Saturday, November 5, 2011

Whisky or Whiskey? I Need a Drink!

First, thank you to the Blood Red Pencil for hosting me for this stop on my two-week-long virtual tour for Mercury’s Rise, the latest book in my Silver Rush historical mystery series.

Truly, I have to thank BRP for more than that, because it was BRP’s Dani Greer who helped me out of a tight spot regarding word usage in Mercury’s Rise.

It all began with whiskey. And whisky. I had taken great pains to determine under what circumstances my protagonist Inez Stannert would use which term. After all, Inez runs a high-class saloon in 1880s Leadville, Colorado, so she would certainly know the difference.

My conundrum began when the line editor at my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, noted that some places in the manuscript were “whiskey” and others read “whisky.” Which is correct? she asked. I sent her a long reply (with links!) noting that they weren’t the same. (New York Times weighed in here and The Boozin’ Blog had a discussion here.) But I began to worry that switching between the two might lose the reader. So, I turned to Dani—good buddy and my independent editor—for advice.

Dani’s suggestion: “Go with whiskey since you’re in America.” She offered up a couple of links of her own, including one from the site Whisky: Distilled. She added, “I'm thinking if you pick one spelling and stick to it, your readers will be happy.”

Even so, it was a tough call for me to make—be correct or be consistent? I dithered and vacillated until the associate publisher of Poisoned Pen Press took pity on me and made an executive decision.

What did she decide? Read Mercury’s Rise and find out!

I’ll say this: by the time we’d finished going back and forth, I think we all wanted a drink! More to the point, dear BRP readers, what would you have done, if you had to make this decision? And why?
Ann Parker is a California-based science/corporate writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The latest in her series, MERCURY’S RISE, was released November 1. Publisher’s Weekly says, “Parker smoothly mixes the personal dramas and the detection in an installment that’s an easy jumping-on point for newcomers.” Library Journal adds, “Parker’s depth of knowledge coupled with an all-too-human cast leaves us eager to see what Inez will do next. Encore!” Learn more about Ann and her series at

MERCURY’S RISE and the other Silver Rush mysteries are available from independent booksellers,, and Barnes and Noble.

Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize! Winner will be announced later this week. To see the rest of Ann’s blog tour, check out her Appearances page.

Winner is Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)! Please contact Ann Parker by emailing her here.
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  1. Ah, the dilemmas we writers (and editors) face. Although the decision has obviously been made, I'll weigh in here as a reader, just for fun. If both spellings were to be used, it could appear that one or the other was a typo that wasn't caught in the editing process. As that reader, I always appreciate consistency — unless the consistency is a misspelling, at which time the editor in me raises her shaking head, does a double take, and reaches for her blood red pencil.

    Nice article, Ann. Thanks for posting this one, Dani.

  2. That’s a great question, and definitely a tough call. Do you cater to the reader’s possible ignorance (I don’t mean that in anyway as an insult, no one knows everything, so we’re all ignorant in certain subjects), or do you stick to being technically correct and risk losing a certain percentage of readers due to confusion?

    It reminds me of my first manuscript—that ended up languishing on my hard-drive, in some limbo between rewrites. It was set in ancient Rome, and in a scene I had an off-hand comment about a toilet. I got several comments from Beta-readers and critique partners basically stating: “They didn’t have toilets in ancient Rome!” Well actually they did, and a quick Google search will show you that many of them—through use of their aquaduct system—even had running water to carry the waste away.

    But I realized I wouldn’t be able to send my research materials to everyone who read it, and it would appear to a percentage of readers as a glaring anachronistic misstep.

    I ended up moving on to another book though, and never actually came to resolution to that particular problem.

  3. Ann, I have faced similar tough calls. To me the deciding factor is whether or not the differences are likely to take the reader out of the story or would enhance the sense of verisimilitude. I'm with Linda that a likely reaction is to see one or the other spelling as a typo. However, context setting helps. If a scene is set in Australia with Australian interlocutors, use of British/Aussie spelling and expressions adds to the experience and is less likely to jar the reader. On the other hand, if it's unclear why spelling and idiom keep flip-flopping, the effect is likely to annoy or confuse the reader.

