and Dating" reveals a world most of us have imagined but never experienced. Her petite protagonist moves with a wealthy, high society crowd oozing with influence. Upon losing her famous sexologist husband to death by falling Giacometti sculpture, she falls into bed with an Alec Baldwin clone.

It's a no-brainer read; cotton candy to fill a summer afternoon.

I enjoyed its quirky drama and laugh out loud though forgettable scenes, until the Widow Claire stepped onto the Empire State Building elevator, husband's urn in tow.

Objection Number One:

Has Radziwill been to the top of the Empire State Building lately? Visitors must go through a security screening similar to what's found at airports around the country. She could have easily researched this on the Internet:

"The items listed are not permitted in the Empire State Building. Do not carry any of these items into the security screening area. Items that are confiscated may not be returned. Please note that this list is not exhaustive, so if you are unsure about an item, please do not bring it. Any questions and uncertainties should be referred to the Security Officers on duty.

"All weapons, including firearms, ammunition, knives, swords, scissors, mace, any dangerous items and any dual-use items that could be dangerous are strictly prohibited in the Empire State Building.

  • Glass items, including bottles, glasses, marbles, etc.
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Cans, bottles, flasks, etc.
  • Professional cameras, equipment and camera stands: mono-pods, bi-pods and tri-pods
  • Sports equipment such as skateboards, roller skates, golf clubs, baseball bats, hockey sticks, baseballs, footballs, tennis balls, etc.
  • Marking instruments, including spray paint and markers
  • Musical instruments
  • Large packages, suitcases, carry-on luggage and other such parcels.
  • Costumes and masks

Objection Number Two:

Has Radziwell ever seen cremated ashes? They do not float away on a convenient breeze, as she implies. Ashes are pulverized bone fragments: mostly dense sand, intermingled with fine powder. Some of the fine powder is carried off by winds aloft, but the majority is sand. Dropping sand from the top of the Empire State Building would probably hit one or more people on the head.

And while the Urban Legend about a penny falling from the building has been dis-proven, i.e., "Throwing a penny off the Empire State Building wouldn't kill someone. A penny only weighs about a gram and it tumbles as it falls. Because of the tumbling and the light weight, there's so much air resistance that the penny never really gathers that much speed before it hits its terminal velocity. A gram of weight traveling at a relatively slow speed might hurt a little if it hit you on the head, but it's not going to kill you," cascading sand particles descending upon one's head would definitely not make a pedestrian's day.

Do not insert a disability as a prop
Do not insert a disability as a prop Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Do not insert a disability as a prop

Maggie O'Farrell won me as a fan, after I read "The Hand That First Held Mine", winner of a Costa Novel Award. My second read was not as successful an adventure. "Instructions for a Heatwave" contains lovely familiar relationships, but one major flaw I could not get over:

Daughter Aoife (pronounced ae-fvah as an Irish Eve) cannot read.

I could not reconcile this. The Riordan family was not impoverished. The other two children had no issues with reading. Aoife was intelligent, independent, resourceful. How is it she never had an eye exam? Eye exams were present in 1976 London.

Aoife claims words dance on the page. This is an issue concerning "eye teaming" or "eye tracking". Ten percent of school children have eye teaming issues. And vision therapy would have been available:

"In the first half of the twentieth century, in cooperation with ophthalmologists, orthoptists introduced a wide variety of training techniques that were designed primarily to improve binocular function. In the second half of the twentieth century, visual training activities were taken up by optometrists and paramedical personnel to treat conditions that ranged from uncomfortable vision to poor reading or academic performance."

What perhaps discouraged me most was not the fact that Aoife was a struggling young woman unable to read, but that Maggie O'Farrell never offered the character or reader any assistance in sorting out the issue. It wasn't enough to commiserate with this character; O'Farrell ignored the chance to educate her readers with an appendix, if she didn't wish to manage it within her story.

Why did she not do this? She was obviously aware of the issues an inability to read offered those existing within the civilized world. She had a perfect opportunity to help ten percent of children suffering from this malady understand they are not stupid, but she muffed it.

I can only surmise she did not know what words dancing on the page meant, other than its side effects. Inserting a disability into story as a prop is insensitive; it's put me off the prolific author.

Research changes in locale for mirrored themes
Research changes in locale for mirrored themes Photo by Handout/Getty Images

Research changes in locale for mirrored themes

Pulitzer-Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri has generated a great deal of press for works of fiction set in India and the United States. Her Bio lists her accomplishments:

"She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship... Her debut collection of stories, 'Interpreter of Maladies', was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her novel 'The Namesake' was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications."

I have not read these books, nor nor her novel, "Unaccustomed Earth". The only Lahiri available at the library was "The Lowland". Its description intrigued me:

"The Lowland is a work of great beauty and complex emotion; an engrossing family saga and a story steeped in history that spans generations and geographies with seamless authenticity."

However, its serious lack of seamless authenticity gave me pause, as the story of Subhash and Udayan Mitra unfolded.

A reader trusts its author has done her research and fleshed out her characters, including place, for place is a relationship. I could buy Lahiri's perspective on the Naxalite movement, a Maoist rebellion that inspired college students like Udayan to rise up and fight against inequity and poverty. I had no other frame of reference: I was at her mercy.

It was when Subhash and his young wife moved to a University campus in Rhode Island in the late 1960s to escape fear and student rebellion that the novel fell apart.

I understand Lahiri was not writing about Vietnam War protests in her character's adopted country. But anyone living on a university campus in the United States during that time would have experienced student unrest. The Kent State Massacre occurred on a university campus May 4, 1970. Student protests were the norm and often violent-- even in Rhode Island.

Dr. Sharon Hartman Strom shared an oral history of this period:

"When I arrived on the URI (University of Rhode Island) campus in 1969, many young people were engaged in steady protest against the War, and the bombing of Cambodia halted classes and produced teach-ins and intense discussions. Students went to Washington repeatedly; sometimes they were arrested and beaten. Many of the most principled students I knew were already expert public speakers and organizers by the time they graduated. A small minority of these were in ROTC and tried to defend the War, and it was not always the case that they were treated with civility; feelings ran high, particularly since most male students would face the draft at some point or other. And all students, whatever their political views, were losing high school friends in Vietnam."

Such an oversight leaves me reeling. A panel of Booker judges in 2013 were similarly blind. They shortlisted "The Lowland". Happily, the award went to "The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton.

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