In the Details

A few weeks ago I was re-reading a favorite novel. It happened to be the first novel by an author who is now deservedly well-known, and a lovely first novel it is. Toward the beginning of the book, one of the characters remarks, “It’s coming on Beltane, the spring equinox.” The incident always forces me to stop for a moment, tear my hair a bit, weep quietly into whatever beverage I happen to be drinking, and remind myself that this WAS a first novel, that a lot of people don’t know the difference from Beltane and a hole in the ground, and that most of the author’s research is impeccable, with incredible attention to detail.

Still, it’s a mistake that stands out for me and interrupts the flow of the narrative. And it got me thinking about the mistakes in detail I see in many novels, even those of prominent authors. Mistakes people make because they don’t have personal experience in the things they’re writing about, or because they get attached to a visual detail and they don’t take the time to find out whether what they envision is actually possible. This kind of thing causes me to gnash my teeth, because I have a wide knowledge of all kinds of weird shit and because I DO take the time in my writing to verify picayune stuff. So here’s a post about the errors in detail I see most often and how you can avoid them.

1. Please learn how moon phases work.

Authors love to talk about what the moon looks like. I get it. The moon is a gorgeous heavenly body and there’s a huge amount of symbolism attached to it. You can do a lot with night scenes if you allow the moon to play a part. And I don’t know how many times I’ve read scenes where the full moon rose at two in the morning, or the sickle moon rose at sunset two days after moon dark, or some other patently impossible event involving the moon takes place. I don’t care what world you’re in, or what planet you’re on: those two things are never going to happen unless you intentionally change the laws of physics (and if you do, please make a point of mentioning it). At full, the moon ALWAYS rises at sunset or thereabouts. That’s what makes the moon appear full: the sun’s rays are directly opposite the moon in the sky and thus illuminate the entire face. At moon dark, the sun and the moon are in the same general vicinity in the heavens, and so the sun blocks the moon out. As the moon waxes, it appears to fall behind the sun’s path, a little bit each day–that is, it emerges from the sun’s shadow. So a couple days after moon dark, the moon would be setting around sunset, not rising.

2. While we’re at it, pay attention to seasonal sunrise and sunset times.

I caught a glitch with this in a novel I was Beta-reading a little while back. The main character was closing a diner around sunset at the winter solstice, after the dinner rush. I pointed out to the author that here in Colorado, sunset at the winter solstice takes place at 4:30 p.m. In her setting, it might have stayed light a bit longer, but still, the dinner rush would hardly have happened yet. If it’s important to you that an activity or event take place at sunset or sunrise, please check to make sure the time you’re thinking of the event taking place actually COULD take place at that time. In northern latitudes, you’re going to have much longer summer days and much shorter winter days than you are at a location nearer the equator. And of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, everything will be reversed from what it is up north. This is a useful website to use to keep track of sunrise and sunset, as well as moonrise, moonset, and moon phases worldwide. It’s the very top link in my folder of Book Research materials.

3. Seasonal Fruit is Seasonal

This one is easy for me, because I live in an agricultural area. For the same reason, it gives me hives when people mess it up, which tends to occur most in Fantasy or Historical Fiction (I’ve also seen it in Romance). I can understand it, because in the first world we aren’t as limited by seasonal availability as we once were. But the fact is, you don’t pick cherries in March most places. Seasonal availability is going to depend a lot on your planting zone, of course. (If you don’t know what this means, look HERE.) If you must work with agricultural information and you don’t come from an agricultural background, check out some gardening websites and catalogues. Where I am, we grow a lot of fruit, and each has its season. Apricots in late May to early June, cherries at the beginning of July, followed by peaches, plums, grapes, pears, and apples. Berries of most kinds ripen in the summer. Nuts in the fall. And so forth. Also, do pay attention to how fruit works. If you have a scene at the local cherry harvest early in your book, the big wedding in chapter twenty CANNOT take place in a shower of cherry blossom. Unless, of course, you’ve gone to a completely different location or one of your characters has the power to make trees blossom out of season. I encourage you to treat all plant life cycles with similar attention. It’s extremely unlikely, for example, that Lily of the Valley would bloom at Hallowe’en, or tea roses in April. And I have yet to get a rosemary bush to survive the winter in zone 5.

4. A stallion? Really?

How many heroes of Fantasy novels ride stallions all over the place? How do they manage it? It does depend on the breed–my vet has a stud who’s a real sweetheart–but in general, stallions don’t make good saddle horses. That’s why you geld colts you’re not going to breed. Stalli0ns have historically been used as war horses, precisely because they tend to be vicious and hard to train and control. And an important thing about stallions is, if he smells a mare in season anywhere in the vicinity, he’s going to have one thing on his mind, and it won’t be his rider’s convenience. So do your character a favor and put him up on a nice gelding or a mare. Also, it’s simply amazing how many people can make the distinction between a stallion and a gelding at a single glance. It is easy with some male domestic animals. Bulls, for example. You can always tell a bull from a steer or a cow. They’re heavier and bulkier, particularly across the shoulders. Horses aren’t so easy.

5. She carries her swords on her back, does she?

This is another trope you see a great deal in Fantasy: the warrior with the sword or swords across his or her back. It looks super-cool. And it’s a wonderful place to carry swords so they don’t get in the way of other activities, like walking. But it is virtually, if not literally, impossible to draw a sword from a back sheath with any alacrity if the sword is any longer than your forearm–about the size of a Roman gladius. Try it sometime. I have. So has my husband. I really, really wanted to give Timber MacDuff a back carry, because IT LOOKS SO COOL! I had to ditch the idea because there would be no way for him to draw a four-foot sword with a three-foot blade from a back sheath without getting cut down as he struggled to get it free. Another thing about swords is, they’re lighter than you might suppose. You may have read about a certain 15-lb Claymore. Can you imagine controlling something of that weight for any length of time with the muscles of your forearms and wrists? Yeah, you wouldn’t last long. An actual early style Claymore weighs 5-6 lbs and is about five feet in length. A classic basket hilt Claymore weighs in at 4 lbs, and a lot of that is the basket. Most one-handed swords are no more than 3 lbs. Learn more about Medieval weaponry and fighting styles at The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.

Whether you see God or the Devil in the details, attention to them is the mark of a skilled writer. Don’t ignore them or make assumptions because you think no one will notice. I assure you, someone will.

The above are five of my pet peeves. What are yours?




2 thoughts on “In the Details

  1. Bows. Bows, arrows, and most particularly, bowstrings. Before the advent of modern materials, bowstrings were made from sinew or sometimes some very strong plant fiber like dogsbane or milkweed. All of these are subject to humidity. A wet bowstring makes your longbow useless. Bowmen of the middle ages (and many modern ones) kept at least one extra bowstring in a waterproof wrapping.
    Until the advent of modern fiberglass, a bowman wouldn’t think of keeping a bow strung unless he/she was anticipating shooting in the near future. Keeping an all wood bow strung results in a permanent curving of the bow resulting in a loss of strength. Also, most war and hunting bows had high draw weights. What this means for writers and film/video people is that you can’t have a character slinging a bow across her body with the string nestled across the chest unless you want the character to be pinched in half (hyperbole). I’ve tried it. Even with a 55lb bow, it hurts like hell and it takes determined effort and a couple of circus worthy contortions to do.

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