By Theodora Bryant
Developmental Copy Editor
Sometimes novelists throw in a word or comment in a story and miss its ramifications, because the author is intent on the big picture—what this smaller picture is leading up to—without giving proper attention to how the small word or comment may fracture the movie in the readers’ minds.
Example: A story I am editing is set in the present day. A priest from the time of the Crusades has been turned into a vampire and looking for his way out. The curse/effects can be reversed under a particular condition having to do with saving a life rather than taking it.
Scene: The protagonist slips into the priest (Father Francesco)/vampire’s bedroom and takes a battered-looking bible off an ordinary bookshelf in his bedroom: “. . . an ancient, worn copy of the bible; the parchment paper pages were brittle and worn. There was an inscription in the front of the book: ‘To Father Francesco—All the Father’s blessings for you.’”
Because of the use of “ancient” and “To Father Francesco,” we know this is, indeed, the vampire’s bible, and presumably he’s held on to it since the Crusades.
My mental picture went haywire. The Crusades began in 1095 and for most people’s purposes (and mine here), ended a hundred years later in 1199 with the Third Crusade when the Muslim warrior, Saladin, captured King Richard the Lionheart. My memory had me thinking that bibles of the time were huge things, handmade by monks and painted on vellum (extremely thin calfskin). My memory was informed by the Book of Kells (c. 800) I’d seen under glass at the library in Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. I just rechecked it: It’s only the Four Gospels, not the entire bible.
But, no matter, it seemed to me that the vampire certainly couldn’t have been carrying around something like the Book of Kells for a minimum of 800+ years, and it would not fit on a normal bookshelf.
I needed to chase some facts.
My questions had to be narrowed down so I knew what I was going to be researching: Were there any bibles in that time frame? What language would they have been in? How big would the books have been? What were they made of?
I asked Google: “Bibles extant from 1099-1199?” Got zip. Asked: “Are there bibles in existence from the 1100s?” And found this: http://cranfordville.com/IBC%20Cologne/BibleSession15.pdf
My questions were answered in part almost immediately with this paragraph in the link: “The very early translations, almost exclusively that of St. Bede in the 700s [that is not a bible, but a history], makes use of Old English. By the time of the work of John Wycliffe in the 1300s, the form of English is Middle English. Old English was the major form of English spoken until the 1100s when Middle English began to dominate.”
So, no, the good vampire/father could not have had a bible from the Crusade era on his shelf. None existed.
But “ancient” could still mean very old. I found these sites: http://www.greatsite.com/ancient-rare-bibles-books/platinum.html Could Francesco’s benefactor have given him a Wycliffe Bible? They weren’t always selling at $2M. He could have bought any of the bibles in this list, but they are huge books. And it looks like they are made of paper. (For more fun info on the cost of these bibles, and how you can get them, see: http://clausenbooks.com/bible1600.htm.
So, maybe he had a Gutenberg Bible? No. Right off the bat, it’s written in Latin (our scribbler who gave it to him wrote his note in English). And then there’s this: “Of the 180 copies, some 135 were printed on paper, while the rest were made using vellum, a parchment made from calfskin. Due to the volumes’ considerable heft, it has been estimated that some 170 calfskins were needed to produce just one Gutenberg Bible from vellum.” Not a bookshelf item.
And finally, I don’t think the convention of signing gift bibles was popular during the Crusades period.
My conclusion: It would be best if the author were to drop this reference entirely. The point of the scene was to have the protagonist uncover the priest’s name in the book, anyway, not finding the bible. The author needs to develop another way to expose the vampire’s name.
Would this small thing have ruined the story for all readers? Most likely not. Don’t write for the lowest common denominator, though. Write for that one reader who would have stumbled over that reference and had it nibble away at his or her consciousness from then on, undermining all your effort at producing a first-rate story. Believable fiction is built on a base of solid fact.
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