Easy-to-fix mistakes damage your credibility

One of the first rules students are taught in reporting classes at a journalism school is spelling people’s name’s correctly in news stories, feature stories, and editorials. Misspelling a person’s name is not only a rude discount, it undermines your credibility, the thought being that if you can’t even get the name right, how can readers trust you to get anything else right?

Used to be a copyeditor would catch a lot of the misspelt names. Now, reporters and writers are expected to catch their own mistakes because copyediting has become a lost art as organizations cut costs. When a reporter covers a story, readers expect him/her to have a basic knowledge of the subject and when that proves not to be true, the story won’t be trusted.

Novelists face the same issues. If you misspell the names of famous people and widely known cities, you’re in trouble. The more obvious the error–to general readers–the more likely it is to be caught. Obscure errors will bring specialists out of the woodwork in editorial reviews even though most Amazon reader reviewers don’t have the background to catch them.

One of my favorite historical novelists got some simple facts wrong in a recent book that brought the wrath of the gods down on his back. I hope he went back and corrected the material for the next edition. If you’re writing a civil war novel and say that the South fired on “Fort Summer” in “Savannah Harbor,” you–and your beta readers or editor–have been somewhat lax.

Personally, I think it’s especially damaging to make an amateurish mistake on the first page of a novel. Here’s what I saw in the opening paragraph of a book by a well-known writer for a major publisher (that should have had editors and fact checkers):

“Eighty-one-year-old Ernie Keene, retired corporal, United States Navy, stood on the misty flight deck of the USS Intrepid and looked out at New Jersey.”

I immediately lost my faith in the accuracy of the book because the rank of corporal is not a navy rank. I wonder: how can an author of a black ops book not know this? How can the publisher’s editorial staff not know this? Presumably, most readers of black ops and other military-style novels would also know this.

This error alone probably won’t sink the book, but it creates a barrier between the readers and the author about the author’s credentials for writing the novel. As with a news story, readers will think, “If you make a mistake like this, you’re probably making bigger mistakes that are harder for a layperson to catch.”

Authors have a luxury older generations didn’t have. Type in the word “corporal” in a search engine, and you know the navy doesn’t have them. Type in a name that can have multiple spellings, and find out which way the famous person you’re writing about spelt it. And then there’s Wikipedia for basic information about a lot of things.

We have to sweat the “small stuff” or our readers will think we didn’t research the big stuff.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Florida Folk Magic Series, the latest of which is “Fate’s Arrows.”

Why don’t people know this stuff?

A few days ago, a reporter walked out on the street after doing a story about the Supreme Court to see how much random passersby on the street know about the court. When asked how many justices are on the court, several people thought 35 sounded about right. When asked what the court does, some thought it passed bills.

Recently, news reports of a Pew Research Center study showed that half of all Americans don’t know six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

Years ago, when Jay Leno was the host of the Tonight Show, he went out on a city street from time to time and asked people simple questions such as who’s the governor of your state and the kinds of questions that appear on a basic citizenship test. The studio audience laughed at the stupid answers.

My response to such things is why don’t people know this stuff?

Some say the schools are at fault. Some say we’re in the middle of the entitlement culture where folks think “it’s all about me” and don’t see any point in knowing what isn’t about them.

I don’t suppose high schools and middle schools have civics courses any more, but they must have some course that teaches students how the federal government is structured. If history is still being taught, it’s hard to see how students got through school without knowing about World War II and the Holocaust.

But when it comes down to it, it’s a shame studio audiences think ignorance about basic stuff is funny. Surprising, yes. Sad, yes. But hardly funny.

The latest incarnation of the “Weakest Link” is is currenlty airing on NBC. I’m surprised by the questions people miss. Some of the answers should be known by people in elementary or middle school. Okay, let’s stipulate that in a quiz show studio, things are a bit chaotic. But still, why don’t people know this stuff?

Some of my college professors thought it was more important to know how to find information when we needed it rather than having an encyclopedic memory of facts. Perhaps people today think they have no need to know stuff when all they have to do is go to Google or WikiPedia for the answer. Okay, that does make some sense.

Yes, I think we need a certain amount of knowedge just to function. Some basic facts and ideals. Enough stuff to make intelligent decisions about life, politics, career choices, &c.

I guess many people think “this stuff” doesn’t matter. If they think that, then I worry that one day we’ll all be governerned by the weakest link.

