A gasp escaped me!

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    This is a lightweight blog.

    I was just settling down after reading about the astonishing performance by George R R Martin at the Hugo awards, when my son approached brandishing his phone.

    ‘Look at that,’ he said.

    I looked. My son has been a fan of the Zelda video games since he was little. I played a few along with him in the last few years, including the rather good Breath of the Wild. On his phone was a page from the latest book by John Boyne, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom. In this epic novel, set over a period of 2000 years, there is a page where a character living at the time of Attila the Hun, talks about the dye used in dressmaking. The passage reads:

    The dyes that I used in my dressmaking were composed from various ingredients, depending on the colour required, but almost all required, nightshade, sapphire, keese wing, the leaves of the silent princess plant, Oktorok eyeball, swift violet, thistle and hightail lizard. In addition, for the red I had used for Abrila’s dress, I employed spicy pepper, the tail of the red lizalfos and four Hylian shrooms.

    It was at this point that the titular gasp escaped me. The list Boyne uses, comprises the dying process as set out in Zelda, Breath of the Wild. The items are all fantastic plants and animals within the game. There is no such beast as an Oktorok. Neither is there a keese or a Lizalfos. There are no Hylian shrooms, because Hylians are the fictional race in the fictional land of Hyrule.

    Now I can imagine that a casual reader, finding this passage online, might conclude that it describes some actual process, especially since some of the terms, nightshade and sapphire for instance, are actual English words, and others bear a passing resemblance to names for (possibly) real things. A casual reader. I find it hard to believe that a serious reader, say an author looking for material for a serious work of literature, wouldn’t take the simplest and most elementary step of doing some checking. In fact, I would gasp at the cavalier laziness of such a person. It is gasp-worthy. At the very least I would check on terms I had never heard of, such as “Octorok”. This needs no more than typing the word into the very search engine that found the process in the first place – the work of a few seconds. Please, have a go. I promise you swathes of material, including pictures, that make it clear that this is not a living creature that was ever really involved in dying cloth.

    Boyne was criticised in the past, amongst other things, for the lack of research in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He describes a concentration camp and circumstances that would never have existed, in order to better fit his story. He was accused of other things too, but it is his apparent readiness to go to print with only superficial preparation that concerns me here.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a great researcher when I write. I’m only too happy to use search engines, but I hope I have sufficient respect for plausibility not to just grab the first “hit” I find and use it verbatim.

    Boyne has taken as relaxed a view of his error when it was pointed out, as he presumably had when he did the “research” in the first place.

    He writes, ‘Yeah, I’ll leave it as it is. I actually think it’s quite funny and you’re totally right. I don’t remember but I must have just googled it. Hey, sometimes you just gotta throw your hands up and say “yup! My bad!”‘

    I confess, I don’t see it as quite so funny. At best I find it surprising and rather sad. At worst it irritates and annoys me. I certainly think it’s revealing of attitude and suggests a lack of concern or sensitivity to past critique.


    Stephen King, who’s described himself as a lazy researcher, has related the letters he’s gotten from people who caught him in research errors. The tone of the letters, he said, was invariably gleeful. I wonder if Boyne has gotten those too? “Hee-hee, you got this wrong, and that wrong!”


    Athers, I’ve not read Boyne, so took the passage you quote as from a fantasy novel which, in my understanding, means anything goes in the way of made-up words and facts.
    On the subject of ‘proper’ research; at Newcastle Noir a couple of years ago, one crime writer told of being asked how many specialists he had on call to help him with research, the enquirer then listing some half a dozen. “Me,” he said, “I just watch old episodes of Taggart”. Ruth Rendall has been quoted as saying “I don’t do research because I’m telling a story,” and I confess to not researching the details of each and every happening (though I am currently struggling to discover the effects of various broken bones in order to convey what injuries my MC has received and be accurate about what he is and is not capable of.)

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by Sandra.

    There are degrees to this and a dependency on the type of book being written. I am not searching for an artificial precision in moral culpability. I am not saying that there are some absolute rules at play. I am saying that if you bend the truth to suit your story, while at the same time maintaining that what you write is authentic, then there are consequences. Some consequences are trivial. For instance, if I set out to tell a tale set against the background of WW2 but have my MC fly in a Bristol Blenheim from an airfield that only ever supported the Avro Lancaster, then I may annoy some technically minded enthusiasts, but unless I work really hard at it, the consequences are not severe. There will come a point where littering my work with errors of this kind, especially at points which rely on those errors, I demonstrate such a disrespect for the lives and worlds of those real people who actually lived and died, that I become dishonest. Worse still, I may start to paint a false picture of how that world was.

