The Ketchup Conumdrum: Research or Write and Be Damned?

The great plastic ketchup bottle debacle of twitter happened a couple of days ago. Some hapless, and not to be named twitterer, made a seemingly innocent tweet declaring that a book she had been reading had a character use a plastic ketchup bottle when plastic ketchup bottles did not come into usage until a little later. She was absolutely correct. The detail was absolutely anachronistic, it might not have been noticed by many, but heck she noticed it right off the bat that it was out of place, and it led to her having a jarring (forgive the pun) reading experience. She was taken to task, dragged and given the twitter equivalent of a witch burning or public flogging. It was horrendous. It was bullying. It was a set-upon, a piranha attack and it was wrong. All because she dared to say that writers should do their homework!

Opinions come in all shapes and sizes and society has become less and less tolerant of unpopular ones. Playing the ‘unpopular take’ game is now a danger sport of the highest degree. I don’t think this particular member of the writing community on twitter was prepared to be taken to task. After all it is not like she took exception to divisive events in women’s sports or expressed lingering doubts over the covid vaccine. All she said was that the writer had not done their research and she had noticed and expressed the opinion that research matters when writing is set in the past.

Right or wrong, what she said was not offensive or nasty. It was a simple statement of fact. She lost followers, she was taken to task unfairly, and had to defend herself. I gave her a follow and backed away slowly from the insanity. It was too hot for my liking, too rich for my blood. There is nothing like a gaggle of writers, all perfectly capable of some cutting words, moving in for the kill. I would rather be dipped in honey and dangled in front of a hungry bear than thrown to the mercy of twitter whilst wielding an unpopular opinion.

You see, I am a coward, or perhaps, as I prefer to see it, someone in a precarious situation, with too much to lose and not much in the way of power or ability to ride out the storm. I don’t have the buoyancy with which to float back up to the surface, I would sink without a trace. Any hope of writing as a career, or success or a future blown because I also think that writers should research their material before it goes out, or else suffer some picky soul pointing out that there were no plastic squeezable ketchup bottles in the USA until 1983.

So that left me in a conundrum. Part two of my novel, which I am embroiled in writing, has elements which are set in the past. 1883 to be exact. I don’t need a wide ranging sweeping historical knowledge, as events are very much limited to a very small area and only one day. Don’t ask me why, you will have to read it, if I ever wrangle the thing into a submissible state. Still, I need to get it right. I have been reading books about the Barbary Coast, San Francisco gold rush era crimes, and various history books, but it is the little things which will fuck the entire endeavor up. Little things like when were electric street lamps brought into general use in San Francisco. Tiny things like when was the song Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair written, and what kind of hats did women wear in San Francisco. Tiny details involving trains and bullion and whether the name Wendy even existed back then. It didn’t. Peter Pan was written in 1953. Before that point the name was only a rare surname. My time travelling heroine was going to have to think fast or else I was going to have to change her name.

It is a minefield, and the further back you go, the more difficult it becomes. There is no way I would ever undertake a historical novel, or one set in a country I have never lived in. Nor would I write from a point of view I have no understanding of. I have noticed that very few men can write female characters effectively. Their women fall into virgin, whore, mother or crone stereotypes. Of course, that is a wild generalization. Shakespere could write a rounded woman, or could he? Look at Juliet. Simpering fool. Portia, gender bending but wholesome, heading to be a wife. Lady Macbeth? Whore and a murderess. Pretty one dimensional stuff. Don’t even get me started on Ophelia! Get thee to a nunnery? I would have run there myself and hoped some of the nuns were into Sapphic delights, but now I am getting into dangerous territory again. Sorry boys, backing away slowly. Anna Karina is not a woman on a pedestal, created as the image of perfection in the mind of her male creator, oh no. Perfectly rounded.

I realized the men I write suffer strange fates. They are trapped in the aspic of time, pickled in their misery, or else cartoon villains with insatiable bloodlust. Still, women tend to write more interesting men. Just look at Emily Bronte, Jane Austen! Now they know how to write a man! Research can only go so far before it fails. I sometimes read absolutely infuriating books set in Japan which exoticize and fetishize Japanese culture and fail to get it right at all. Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a white man about the historical ‘water world’ of old Japanese geisha culture is a case in point. Abso-fucking-lutely disgusting. He can research all he likes, but Golden will never know what it is to be a women, let alone a Japanese sex traded as a child woman in an era he was not born in. As a result, his offering is offensive and grotesque. The women are some white man’s wet dream, a colonialist fantasy. It makes me want to vomit. Don’t even get me on the movie, which failed to even use Japanese actors and actresses. It was an abortion. Offensive, in fact. Still, I might write it a bad review, but I have no interest in setting the slavering hoards of twitter on the author.

Which brings me back to research. I detest research. I want to write, and forget about gas lamps, and the aftermath of the civil war. I want to not concern myself with the fact that certain songs were in fashion and certain hats and bustles were not. That all said, I am still not going to let myself plant the 1883 equivalent of a plastic ketchup bottle on the table of the Jumping Flea Saloon, and wholly intend to keep to my lane as much as possible, and not whitewash the whole scene like a Karen in charge of a keyboard and a story. I am kicking myself. I wonder why on earth I am doing this to myself, to be frank. It would be much easier not to mess with time. So I find myself reluctantly listening to old songs, meticulously checking into electricity issues, and walking routes to make sure it is realistic.

After all, as authors we ask the audience to suspend disbelief, we can’t also expect the reader to allow that much leeway. The uncanny only really works when the rest of it is perfectly normal and in tune. Ketchup bottles be damned…or not. After all if what really floats yer gravy boat is a fun but unrealistic world, and you can sell it to readers, that is the entire point of it. Jarring details aside, people still want rollicking good stories, and apart from the craft, there is also an art to giving people what they want to read.

I felt immensely sorry for the ketchup twitterer. I can’t even find their account this morning, and find myself hoping they didn’t just exit stage left, pursued by the wild beast of twitter, holding onto their glass bottle and trying to make a valid point about authenticity. I am not built for this kind of brutality. I have cherry blossom post it notes, damnit, and write in pretty purple pen. I am in the mood for some peace, love and understanding, and instead I am looking out onto a barren wasteland of control and chaos. I know Crowley was a horror of a man, but like he said, “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” He was right. Do your own thing, follow your own path, try not to get in the way of others or deny them their path, but research and be damned, or don’t and be applauded. It doesn’t matter much to me. I am starting to think that kindness is overrated. It is possible to be too understanding, too kind, too gentle, give too much leeway. Sometimes we have to be grouchy and stand our ground, at least for as long as it doesn’t threaten to send anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the popular view to the gulags or leper island.

Peace and condiments,

Detroit.

PS I hate mayonnaise Miracle whip is even worse. It is the vanilla of things to dip stuff into and make the dry moist. Mustard is far superior. I removed the gas street lights from my novel, and spent far too long trying to find out what year and month electric municipal utilities were installed onto Jackson Street. And I still think squeezy bottles of anything are vastly superior.

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