“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Robert Burns
Plans or Schemes?
While we often talk about best laid “plans”, today I like “schemes,” from the original quote by Robert Burns, especially as it pertains to today’s blog.
Novelists are schemers more than planners. After all we tell lies for a living, and most of the time we get away with it. Unless our novels veer so far from reality that nobody can believe a word, we’re usually okay. Of course we try not to make errors, and most of us do careful research to be sure we don’t. I spend hours, maybe weeks, researching anything I don’t know first hand. Sometimes, though, things slip by, usually the things we thought we knew and didn’t need to check.
Research Gone Astray.
I’ve told you before that my novel Dragonslayer (now more aptly titled Hold Back the Night) revamped the centuries old liturgical calendar so that Ash Wednesday and Easter were in the same week. For those of you who fast or give up something important like chocolate during Lent, that year was a piece of cake–unless you gave up cake.
After my first book, Brendan’s Song, was purchased for publication the copy editor wrote to say she wished that all days had 40 hours, like the first one in my book, but since they don’t, I’d need to change that. I love it when editors find mistakes before publication.
Another kind of mistake was harder to avoid, and guess what, I’ve made it again. So here’s my confession.
The Scheme That Backfired.
When I wrote Prospect Street in 2001, I set the novel during that year. After all the novel’s timeline began before I sat down to write, and I figured that nothing much could happen to upend my carefully orchestrated calendar.
Prospect Street takes place in Georgetown in Washington D.C., just ten minutes from my then home in Arlington, VA. Politics of sorts permeates the air in the story, the way it permeates everything in real life. And although politics is not a major part of the story, one major character is a senator.
I knew my setting and I was all set. Prospect Street was two-thirds of the way completed when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th. The attack changed everything for everybody, but particularly for people near the explosions. The attack on the Pentagon came very close to home, so close that a minister who was interning at our church was driving in for the day when American Airlines Flight 77 flew over his car and crashed into the building seconds later, killing 125 people.
In an odd twist of fate (and an aside) my father, right before or during the early days of WWII, was on the crew that installed the slate roof on the Pentagon, which delayed his draft notice. For weeks after the attack, the Pentagon smoldered. The slate roof, which had done an amazing job of keeping water from the building, actually hindered the firefighters efforts because… they couldn’t get water into the building. More best laid schemes.
After 9-11, I called my editor and talked to her about my book dilemma. Was it okay if I set my book in the year 2000, so that I could avoid weaving 9-11 into the story. First, the terrorist attack didn’t belong. That would be a completely different book. Second, I didn’t want to exploit what had happened. We agreed setting it back a year would be the best bet.
Of course 2000 was also fairly momentous, and I did have to rewrite and mention Y2K and other happenings when and if they were relevant. But 2000 was safer to write about, and best of all, over. I knew what had happened. 2001 was still unfolding.
How Far Can We Stretch History?
When I began my new book last spring, I considered my experience with Prospect Street. I decided to set the book in 2019 and 2020, which was unfolding while I was writing it. I’d almost reached the point where I would be writing in real time “after” the end of the book in fiction time. What could go wrong in those few weeks?
The best laid schemes, right? I can’t begin to tell you in how many ways Covid-19 would affect my plot if I set the book when I had planned to. The book “almost” ends when the quarantine begins in real life. But no, it just won’t work.
So now I’m tasked with going back and changing everything that matters.
Do Readers Really Care?
Do readers really grab their calendars to make sure that every day I mention works with a meticulous timeline they’re keeping? Well, no. But I do mention a few events and days of the week. So I have to make sure all that is accurate. The biggest change will probably be the Greek Epiphany celebration, which will now be a year earlier. I’ll have to research to see exactly what was different in January of 2019 and make the changes. Considering that I attended in 2020 and did the research up close, that’s a bummer.
Every day I learn about some truly monumental changes occurring in daily life due to a killer virus. The changes I have to make in a work of fiction are not monumental. At most, they’re mildly annoying. But how will other novelists handle their books in progress?
It’s going to be interesting to watch and see. In the meantime, let’s guess how many new novels will be published about the pandemic? Or will those authors have to wait until the worst is over? Because I can tell them right now, writing about unfolding history is a gamble. I, for one, won’t be joining them.