    A key point in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the initial encounter between Bruno and Shmuel, followed by their growing friendship. As many have pointed out, including actual survivors of the camps, this simply would not happen. Far from idling his time away near the barbed wire fence, Shmuel would almost certainly have died within his first hour or two at the camp, maybe within the first ten minutes. In the unlikely event of this not happening, he would be ruthlessly worked or otherwise used until he did die. It isn’t that anybody thinks Boyne is attempting to deny or lessen the horror of places such as Auschwitz, but he has necessarily watered down the utter barbarity in order to support his story. Similarly, Bruno and his family, with the exception of the father, are portrayed as either wholly innocent or ignorantly misguided. Even the father is wracked with guilt at the end. This may be implausible, but again, it is essential because the ultimate tragedy is Bruno’s death, Oh, and Shmuel’s as well, in the gas chamber.

    Yes, there are many genres where departure from the detailed realities of life are acceptable and that’s before we even start on sword and sorcery. However, neither in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas nor in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is Boyne writing that kind of story. The former work relies entirely on the very real horror of the holocaust. The latter work relies on the reality and solidity of the worlds in which the action unfolds, because it is quite literally the contrast between that and the magical/mystical tale of reincarnation that drives the narrative.


    Ah, yes. I take your point Athers. My ignorance obscured it earlier.


    Pretty sure Stephen King now has a team of fact checkers. But yes I imagine the tone of those letters is gleeful. What I’ll say for King is that even though he’s writing speculative fiction, he portrays characters who’ve had life experiences he has not respectfully. The same cannot be said for Boyne! One of the big problems with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is that many schools adopted it as an option to teach at Secondary school literature. Which is really compounding the issue when many teachers are already seeking a more balanced history syllabus.

    That’s where I start to get annoyed tbh. People collectively learn via story. That’s how we’re wired. And maybe an author is careless with facts because a primary goal is to entertain – although in Boyne’s case I think it’s because he’s insensitive and bloody lazy. But every time an author reinforces a historical inaccuracy it gets added to the Book of the Great Scholar Everyone. And then we all quote that book because Everyone says so. This has done as much to erase women, poc, lgbtq+ and other minorities from received history as deliberate suppression of facts. Honestly history needs all the help it can get to redress this issue, not lazy authors like Boyne who don’t think research matters.

    And I do take the point that in speculative fiction everything goes. However all spec fic starts out based on something from the mundane. It has to ir readers would have no access point. So bend the laws of physics for scifi or paranormal fic, or add dragons to a historical setting for fantasy. But imo an author should know what the facts are behind their plausible reader access point.

    I will admit I am a researcher for writing and probably do more than most. Venturing into historical fiction now means that I seek three individual sources of verification. I’m not saying everyone should adopt my method – I lose days to research. But when people like Boyne pull half remembered rubbish out of their posteriors and get lauded for it – without anyone who sees thd book before going to print calling him on it – I do get a tad annoyed.

    Apparently this was a hot button for me. Did not mean to rant! 😂


    I agree with all you say, Jules. It’s especially worrying that schools will teach misleading literature.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by Libby.

    Totally agree re Boyne, @jillybean. He’s lazy and complacent, and doesn’t care who he hurts as a result.

    Having recently discovered the horrors of researching hist fic, I must admit to struggling with knowing where the line is between really getting stuck on details that don’t matter, and making sure the whole worldbuilding feels authentic. There are certain things I really cant be arsed researching (particularly the fine detail of clothing, which is unfortunate as that’s kinda present throughout the story), and yet yesterday I requested a copy of a train timetable from 1860 so I could verify route planning and times which are relevant to exactly one scene. I have not yet found the right balance, I suspect!!

    I guess, as with fantasy, the world needs to be true to itself in all regards, and true enough to the real world to a) do no harm and b) remain believable. The first being by far the most important. If I get that train journey wrong, some people might raise and eyebrow, a small number of people might be annoyed. If I get the treatment of indentured Indians on sugar plantations in Mauritius wrong, I will potentially really hurt people. That current mistake of Boyne’s (I saw it on Twitter), is ridiculous and demonstrates pretty well his flaws as a writer. His past ‘mistakes’ ie with Boy… are deeply damaging, exacerbated by his ‘literary’ status which amplifies and lends the weight of authority to his words.

    Kick him in the sea.


    Yes, I agree with @raine and @jillybean. Boyne is clearly lazy and arrogant with it. I recall some online stoush he had with the Auschwitz Memorial Museum (!!) when they criticised the historical accuracy of his book, and his snooty and dismissive response. I have despised him since I must say. I tend to research more than I need but I have a horror of getting it wrong and misrepresenting whatever it is I’m writing about. You can twist the facts but you have to know that you’re doing it! And be consistent in your rules. I’m getting two experts in Victorian London to read my silly half made up books to double check, even after all this (one of them is the gt-gt-gt granddaughter of Charles Dickens and an author herself, and another the former director of the Florence nightingale Museum and the Keeper of Medicine at the Science Museum. yes, it’s overkill!).


    I’m impressed by your research @kazg

    My mother used to read books by Monica Dickens, Charles’s great-granddaughter (just checked that one on Wikipedia 🙂 ). I enjoyed some of them too when I was a teenager. I don’t know if anyone still reads Monica Dickens.

    I also enjoy your blog posts on https://www.karenginnane.com/

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