What are the greatest mistakes writers make?

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THIS IS WHAT WE LIKE about writing fiction.

We make it up before we start.

Or we make it up as we go along.

And then we sometimes get lazy.

Why waste time researching?

Why waste time period?

Forget the facts.

Make it up.

It’s fiction after all.

And that’s where we as writers make our greatest mistakes.

We worry about the story.

We worry about the characters.

We should be worrying about the facts.

Not long ago I read Tony Hillerman’s autobiography, Seldom Disappointed. He told of writing one action-packed and critical scene in a mystery novel. And this, he said, was what happened.

His hero woke up in the middle of the night. The bad guy was climbing out of the bedroom window of his hotel room

The hero leaped out of bed.

He climbed down the fire escape.

He raced through back alleys and down the street for blocks.

He caught the bad guy.

But a reader wrote him a note and made the one critical point that Tony Hillerman had overlooked.

His hero hadn’t put on any shoes.

His hero must have had really tough feet.

His hero did it all barefoot.

It was an easy mistake to make.

Hillerman said he should have caught it.

Back in 1930, Dashiell Hammett who wrote The Maltese Falcon, among other great mystery novels, was reviewing fiction for the New York Evening Post, and he was flabbergasted, even dismayed, by the generous assortment of blunders that writers made.

He sat down and wrote a series of suggestions that, he hoped, would benefit mystery writers everywhere. Included were the following:

  • The Colt’s .45 automatic pistol has no chambers. The cartridges are put in a magazine.
  • When a bullet from a Colt’s .45 or any firearm of approximately the same size and power hits you, even if not in a fatal spot, it usually knocks you over. It is quite upsetting at any reasonable range.
  • When you are knocked unconscious, you do not feel the blow that does it.
  • Not nearly so much can be seen by moonlight as you imagine. This is especially true of colors.
  • Ventriloquists do not actually “throw” their voices and such doubtful illusions as they manage depend on their gestures. Nothing at all could be done by a ventriloquist standing behind his audience.
  • Even detectives who drop their final g’s should not be made to say “anythin’,’” – an oddity that calls for vocal acrobatics.
  • “Youse” is the plural of “you.”
  • A lawyer cannot impeach his own witness.
  • A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and poles. He knows no harm is done if the subject sees him now and then.

Hammett’s suggestions were written in the 1930s, but they are a reminder for writers to make sure that what he or she makes up in fiction still remain within the realm of reality.

So when you’re writing a scene in your next novel, don’t leap without a net.

There’s nothing to break your fall but a disappointed reader.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Secrets of the Dead.

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