Pitfalls for Writers 3

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 3) Spellcheck and Distractions

 

Spellcheck.

There are particular problems with the English language, when it comes to muddling words up, since we seem to be blessed (or otherwise) with a large number of groups of similar words. Within each group, they’re pronounced the same, although their meaning and spelling are different.

Did you see what I did there?

You might alter something, but then leave it on an altar.

Then there are, for example, groyne and groin; although in the US, groyne is spelled groin. Do you know which language your spellcheck uses? The default on my computer is US English, so I had to manually alter it to UK English, since I live in UK.

(This is referring to groyne / groin as in a breakwater, not an anatomical term)

Of course, if I was writing a piece to be published in the US, I would then need to alter many of the spellings to US usage.

Are you still with me?

Naturally, as writers, we should all understand the difference between ‘they’re, their and there’, but when using spellcheck it is perhaps easy, or perhaps lazy, to get them muddled up.

There. That’s what I did.

There is no substitute for a dictionary and a good knowledge of grammar.

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Distractions

Oh, I’m so easily distracted. When I am spending a day writing, be it on a novel or short story or on a piece for my blog, I turn to the internet to look something up and before I know it, I’m reading something else, which then encourages me to follow a thread somewhere to something I spotted that looks awfully interesting and then…

Obviously, if there is cricket going on, then that is understandable. Everybody needs to keep up with the score, don’t they? But it is just as likely to be an unrelated distraction.

I do understand the importance of a timetable, and I admit that I am hopeless at following my own advice, here. Occasionally I will scrawl down a note in my diary for the day that reads something along the lines of ‘Breakfast, then 9 am writing. 12 noon emails and lunch. 1 pm – 4 pm writing.’

When I do manage to have a working day that is disciplined, I invariably find that I get a lot more done. And one of the most important things, for me, is not to look at emails before lunchtime. As soon as I do, I’m no longer thinking about writing, but answering these various emails, and whatever it is they’re about.

Ooh, hang on, I need to go and check the cricket. No, no, it’s important. I’ll be back in a moment…

The Problem of Historical Truth

In my previous post about the pitfalls of online research, I began by alluding to the unreliability of newspaper reports. If you were to read reports on an important item of news in a number of different newspapers, you frequently might be forgiven for thinking that they were actually talking about completely different events. There will be political bias, of course, and the prejudices and agendas of reporters and editors alike. Are the individuals in an armed insurgency terrorists or freedom fighters? It is a point of view. Are strikers in an industry greedy mischief-making saboteurs, or victimised and mistreated victims of greedy corporations? Again, it is a point of view.

It can be very hard today to see through the fog of opinions and misinformation on any topic. How much more so when we delve back into time?

History is written by the victors. For example, what we know about Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Britain were written largely by the Roman conquerors, especially Caesar himself. Most of what we know of the reign of Ashoka, in India, comes from the edicts that he caused to be inscribed upon the remarkable number of rocks and pillars that are still in existence.

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Even tales written by the vanquished are likely to be inaccurate, of course. The cruelty of the victors, their barbarity; all of their actions will be exaggerated.

The historian understands that information comes largely from primary and secondary sources. A primary source might be, for example, an account written at the time (Caesar, above) or Parish registers of births, marriages and deaths. These sources are considered to be most likely to be accurate, being compiled at the time of the events described, but clearly they might all be deliberately or accidently falsified. Secondary sources might be newspapers, which are largely made up of analysis and opinion, and therefore considered to be an interpretation of information that has been derived from another (hopefully primary!) source.

A primary source is also referred to as evidence, yet I wonder whether a better distinction would be made if ‘evidence’ referred only to unwritten sources; archaeological remains, buildings, pottery, jewellery and coins and their like, which, whilst needing interpretation, are unlikely to be prey to the kind of distortions that written sources might be. Caesar, after all, might have claimed to take ten thousand prisoners when he only took five hundred, yet pottery of a particular type that is found at a particular spot, tells a story that needs to be interpreted, yet is unlikely to be a falsehood.

We need to be careful, though, when it is interpreted in light of contemporary writing, to avoid the temptation of unconsciously corroborating those writings.

Having written the above, we do have to take a certain amount on trust, because it is not practical to question everything in the world that we come across.

Yet, just because we discover that Troy really does exist, does not mean that all of the stories of the Iliad are now, somehow, all true. That would be like an author writing an incredibly impossible fantasy tale, in which the city of Vienna still exists and features, yet claiming it must be true because Vienna is a real place.

During the first year of World War One, a fictional short story ‘The Bowmen’ was published in the London Evening News by Arthur Machen. In this tale, he describes a battle between English and German soldiers at Mons, in France, in which the beleaguered British were aided by the sudden appearance of phantom archers who intervened to keep the British safe. Although this was fiction, the story quickly ‘went viral’, as we might put it today, and was readily believed by many in Britain. Of course, there was a feeling then that the British were good and the Germans evil, and so it was natural that God might intervene to help and protect them. A far stronger belief in God, in those days, also contributed to the feeling that it was natural to find that a miracle had occurred.

Although Machen republished the tale in a book with a long introduction explaining that it was fiction, and examining reasons the public thought it was true, not only did the belief persist, but further reports of angels on the battlefield began to appear. As a child in the 1960’s, I remember reading an account of this in a comic, with it presented as the truth. In 2001, the Sunday Times reported that photographic evidence to support the story had been discovered, although this was proved to be a hoax.

The Sunday Times also published exerts from Hitler’s Diaries in 1983, until these, too, were proved to have been forged.

Memories are notoriously unreliable. I was reading just a few days ago of an experiment where a group of people were encouraged to discuss childhood memories, with selected members of the group feeding in deliberately false information. After an initial hesitation, it seemed that all of them accepted these false memories as real, even to the extent of agreeing that they had taken part in a balloon ride, when they had not, and describing what they had seen from the balloon, and their feelings during the ride. The point being that they came to believe these were their own, real, memories.

How reliable are our own memories, then? And what can we trust? Clearly, there must be a lot of historical narrative that has been honestly recorded, that is simply not true, and we are unlikely to ever know what it is.