Last minute thoughts
Thereâ€™s a deft little thread woven into Dorothy Sayersâ€™ Gaudy Night where one of the academics is perpetually working on the final draft of her definitive book and keeps taking it back to do what modern publishers call â€œtweakâ€ it. A footnote here, the incorporation of a newly published paper thereâ€”her colleagues in the end have to wrench the thing from her hands and send it away, while she trails behind protesting about the footnote on page 84 that needs correcting. Or something of the sort, you get the idea.
At least, you do if youâ€™re a writer. When the page proofs for Touchstone came in (during BoucherCon in Alaska–you can revisit my pleasure by scrolling back to September) I dutifully put my head down and worked my way through them, correcting the odd name, changing verbs, removing repetitions. I sent it off, by the deadline. Editors, assistants, and various others went through it, and off it was bundled to Publication and the printers.
And then the other day a niggling thought surfaced in the back of my mind: Wasnâ€™t there a place where..?
So I went to the ARC (yet another illustration of why no one should wish to read an advanced reading copy of a book) and yes, there was. It came in a passage where two main characters are talking about Bennett Grey, the man known as â€œTouchstone,â€ with one character explaining to the other what that word means. Iâ€™d been focused on the alchemical overtones of a substance that can identify gold, and somehow overlooked the minor problem that the book isnâ€™t named â€œQuicksilver.â€
Itâ€™s the sort of thing that brings Those Letters. Letters that point out, in fury or in longsuffering patience, that the author got it wrong, yet again. Letters saying that touchstone is a, yes, stone such as slate on which precious metals leave a trace when rubbed. Mercury (also known as quicksilver) is not a touchstone, although it can perform a similar function of proving true gold. Discerning readers couldnâ€™t help picking up on the idiocyâ€”and reviewers! I could just see the scathing criticism now: Doesnâ€™t King bother with research any more? Doesnâ€™t she know that mercury and touchstone are entirely different things? Sheesh.
So up bursts the desperate author, snatching in desperation at her tattered manuscript, crying out to her editor to save her from Those Letters and Reviews.
And on the very brink of catastrophe, with the letters about to be set in solid type (yeah, right) for all the ages to mock and wag their heads at, Miss Lydgateâ€™sâ€”er, Ms Kingâ€™s book was rescued from infamy, and common sense restored.
So when you get to page 121 of Touchstone and come across the place where Alistair Carstairs and Harris Stuyvesant are talkingâ€”
â€œWhatâ€™s touchstone?â€ [Stuyvesant asks]
“It’s a soft stone used to prove the purity of gold or silver. But the
alchemists used quicksilver, or mercury, because when one touches
gold to mercury, the liquid is drawn up to cover the solidâ€¦etcâ€
Know that only the lightning-quick action of my Bantam editorâ€™s beloved assistant, Kelly, rescued that from readingâ€”
“It’s an archaic name for quicksilver, or mercury. Mercury bonds
with gold, and only gold. When you touch a gold ring to a pool of
mercury, the mercury is drawn to the ring, covering it and making it etcâ€
God, the shame. And oh, the Lettersâ€¦