J D Davies

The Proof of Sod’s Law; or, the Curse of the Killer VIPI

People sometimes ask me which I prefer writing, fiction or non-fiction. I love doing both, and both have their pros and cons, but one of the biggest differences between the two genres is that with fiction, of course, you don’t usually forget to put things into the book. Sure, you might deliberately cut a sub-plot or decide to edit out some extraneous character or other, but ultimately, a work of fiction is a totality: you don’t just somehow omit a crucial fact or plot twist by accident. (‘OMG, I forgot to put the dramatic first appearance of the Seigneur de Montnoir into The Mountain of Gold! Pulp the entire print run!’ This does not happen.) In non-fiction, however, the opposite is the case. No matter how comprehensive you think you’ve been, no matter how rigorous your research, you’re going to leave something out and/or make mistakes. The greater the scope of the book, the more omissions, the more mistakes.

Of course, sod’s law dictates that you only discover the omissions and mistakes when it’s too late to do anything about them. I recently received a letter questioning a couple of things I wrote about Sir Cloudesley Shovell in Pepys’s Navy, which was published five years ago, and pointing out that a picture that I’d claimed to be of Sir John Narbrough (whose memorial appeared in last week’s post) was actually of his patron, Sir Christopher Myngs. I knew I’d made a mistake with the picture pretty much as soon as the book was published (to be fair to myself, I was simply repeating a mistake originally made by Narbrough’s biographer), but the two points about Shovell provide an object lesson for authors of non-fiction. Firstly, never generalise about someone’s social status without double-checking it first; in the 17th century, about the only things that a landowner and a labourer had in common were several letters of the alphabet. Secondly, just because Sir Cloudesley Shovell calls someone ‘my brother John Shovell’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the person in question was literally his brother. Mark my words, getting this History business right is pretty damn tough.

These considerations are weighing heavily on me at the moment. When this post goes ‘live’, I’ll actually be plodding my way through the proofs of Britannia’s Dragon, and I’m already wondering what I’ve got wrong. The book deals with 2,000 years of one entire aspect of the history of an entire country, so I know there are bound to be mistakes in it – and as a large part of my readership is likely to be Welsh, I know that from St David’s to St Asaph and from Newport to Nefyn, my countrymen won’t be backward in coming forward to tell me what I’ve got wrong! And then there’s the other great concern with a non-fiction book: what have I left out, either because I only found out about it after the book went to press or because I never knew about it at all? Moreover, precisely how many people will be mortally offended by the omission?

Fortunately, I came across a couple of important facts or stories that demanded inclusion in the book when it was still just about possible to amend the ‘final’ text I’d already sent off to the publisher, so I managed to shoehorn in the odd extra sentence or paragraph here and there. Rather more significant was the Vitally Important Piece of Information (hereafter VIPI) that I only learned about after the book had already gone to design. Now, I’m not going to tell you what this VIPI is, just in case those people (and there will be some out there) who think that this particular VIPI is the most important VIPI in the whole of Welsh naval history start sticking pins in voodoo dolls of me. But fortunately, it’s usually still possible to work in some additional text at the proof stage, so hopefully nobody will ever know that the VIPI in question very nearly didn’t make it. But there’s still this horrible feeling lurking in my bones: the feeling that somewhere out there lurks the killer VIPI, the holy grail of Welsh naval VIPIs, about which someone, somewhere, will soon be writing a very polite but very aggrieved letter or email to me…

Still, maybe there’ll be a second edition. And even if there isn’t, at least it’s possible to post additions, amendments and grovelling apologies on my website or in this blog. In this day and age, the printed book is no longer necessarily an author’s final, definitive statement on a subject, and having enjoyed writing Britannia’s Dragon so much, I’m actually looking forward to the chance to revisit it and perhaps expand on some of the themes in it – just as long as there aren’t too many VIPIs lurking out there, ready to ambush me!