Malcolm

September Hope Report

When partners from communities reach out to us with requests, it is our goal to respond to their needs as quickly as possible. The month of September was no exception as our communities experienced a spike in COVID cases in mid-September.

Source: September Hope Report

In many ways, all of us are fighting to survive COVID and its attendant economic fallout. Those who have less than us have the same needs as us, echoed in the poster shown above. How can we help when we have so little we can give financially to the multiple groups asking for help?

We can spread the word and hope somebody hears it, perhaps even our Congresspersons and Senators who seem to be as immune now to the needs of indigenous communities today as they have been in past centuries. I just read an article in Montana, The Magazine of Western History called “Investigating Negligence in Indian Affairs.” The Blackfeet and others were starving in the 1880s, Washington knew it, and did nothing. That attitude still rules Washington today.

So, it’s up to us. First to help. Second to get rid of those in government who won’t.

Malcolm

Losing the News – Local News in Peril

As local news outlets are gutted and shuttered, reporters laid off, publication schedules cut, and resources tightened across the country, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions sounds the alarm about the existential threat facing local watchdog journalism and proposes big-picture solutions for its revitalization.

Source: Losing the News – PEN America

This important report shows how news coverage of local issues in local newspapers is being lost: “Most Americans do not yet realize that their local news sources are on the brink of collapse and only a small minority pay for local news.”

“Local” is–obviously–where we live, and as we lose local watch-dog reporting and coverage of on-going issues, we are entering a paradoxical situation where we know more about what’s going in Washington, D. C., and other major cities than we do in the towns where we live.

Why does local journalism matter and what must we do to save it? If this subject resonates with you, click on the link above to see the report and its conclusions. As a former college journalism instructor, you have my gratitude if you read and share this report.

–Malcolm

 

Coming Soon: Pat Bertram’s Latest (possibly darkly humorous) Novel

First, a disclaimer. Pat Bertram and I are long-time online friends. We’ve also met in “real life.” And, we’ve blogged about each other’s books. All this means you can’t expect this post to be objective news. Not at all. I’m just happy Pat’s got a new book coming out later this month.

I’m a bit jealous because Bob: The Right Hand of God looks like the kind of book I wish I’d written. It will be released by Stairway Press on October 20, though you can already find a page listing for it on Amazon.

Publisher’s Description

All Chet Thomlin wants is to be left alone to care for the abandoned and neglected animals at his store, Used Pets, but his obnoxious customers and clinging mother make life miserable. And nothing ever seems to change.

On April Fool’s day, a gnome-like little man appears on television. He introduces himself as Bob, the Right Hand of God, and says that as part of the galactic renewal program, God has accepted an offer from a development company on the planet Xerxes to turn Earth into a theme park

Chet laughs at the prank, but then bizarre things happen. Carrier pigeons return, millions of them, darkening the sky as they hadn’t done for over a hundred years. His mother and her entire subdivision are wiped off the face of the earth. And his friends disappear.

On Easter Sunday, a bright light appears, and Bob tells the remaining population of Denver that if they enter the light, they will be safe from the reconstruction zone. Chet watches people enter one by one, but he refuses to step forward, thinking that he’d rather have his freedom than to be in a dubiously safe place.

The light fades, and Chet gets what he wanted. He is left alone. Well, except for Bob. Bob won’t let him be. Bob calls Chet on his now-defunct cellphone, taunts him, plays with his senses. Being chosen by The Right Hand of God is no fun!

Even worse, Chet gets more change than he can handle. Plumbing and all other signs of civilization vanish. Denver becomes a prairie of blue flowers that sweep into an inland sea where a prehistoric monster lives. Volcanoes grow at his feet.

And Chet has become prey.

Maybe going into that mysterious light wouldn’t be so bad after all…

Some people might suggest Earth has already become a theme park. I’m not going to debate that one way or another. I just want to enjoy the novel as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Malcolm

Florida’s Pork Choppers

Native Floridians who were around during the 1950s probably remember the powerful Pork Chop Gang, a group of 20 movers and shakers who controlled Florida politics via backroom deals and strategic positions in the legislature. I thought of them today because the most powerful member was Ed Ball who ran the St. Joe Paper Company (mentioned in yesterday’s post).

The group fought against desegregation, communists, and homosexuals. Above is a group photograph of the wheelers and dealers taken turning a 1956 special session of the state senate. (Florida Memory Photo). You can read an article on Florida Memory about the gang here.

