“Where were you when the lights went out?”
Remember that question, popular in the early seventies? Do you remember the incident it stems from? Do you remember the Beegees’ song “When the Lights All Went Out in Massachusetts?” Hey, you’re as old as I am!
One day my mind went back to that long dark night, so I asked some friends these questions. They’d never heard of it. Yes, they’d heard that question, but had no idea what it referred to. Tsk, tsk! A whole generation has arisen (maybe even two already) who don’t remember when the lights all went out in Massachusetts.
But what year was that again? And what caused the power failure? And which states did it hit? I was pretty sure I remembered, but when I googled it, I found that I hadn’t gotten the basic details straight at all. All these years I thought the Yanks were to blame, but it actually started when Canadian electrical workers used the wrong size of wire. (Blush!)
One book I refer to at times and enjoy reading just for the fun of it is Jack M. Bickham’s The 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES (And How to Avoid Them) © 1992 by Jack M. Bickham
Chapter 20 in this book is titled: “Don’t Assume You Know; Look It Up”
This is invaluable advice.
I’ve written before about his saga of the Colt single-action “Peacemaker” revolver. He handed this pistol to his hero in a novel set in 1868 and sent him off to the printer to make his mark in the realm of westerns.
As soon as his book hit the shelves a revolt erupted. Wild western history buffs got a posse together to shoot it out with his deplorable ignorance of firearms. This gun was not patented until 1872. How dare he! His mailbox smoked for weeks and letters from irate readers were fired through the slot.
I felt a little bit like those buffs when I read a book for teens, one that was situated in my own beloved Saskatchewan. The writer, a West Coast gal, tells us in her acknowledgments that she’d been to Moose Jaw and sat with farmers at a local coffee shop and they’d told her all about farming in that area. Very well.
Common sense would then dictate that if you have info about farming in the southern part of the province, you should locate your story in the southern part of the province. We live in a short-growing-season land and crops are selected for the number of frost-free days they are apt to have. A crop that grows around Moose Jaw may not grow much further north because the growing season is somewhat shorter and cooler.
In one episode the writer sets the scene thus: a hot day at the beginning of July. Scant rainfall for weeks, everything is tinder dry. Her main character is spending a few weeks with her farmer aunt and cousin on a farm near Humboldt (two hundred miles north of Moose Jaw.) Then this writer has the aunt burning flax straw.
First off, farmers around Moose Jaw grow flax, but I have never seen it grown much farther north. (I’d have to check that out.) Second, there won’t be flax straw lying around to burn until after harvest–in mid September. Third, flax straw burns fast and hot. To send someone out to burn flax straw on a dry July day anywhere in Sask is asking for a furious fire that will consume miles of grass and crops.
By all means get your facts straight and verify them, as much as possible, with people who actually do live in that area. Even if you’ve lived through the time yourself, read up on the events again to refresh your memory.
I read once that the human brain can hold more information than what is found in all the volumes at the US Library Of Congress. (Or is it the Congressional Library?) No wonder we get data mixed up sometimes!