Here’s a post by Kristen at Metaphors and Moonlight: DISCUSSION: REALISM IN BOOKS – BIG THINGS VS. LITTLE THINGS
… if it’s a big thing that’s not realistic, then it’s almost like it becomes part of the premise. And I can accept pretty much any premise. I’m a sci-fi/fantasy reader, I accept crazy premises on a daily basis. It’s what I do.
But when details and little things are unrealistic, even if they have no significance on the plot or the characters whatsoever, it bothers me. Though I suppose it’s the fact that they have no significance that makes it even worse, because why even include them in the first place?!
This is a fantasy/SF reader, so by “realism” she doesn’t mean a contemporary real-world type of setting. She means that when a character has a tattoo on the palm of her hand, her reaction as a reader is to think, On the palm? Seriously? And this throws her out of the story as she googles around to confirm that indeed, the palm of the hand is a terrible place for a tattoo.
. . . if I can find the necessary information on the topic with a five minute Google search, why couldn’t the author? Did they just not care enough about their readers to bother researching?
Now, this, I think, is a tad unfair, because of course it’s the unknown unknowns that get you. The author obviously didn’t realize a tattoo on the palm might be questionable, so she (or he) saw no reason to look it up. Why, it reminds me VERY STRONGLY of the book Dead Witch Walking by Kelly Armstrong where the author — who does a fine job with wolves in a different series — has her protagonist turn into a mink and the animal she describes IS NOT A MINK. (She is describing a least weasel in its winter coat.) And she refers to it as a rodent, too, which is just upsetting, seriously. You might as well describe somebody’s pony as a rodent.
Those unknown unknowns, they’ll bite you.
So I don’t know that it’s incorrect details that are the problem, exactly. It’s incorrect details that are glaringly apparent to any particular reader. Those will vary a ton from reader to reader, obviously. I remember Sherwood Smith commenting about errors in Regencies, most of which I would probably read right over without noticing.
But I do think it’s dead true that mistakes with the details will bother a reader much more an a broadly implausible plot element that was never supposed to be realistic.
For me what matters: Food — You should not be eating chilies in ancient China or rice in medieval Norway. Plants in general — pines are suited only to certain ecosystems, not to every possible ecosystem. Animals — do not refer to any kind of mustelid as a rodent, please. Fabrics — silk is a very specific type of cloth.
Stuff that doesn’t bother me nearly as much but gets right up the nose of an expert: Everything. That river, are you sure it’s running the right way? Can you seriously have a spring-fed swamp this high up on a mountain? You know, swords were not that heavy, really. Hey, arquebuses were not very accurate and by the way, a company firing them would produce billowing clouds of opaque smoke. And then all the period details for historical novels; truly, there’s no end.
How about you, any detail issue kick you out of a book recently?
And on the flip side, the single book (series) with the best detailing I’ve read this year: The Steerswoman series by Kirstein. Loved the coherence of the setting. And even there, if I bump into her at Worldcon, there are a couple things that don’t seem to make sense and I wonder if she has justifications for them.