Casket or Coffin? The rivulets down which writers may find themselves…and does it really matter?

Not to be getting morbid on you this early in the piece, but really, it’s important. Getting the detail right makes a difference to the discerning reader. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, a writer may have to leave the main stream and travel down smaller and smaller rivulets until the detail becomes clear—and correct, to the best of their understanding.

I’ve known this for quite some time, but was reminded the other day, when writing a scene for one of my 1863 historical fictions. In the interest of avoiding word repetition—by using varied words to say the same thing, I used the word coffin in one line, and casket in the next…and then, as I often do, began to wonder whether substituting one for the other was appropriate…for now, and as well as 1863. As my best friend, a techie, tells me whenever I ask him a question, “Google is your friend.”

So I went online…once again.

As any writer of historical works will tell you, do your research before you begin. I do, I do…but ‘when in the course of human events, it become necessary’ to figure out the plausibility of, for example, substituting ‘casket’ for ‘coffin’, one must hit the proverbial books again.

In this case, it turned out that mere word substitution was definitely not OK.

The name selected for the burial container of your historical heroine’s uncle implies vastly different things, with respect to the period in which he lived, his cultural affiliations, and his social status as well. The number of sides? Coffins have six or eight, while caskets, in North America, at least, have four, and are designed to look like a bed—apparently, to ease the mourning process—sheltering those left behind by making the deceased seem less dead than they are. (Really? No amount of makeup could have made my grandfather look alive, to my eight-year-old eyes.) Are they shaped like the deceased, as in the anthropoid shape of a coffin, wide at the shoulders and narrow toward the feet, or rectangular like a casket? How many layers?  And the composition of those layers? While common in England a few centuries ago, a tri-layered coffin, with the middle one of lead, would have been difficult to manufacture for burial of one’s loved husband while crossing the Sierras in a covered wagon. There certainly wasn’t the space to carry a spare.

So you see why it takes a writer so long to finish even a simple paragraph?

Likewise, some readers are pretty particular about their hobby. Take, for instance, horsey people. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been riding since I was seven, and luckily, made a career out of my love for horses. I’m not a snob in general, but when I pick up a book that has a horse in it, and its characters do something a horse person would consider just plain stupid, I tend to drop the book. Say, if a character does something like whip their reins around a hitching rail (your horse will rip their mouth to shreds if they panic and pull back), wrap the reins or lead rope around their hand (good way to lose fingers), or drive a pair or team from the wrong side of a carriage (the reins are buckled together at different lengths, specifically for the side on which the driver traditionally sits). I don’t want to read any more.

Some may call it snobbery, but it’s really more that the author has just lost credibility in the reader’s eyes. If they couldn’t bother to research enough to get that simple detail right, what else could be a lie in the story?  Research, research, research, and then run it by a person in that hobby. An author won’t always get it right, but they earn points with me for doing their best.

Detail, detail, and more detail.

During The Great Flood of Sacramento, having your fictional steamboat pilot tying his boat up to the dock would have local history buffs jumping up and down in hysterics, because the pier was beneath three stories of water.

The piles for said docks were just not that long. There was an awful lot of water filling up Sacramento, not to mention the whole Central Valley of California.

In fact, there was so much water that Leland Stanford had to go to his inauguration in downtown Sacramento in a rowboat. I can suppose his wife would not have been amused. Imagine the difficulty that would have posed for management of her crinoline, and keeping her ankles covered.

HOWEVER, and this is a big one…one can research and research…and then put it all into the story.

No, you say? Whatever can you mean? I’ve discovered all this information, and I want to tell the world, now that I’m an ‘expert’ on the topic!

It won’t fly. It just won’t.

If a reader wanted a history book, they would seek out a history book.

If one is writing historical fiction, the historical detail must be used with delicacy. Subtlety. It is far too easy to launch into historical exposition, and bury the story in pet research.

I know. I did it. And I must constantly prevent myself from doing it again.

Other authors ask why I released a 3rd edition of A Long Trail Rolling.

“Move forward,” they said. “It’s your first novel, get on with the next book!”.

I couldn’t.

This may have been my first book, but it was also the launching pad for my first series. The suboptimal reviews I’ve received (from the first edition) have complained of historical exposition, or history book-type rants about what I loved from my research. As Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings”. To those of you who offered these comments, thank you—it’s helped my writing evolve.

Writing historicals can be an exercise in trying to get out of the research and into putting words down on the page—for me, anyway—but maybe I’m just easily distracted. It’s also my excuse to keep delving deeper into the period in which I’m engaged. I love it, but it’s a bit of an addiction, this research. I can’t seem to get enough, and it will probably remain a compulsion, best kept under control.

Maybe we can start a new club. RA—Researchers Anonymous.

Maybe I’ll write a contemporary. A short one. I might finish it a lot faster…

Oh yeah, I’m doing that…soon…for Authors of Main Street’s next Christmas Boxed Set!

Here’s a teaser for that story…horsey girl in veterinary school…what she gets up to—and beyond.

 

   

I’m getting set to release Book Three in The Long Trails series of historical romantic thrillers, called A Sea of Green Unfolding, in digital and paperback.

During the run-up to release day, I’ll be offering digital copies of Book One of the series, A Long Trail Rolling, for only 99c, and preorders for A Sea of Green Unfolding at a discounted rate until release day!  Come on by my author site to sign up for my newsletter to stay informed!