According to Wikipedia, “The spokesperson was Senator Charley Johns. They ‘had become unusually powerful in the 1950s because the legislative districts of the state had not been redrawn to account for the massive growth of urban areas in earlier years.’ The key figure in the group, coordinating their activities, although not a legislator, was industrialist Ed Ball. Their favorite haunt was the fish camp of legislator Raeburn C. Horne, at Nutall Rise, in Taylor County on the Aucilla River.”

Fish Camp on the Aucilla River where deals were made. Florida Memory Photo

The group finally lost its power after 1962 when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that the state (or if needed, the Federal Government) had to go through some serious reapportionment to ensure that representation was based on the current population’s distribution.

I don’t miss them.

Malcolm

Local Color in Novels

Local color serves a variety of purposes in novels and short stories:

  • Paints a picture of the location and its history
  • Provides careers, hobbies, road trips for the characters
  • Resonates with readers who know the area
  • Helps move the plot forward
  • Adds depth to the story

Florida Panhandle

My four Florida Folk Magic novels are set in the state’s panhandle near the Apalachicola River. This was once a land of cotton that is far different from the cities and tourist attractions of the peninsula that tourists flock to every year. It’s dominated by pine forests, small towns, small farms, commercial and sports fishing, and a relatively low profile nationally.

St. Joe Paper Company

The St. Joe Paper Company in the 1950s when my novels are set, had a massive influence in the panhandle: paper mill, landholdings, a railroad called the Apalachicola Northern that carried wood products from the coastal mill to Quincy, Florida for transfer to mainline railroads. The paper company, part of a trust established by the du Pont family, still exists but focuses on commercial and residential real estate. The railroad, named the Apalachicola Northern, was referred to as the Port St. Joe Route. (It still exists as part of a conglomerate.)

In my novels, I call my fictional the town Torreya (after a rare Florida tree) and place it near the town of Telogia as shown on this AN railroad map:

I mention the railroad a lot, fudging its route to include my fictional town because it, and the local sawmill, are important to the local economy; inasmuch as “crossings” is a vital word in conjure, railroad crossings also provide ambiance and figure into a plot which includes bulkhead flat cars carrying wood products:

Unfortunately, most of the online pictures of this railroad are copyrighted, including its old Electro-Motive (General Motors) SW9 switch engines.

If you’re a railfan, you can learn more about the railroad here:

What’s the Major Attraction or Industry?

What draws people to the location you’re writing about. If I’d set the novels in current times, I might have mentioned Apalachicola’s commercial oyster industry and/or the fight between Florida and Georgia for rights to the Apalachicola River’s water. If I’d set my novels in Tallahassee, the state government and two state universities there add plot opportunities. Of course, almost anywhere you go in the state provides fishing, kayaking, swimming, and other river/gulf/ocean recreation.

I chose pine forests and railroads because they fit the realities of the times in the Florida Panhandle of the 1950s. Needless to say, if you grow up or live in the area you’re writing about, you have an edge over authors from the far side of the country. You may not be a walking encyclopedia for the locale, but you know where to look.

Malcolm

Book four in the Florida Folk Magic Series, “Fate’s Arrows,” was released by Thomas-Jacob Publishing last month in paperback and e-book.

 

Er, just trying to learn (heh heh)

Whenever people take offense at the questions I ask, I respond, “I’m just trying to learn.” Writers are always asking questions, so a lot of people buy this answer–unless they known me well. If they know me well, they know I was just being sarcastic (heh heh).

Late last year, I went out to dinner with a former good friend named Mark. When our beer arrived–mine was Sam Adams and his was some kind of cheap swill, his first comment was, “This beer tastes like goat piss.”

“What breed of goat?”

“What?”

I just wondered how you knew what goat piss tasted like, so I thought maybe you raised Toggenburgs or Fainting Goats and had a special experience.”

“Of course not,” snapped Mark. “It’s just an expression for ‘this stuff tastes really bad.'”

“Oh, well, I was just trying to learn.”

I’ve asked a similar question when people say things like, “This stew tastes like dog shit.”  I know what they mean, of course, but it’s fun to yank their chains and ask, “How do you know?”

A writer can never ask too many questions unless the other person is the size of the Incredible Hulk and/or has an AK-47 with a full magazine. At that point, learning isn’t necessary. Well, it’s never really necessary because what I’m I’m looking for is each person’s reaction to being asked if his/her knowledge comes from having tasted the stuff.