    --Larry Constantine
    (Lior Samson)

  4. E.C. raises a variant issue that also presents interesting challenges to the writer. Without risking introducing an expository lump, I would try to find a way to educate the reader within the context of the story. "Brutus was shocked by the primitive state of the house, which must have been built long before toilets and running water had been introduced in the reign of..." Or something better thought out, with more elegance and literary merit.

    I face this all the time with providing the technical background for the non-techie reader of my thrillers. Finding smooth and unobtrusive methods to inform is a constant challenge. Sometimes, dialogue, particularly between a savvy character and one expressing ignorance, can work; sometimes a short narrative voice-over can be slipped in; but variety and inventiveness are needed to sustain the flow for both the neophyte and the already informed.

    --Larry Constantine
    (Lior Samson)

  5. I vote for accuracy - always. Whisky is scotch. Whiskey is American whiskey and Irish whiskey. Bourbon is not whiskey. Rye is. It would be inaccurate to have someone order or be drinking scotch and call it whiskey. Or someone drinking Jack Daniels, which is whiskey, and calling it whisky.

    A good reader (and we hope for those, would be stimulated (if he or she didn't already know the difference) to look it up, rather than assume from the start it's an error. A bad reader doesn't care anyway.

    When you start playing loose with facts, a good reader is going to stop trusting you as a writer.

  6. You could make use of a footnote the first time the difference appears? But more to the point, we live in a digital world -- an eBook version will have the ability to highlight the word allowing the reader to click the link to find out why there's a difference.

    However, I'm the last person to suggest a book filled with links, clips, sound bites, etc. That would annoy me as a reader and I find it one step away from creating a different type of work less literary.

  7. But remember that we are in the 1880s. Ann and I have butted heads about a number of word (and punctuation) issues - because this series of mystery novels is written for the modern reader. It's entertainment (despite excruciatingly accurate details;), so it can't feel like fighting through a dense briar patch of historical vernacular. It needs just enough to give a taste of the times. But we also can't throw in a word that was created after 1880 which is so easy to do. Good book, Ann. It has me totally at odds with myself over the direction the characters are taking. Dammit! I love it when that happens. :D

  8. I learned something just reading the comments! I have had the same problem of spelling in a western historical mystery I'm writing where one of the characters is called Whiskey Jack. Now I know I'm right--although his preferred alternative was opium, not whiskey! Good column, Ann and Dani.

  9. You are so right about consistency. That is so important for a writer. I've noticed that some authors use odd spellings of names we are familiar with, but that works if they are consistent. The first time I see the odd spelling, I may stop for a second, but then it's okay because I know it is on purpose.

  10. For Heaven's sake, all the poor woman, covered in vomit and blood, wanted was a strong drink. She was sure to get it whatever the spelling. Consistency is the thing, especially when either spelling will do the trick which, in this case, I believe either would be correct!
    Great fun, Ann and Dani.

  11. I've been drinking whisky for almost 40 years and never realized someone stole the "e". Guess that is easily overlooked when you are more interested in sipping than reading labels. As a reader, it probably would bother me more that the "e" kept disappearing than in being accurate. Working the research into the text would work too.

  12. Hello Linda!
    My publisher (and Dani) also said consistency is key... and as long as we don't know in detail what drink Inez is craving (by name or region), well, who's to know??
    Thanks for commenting! :-)

  13. Hello E.C.!
    Wow... I had noooo idea that the Romans were so advanced with their plumbing! I probably would've said the same thing as your critiquers/Beta-readers. And unless those toilets play a key role in the story, I suppose you can't really go into great detail about it all. Hmmm.
    Reminds me of some readers' reactions to seeing the word "Okay" in 19th century dialogue: it sounds like a 20th century word, but actually goes quite a ways back. (First documented use is 1790, according to wikipedia

  14. Hello Larry...
    Good point! If Inez were in Scotland, partaking of the national libation, I would definitely throw away the "e." In Colorado... well... (Not that Scotch couldn't be imported!)

