Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Author's Notes that Ruin a Novel

Most historical fictions end with a few pages of the author discussing the book. He/she will talk about the history, what was accurate and what was changed, how the research was done, what happened to the characters afterwards, things like that. Author's notes can be very interesting.


They can also ruin the entire book.


I've hated author's notes for many reasons. The problem I run into the most is when the author’s notes are more interesting than the novel. I've read multiple books that focus on a silly love story or a miniscule difficulty, have a happy ending, and then in the author’s notes there’s scandal, war, betrayal, struggle, and challenges no human should ever have to face, and yet the characters make it through. Why didn't the author write about that?

Sometimes I spend the entire book getting invested in the characters, only to find out in the author’s note they all met with tragedy. It breaks my heart. A book might be based on a love story and the author's notes reveal the couple broke up. I read one book that ended happily, then said in the author’s note all the characters died horrible, gruesome deaths.

Sometimes authors think their books are more accurate than they are, and you can tell by their notes. I read one novel where I happened to be familiar with the topic, for instance. In the notes, the author listed a few very minor discrepancies. I chuckled because I knew darn well those were not the only issues.

I've read more notes than I care to mention that say, “Everything in this book is true.” Bull. First off, even if it is all true you sound like a snob when you say it, and second off, just because you think your book is all true doesn’t mean you’re right. We are authors, not historians. Few of us know everything there is to know about our topic.

This might sound like a catch 22, but I also don’t like novels that have no author’s notes at all. They make me suspicious.

Don’t get me wrong; I've read author’s notes I've really liked.

For me, the best notes are the ones that shock me because I had no idea so much in the novel was true. The author will say in an off-hand way, “So after the character did this…” and I’ll think, “That really happened?! Seriously?”

Other good ones enrich the text by giving you more information the author couldn’t put in the novel. In Pope Joan, Donna Cross discussed the evidence supporting the idea that there was once a woman pope and the motivation the Catholic church might have had for keeping the story quiet, as well as their methods for doing so. It was fascinating.

Others explain the author’s experience with the material. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See described her Chinese upbringing and how her family taught her the same ideas her characters were taught (example: “Obey your husband, your mother-in-law, and your son.”) She talked about going to China and meeting an old woman with bound feet – one of the last. I longed to go on the same journeys.

Some notes explain the author’s emotional connection to the text. Going back to Snow Flower, Lisa See had an injury while writing that book and couldn't leave the house, so she felt the same isolation her character went through.




Do you ever get bugged by author's notes? Which novels have notes you've really liked?

4 comments:

  1. I always read author's notes because I want to be able to separate fact from fiction. I even Google events to find out what was made up in plots because I don't want to become confused later on into thinking something really happened when it didn't.

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  2. I usually always read the author's notes, unless it's just a list of every source he/she used. Unless I'm really interested in the time period, I don't care too much about the dusty sources and author used. I do agree that at times an author can sound snobbish or even, as you say, less researched than they really should be. Historical research requires knowing your stuff and if you're going to make it up, I'd like to know what was real and what wasn't and whether the author really knows the difference. Philippa Greggory drives me a little nuts because she usually writes like the book is pure truth, when I really know most of it isn't.

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  3. I happen to appreciate author's notes and wish more historical novelists would use them. For me, it is the place where I confess where I embellished and outright lied, I mean, invented.

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  4. I like to read author's notes and I include a brief one in my own historical novels, mostly telling what inspired the story and which incidents are based on actual events.

    Yet good fiction portrays an emotional truth -- more important to me than reading a book in which the author gets all the facts right but misses the point: To experience the life of another human being.

    I need to be convinced the historical author is a time traveler and no author's note can do that. Only superb imagination, talent, and a finely crafted story will do.

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