Common expressions that also have a literal meaning provide a lot of fun for writers. Yes, I know, we’re inside all the time and don’t get out much.

Malcolm

Thanks to all of you who stopped by Amazon to pick up an on-sale copy of “Fate’s Spells.” I hope you like it.

Hate in the Sunshine State

My novels are set in the 1950s when the traditional KKK in Florida was strong and active. Years later, hatred is still alive and just as sick as ever, though it’s been dispersed into a variety of groups.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida has 67 hate groups currently tracked by the Center. 

The Center notes that sixteen statewide groups are not shown on the map. Otherwise, you can place your cursor on the white circles on the map on the website to see the names of the groups.

We should be aware of these groups: otherwise, it’s hard to combat them. A word of caution, though. While some have websites, those sites are composed of the sickening kind of tripe (and pictures) one would expect of thugs, psychopaths, and other degenerates. Don’t go to these sites unless you have a strong stomach.

Florida has more hate groups than any other state except California with 88 groups. So, hate is not just a product of the South in spite of how our part of the country is often portrayed by others.

In A “superhighway of hate:” Extremism is flourishing in Florida from “Florida Phoenix,” Diane Rado writes, “From hate speech to hate groups to hate crimes, Florida faces a broad atmosphere of hatred that has been escalating for years, though residents and tourists may not have realized how much the extremist landscape has changed.”

Just why Florida has so many groups is unclear, but some suggest the Intenet has helped thread the hate around, allowing groups to become interlinked–among other things, groups that once operated out of a basement are easier to find via search engines today and those whom they attract help them do their work.

Groups of various stripes have been more vocal of late. The media gives them exposure. Peaceful and legitimate protests often give hate groups a foot in the door to gather on the same streets and give the protesters a black eye when the news shows buildings on fire and police cars turned over.

The times have become ripe for the radicalization of people who are easily led by news accounts of violence and social media information. Hatred is one virus no vaccine is able to defeat; no doubt it will still be around when COVID is long gone.

We have a lot of work to do to clean the scum out of this country.

Malcolm

 

How many crutches do we need?

Aeon Trump Card. Thoth Deck

Some say that Tarot cards, I Ching hexagrams, thrown bones, and other methods of uncovering the future only tell us what we already know, showing us that we do not trust what we know or that it’s buried deep in our minds and needs to be remembered. So we have these crutches, then.

In general, I think many of us know what we should be doing, but put it off by leaning on various other crutches while we decide whether or not to do it. It’s as though the thing we know we should do seems risky and we need to make sure one way or another that it’s not as dangerous as it appears.

I Ching Hexagram 1

So we do research–books, websites, experts, college courses, etc.–all of which are good to a point but then, as we delay moving ahead, become more crutches. Spouses can become crutches, so too, siblings and parents and our next-door neighbors and colleagues and best friends. They don’t want us to change, leave town, become involved in a cause they’re less sure of, or even miss bowling night.

Most people who employ the usual crutches to “see” the future agree that the future is not fixed, but that it represents what will probably happen if nothing is done to alter it. I think that’s probably true, but add that I also think we’re creating that future knowingly or unknowingly. It’s better I think to realize we’re doing that rather than blundering ahead and then being “surprised” at what happens. Pretending that we don’t know we did it–created that future–is another crutch or, perhaps, a civilized form of plausible deniability.

Sometimes people who have been drunk wake up and can’t believe they did the things sober people claim they did while they were drunk. Since they don’t remember it, they can claim in the middle of their hangovers that they’re not responsible for whatever happened. Do you suppose we might do this even when we’re not drunk?

I suspect so. Being drunk is a crutch, I think, as is going through life acting like we’re drunk even when we’re sober. I wonder: are we afraid to make commitments, to take this job rather than that job, adopt viewpoint ABC rather than viewpoint XZY? As long as we don’t commit, we probably feel free to make another choice later. Some people like keeping their options open, often until “outside forces” start eliminating those options.

A belief in fate is, perhaps, a large crutch. We say the cruel hand of fate caused whatever it caused or that life got in the way, believing that’s absolution. A comforting thought, but I don’t buy it. Who caused this “fate,” I want to ask?

We don’t need Tarot cards or coins/yarrow stalks and an I Ching book to tell us the answer because we already know.

–Malcolm

“Fate’s Arrows,” the latest novel in the Folk Magic Series, is on sale on Kindle today for only 99₵.