  15. Oh! I should've read the next post before finishing my response to Larry... I agree with:
    "Finding smooth and unobtrusive methods to inform is a constant challenge. Sometimes, dialogue, particularly between a savvy character and one expressing ignorance, can work; sometimes a short narrative voice-over can be slipped in; but variety and inventiveness are needed to sustain the flow for both the neophyte and the already informed."
    Well said! :-)

  16. Hello doniganmerrit (not sure how to parse this name),
    You are right, and if I'd had more time/been thinking straight, I could have changed all that whiskey/whisky stuff and been more specific, saying Scotch, bourbon, etc. Funny you mention Jack Daniels, because I did "use" (and hopefully not abuse) this particular brand of whiskey in IRON TIES, the second of my series. (Okay, now I'm sneaking off to my bookshelf to see how I referred to it... don't expect me to report back, though! ;-) )

  17. Hello Oliver!
    For an ebook, you're absolutely right. In a genre mystery, though, footnotes are frowned upon. (I'm thinking hard here, and can't come up with a single instance of a footnote in a mystery... although I'll bet there's something somewhere.)
    I, too, love the feel of paper books. My personal library holds many that date from the 1880s. And sure, I can also find them on Google books... but it's not the same as holding a well-bound book from the past, with decorative boards, etc., Ah, the tactile side of history! :-)

  18. Yes, Dani, sometimes we disagree... but usually, you win, because I know as the author I'm just too darn close to the work. ;-)
    And I'm guilty of getting all excited over the "perfect" word or bit of slang, using it without checking, only to find out later it dates from the 1920s! I think these bits of "old-fashioned" language must come from things my grandparents said, because they just FEEL right. Sometimes, going with the gut (on language issues) isn't such a smart move.
    And glad you liked the book, Dani. Some of the characters surprised me too! :-)

  19. Hi Julie!
    Whiskey Jack... what a great name for a character! Thanks for commenting, and I wish you all the best with your writing!

  20. Maryann, Arletta, and Karen 94066:
    Here, here! I drink to that! ;-)
    Thanks for commenting and for your vote re: consistency!

  21. I try to go with British English most of the time but Microsoft dictionary can be quite annoying.

    My Darcy Vibrates…

  22. Here's the really sad thing ... this old dyslexic would have never spotted the inconsistency ... sigh, give me a shot of Red Eye.

  23. Hello Enid!
    Ah yes, Microsoft Word is the enemy! I hate those little red squiggly lines.
    It's almost as bad as iPhone, when iPhone does that annoying autocorrect thing for texting...

  24. Hello Christopher!
    Well, you have nothing to worry about, as it should all be consistent in MERCURY'S RISE.
    Instead of Red Eye, how about a shot of Frontier Red? (If you're on Facebook, friend me to see this photo on my wall:
    Thanks for commenting! :-)

  25. Choose one for consistency with an explanatory note for punctilious readers.

  26. Liz:
    Yes! :-)
    I like that approach...

  27. Larry Constantine is the winner of the mystery drawing - please email Ann at the link we've added to the bottom of the post. Thanks all - it was a fun tour stop!

  28. I had no idea there was a difference between whiskey and whisky. Thanks for educating me!

  29. Wouldn't POV make a difference? If the historical character is writing in first person, the spelling would be the one s/he would know.

    I ran into a POV/spelling issue the other day in my editing. The first person narrator meets a girl named "Lilly"--in person, and she does not spell out her name, and he has no reason to ever see it on paper. So it seemed to me more logical that he would choose to use the traditional spelling, "Lily."

  30. I agree with Kathryn. If there's no difference in pronunciation then choose a consistent spelling. If the character is reading a label, on the other hand, then you might need to specify. But it's worth remembering that dialogue is "spoken" and go with what the characters are hearing, not reading.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  31. Hello Bob!
    Before I got all wound up in the Silver Rush series, I didn't know the difference either. The intriguing side-roads of research... :-)

  32. Hello Kathryn and Elle!
    "Wouldn't POV make a difference? If the historical character is writing in first person, the spelling would be the one s/he would know."
    Oooooh, that's a very interesting point! I recall a scene of a writer-friend, in which a guy is chatting about the sport of parkour, but the (first-person) narrator thinks he says "Parker" (as in a name). How would you spell this troublesome word in a bit of back and forth dialogue that might go like this?
    He said to me, "You've heard of [parkour]?"
    I frowned. "[Parker]? Who's that?"

  33. ... And thank you, Dani, for hosting me and for your awesome editing skills. Whiskey/whisky all around! :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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