Thanks so much for reading, I’ll see you again soon!

xx

Lizzi

Lizzi Tremayne

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About Lizzi Tremayne

Lizzi grew up riding wild in the Santa Cruz Mountain redwoods, became an equine veterinarian at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, practiced in the California Pony Express and Gold Country before emigrating to New Zealand. When not writing, she's swinging a rapier or shooting a bow in medieval garb, riding, driving a carriage or playing on her farm, singing, or working as an equine veterinarian or science teacher. She is multiply published and awarded in special interest magazines and veterinary periodicals.
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14 Responses to Casket or Coffin? The rivulets down which writers may find themselves…and does it really matter?

  1. E. Ayers says:

    I love when someone wants to get snobby about something and they are totally wrong! LOL

    Yes, as a teen I rode in a western saddle and carried (for lack of a better word) a younger rider in my lap until she was comfortable enough to ride on her own. That saddle must have been made for a guy three times my size! No, it’s not comfortable, but it can be done so when my big hero tells someone to grab that big saddle and then he puts the heroine who is a tiny thing in his lap and her legs and feet are tucked around his… Yep! It can be done. (Your feet and legs will fall asleep!)

    And my other pet peeve… LOL The comma does occasionally go after the word “and” instead of before. No, I probably can’t get that one right as I write, but my editors know when it goes there! And I can look at it afterwards and think – oh I should have spotted that as I was writing.

    And when it comes to history… Omigosh! I find all sorts of mistakes. Like you, I try really hard to get it right! And as for that coffin, many times they were lucky to have enough wood to cobble together a box! Lots of folks were buried in fairly shallow graves without a container, and only a bunch of rocks piled on top of them.

    And as for those rivulets – the stuff we research and then never use! Three stories under water? Omigosh! If it happened then, could it happen today?

    Liked by 5 people

  2. jackiemaurer says:

    Great post, Lizzi! Murdering your darlings really is a difficult thing to do. Though like thorough research, it really is a must. I once read a post where the blogger had dissected the book’s cover for historical correctness before going on to discuss the story, nitpicking down to the color of fabric on the H/h’s clothing. Yikes! Kudos to you for going back and releasing a 3rd edition.

    Enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Carol says:

    Great post, Lizzi! Yes, research is a must. You definitely are a master at getting it right. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thanks Carol! Glad you liked it! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ginaarditoauthor says:

    Ah, be still my heart. I love research and strive to get my facts right with Google and my local library. I also hate anachronisms, those pesky words your seventeenth century hero would not say. LOL. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leighmorgan1 says:

      So true, Gina. I was reading an entry from the John Smith’s diary about the Opossum. If we wrote a historical romance with Pocahontas and John Smith using the form of writing he used and the phrasing he used—which would be historically accurate and absurd, no one would read it. Medieval knights didn’t speak like they do in most historical romance written now, thank the heavens.

      I wouldn’t read something that had a knight saying something like, “Hey, Dude, how’d that joust rock for you?”, but I would read something like, ‘Godfrey tossed his helmet to his squire, a look of grim satisfaction on his face for having bested Geoffrey Goodfellow. He hoped they royal ponce kept his distance from now on. If he caught Geoffrey eyeing Elsbeth again, the man would have more than a sore backside and a bruised ego to recover from.’

      Pretty sure knights didn’t think in terms of the word, “ego”, but the fact that ego nonetheless existed then wouldn’t stop me from reading the word and finding it apt.

      I agree with Gina. Great post, Lizzi!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Leigh. Yes, getting that balance right is a challenge. I guess I just select a tone and stick with it. 🙂 Some will like it, others won’t. Maybe that’s why, although I’m a medieval reenactor (SCA), I am hesitating on the medieval I want to write… 🙂
        Thanks for the comment!
        xx
        Lizzi

        Like

  6. LOL. I do too… the hard things are sometimes realising that something you’re written IS one. Shaking head. Thanks for the support! xx
    Lizzi

    Like

  7. Jill James says:

    Or you write a historical fact that is true at the time of publishing and then changes…like those Cubbies finally winning a World Series, after 108 years!!! Another book I have to edit. LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  8. leighmorgan1 says:

    Lizzi, I finished a John Sanford book not too long ago where he has his female lead as a blonde and then a red head within the first ten pages of the story. No one caught it. Not Mr. Sanford—whom I read religiously. Not his editors. Not one complaint about it in any of the reviews I read, which are numerous.

    While none of us is John Sanford, this hyper correctness is something that plagues romance authors far more than in any other genre of writing I’ve read. Readers of romance are ruthless with their opinions when it comes to research—sometimes they are correct, sometimes more than one term or fact interpretation could be correct, sometimes they are just plain wrong. They are more vocal about it than those who read “male thrillers” seem to be. That’s not always the case. With some Special Forces readers, there will be criticism re: detailed aspects, but most times that’s not the case. They seem to flow with the story as long as there is an over-all authenticity.

    Romance readers would never countenance different hair color for a protagonist within the first ten pages—we’d be burned in effigy. I also think as a general rule, romance writers work incredibly hard to ensure they get the terminology, facts, history, and detail of their stories right.

    Kudos to you, Lizzi!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yep! burned at the stake. 🙂 xx

    Like

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