Basics of writingStory Details

The devil is in the details

From Scott:

We’ve all heard the saying that “the devil is in the details.” The idea carries over into the crafting of novels. As an author, you can choose to pay close attention to every imaginable detail, which will obviously entail a lot of time and effort. Or, you can choose the easy road and guess at the details, hoping that your readers won’t notice any errors and inconsistencies. Rick and I advocate for the former.] Let’s take a look at a few areas that require extra attention.

[RICK SAYS: I tend to be rather anal when it comes to details, and I’ve had readers compliment me on it.]

We’ll start with the calendar. If you are writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, where you create your own world, dates may not be as important. If the characters don’t follow the Gregorian calendar, you have choices. Most fantasy books I’ve read deal with this issue by not referring to any specific dates, other than the holidays that the author has created. I help the reader understand the passage of time by offering references to the passage of time. On occasion, I will have a character reminisce on the amount of time that has passed since the moment of change (which should be at or near the beginning). Another method for marking time in a fantasy realm is to mark the changing of the seasons, if the book covers a large enough span of time for that to happen.

With a novel set in the “real” world, you need more attention to details. If you look on the Internet, you can find calendars for years past and those yet to come. If any of your characters, or anything in a scene, refers to an actual date, you should check the calendar for that year to be certain the day of the week and the date for that month actually line up. While it’s doubtful that readers will look this up, it’s better not to get sloppy. And watch the holidays. Some of them are simple, because they fall on the same day of the week each year (Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, for example). Others, like Christmas and Independence Day, are on a set date and therefore fall on a different day each year. You also need to watch for leap years. Does February 29 fall in 2014, or 2016?

Another aspect of the details is moon phases. If you’re dealing with a fantasy realm, you can create your own moon phases. For that matter, there can be more than one moon, as in the Dragonlance series. This can complicate matters even more, because if you establish a set of rules regarding how these multiple moons revolve with respect to one another, you had better follow it. This is something alert readers will catch. How long does a moon cycle (month) last? Once you set it up, stick with it.

[RICK SAYS: In my first novel,More Than Magick, the main story originally took place in the span of then days. I had the characters traveling to different worlds, and wanting to be realistic (and clever), I made the length of day different on the various worlds. That wouldn’t have been a problem by itself, but I had the characters return to some of the worlds they’d visited previously. This meant that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of time passage on the various worlds, so if I expected the characters to return to a world when it was night there, I had to be sure it really was night there. I doubt that any readers bothered keeping track, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that I’d done it correctly. And then I revised the novel, shortened the duration of the adventure by a day or so. Fortunately–because I had made the spreadsheet–I was able to make adjustments easily. My advice: Unless you enjoy headaches and lots of extra work, watch where you draw the line on realism–and don’t write novels that involve travel to several worlds in a short span of time. Back to Scott…]

With stories set on Earth, you have another situation. If you want to go into extreme detail, you can look on the Internet and find the historic and upcoming moon phases listed out for you. That way, if you’re listing actual dates, you’ll be right on. And even if you don’t want to go into that much detail, you still need to keep track of the moon’s phases. If you mention a “new moon” in one chapter, a week later you had better not have a full moon. If readers are paying attention, that flaw will stand out.

[RICK SAYS: And don’t forget about time zone differences on Earth. Don’t have someone in the U.S. at 7 PM Eastern Time call someone in Germany and expect that person to be awake.]

Weather is frequently used in scene setting, and without proper caution it can cause a glaring issue. Different regions of the real world encounter different types of weather. The same will hold true in the fantasy worlds you’ve created. For my novels, I’ve had an advantage in this area. My training as a severe storm spotter, along with college meteorology classes, has given me a decent understanding of how weather works and how it is affected by terrain. There’s a reason why, on my fantasy maps, the deserts tend to be just east of a line of mountains. There’s also a reason why, in America, the Great Plains and the Midwest have so many tornadoes. It all has to do with how the weather interacts with the ground. When putting weather and climates into your fantasy world, it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes to learn a little about what you’re designing.

For novels set in the real world, knowing the weather and climates will be just as important. If you have a character in India, do you know what time of year the monsoons come through? It wouldn’t look good if you missed that one by a wide margin. If your characters go to the Caribbean, you should learn the difference between summer and winter weather (primarily the rainy season versus the dry season, with a slight temperature change). Hurricanes are called “hurricanes” only when striking in the Western Hemisphere. Other parts of the world give them different names. Your book will be all the better if you use the correct terminology. This can also vary by the point of view of the character. An American who encounters a typhoon in Asia is likely to call it a “hurricane,” not a “typhoon.” A little research here will go a long way.

In my next installment, I’ll go into a few more areas that require a little extra work to get the details correct. Some of these areas may seem like nitpicking, so you might feel they are unnecessary. Some of them are areas you could probably get away with if you simply “wing it.” It all comes down to the level of quality you want to put into your work.


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