Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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It’s the little things that matter —

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.

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9 Comments It’s the little things that matter —

  1. David H.

    Not me recently, but I know some people online are annoyed by the potatoes in Middle-Earth, especially with the known/specific analog to Europe (with potatoes being from the Andes). That usually devolves into a “it’s fantasy!”/”it’s wrong!” dichotomy (for those who care).

  2. Elaine T

    I remember a historical novel set in 1460ish had people in Turkey eating maize. (like potatoes, from the Americas.) I boggled. The author had looked it up, though. The botanical encyclopedia was wrong.

    More recently stuff to do with birds and wings, thanks to the Teen who will go on and on and on about wings: shape, size, movements, parts…you name it. I notice when the writer gets them plausible, and when the writer doesn’t. ‘Mantling’ is often used hazily or actually mis-used. It’s a ‘MINE, keep your hands off’ motion and stance, not a general restless motion.

    Or stuff to do with fiber arts. I sew and knit. The Teen spins and has flirted with weaving. We can tell when the writer hasn’t. I do notice silk and cotton in places where the writer hasn’t convinced me they would be.

    And NO ONE seems to realize tapestries are woven. On looms. not stitched on canvas or ‘fabric’ with hoops and needles. Although they’re usually confused with embroidery or needlepoint and I’m resigned to seeing that (the Bayeaux Tapestry is mis-named, but probably the source of the confusion), Sherwood Smith, in a recent post on BVC, called one a mural. I thought about commenting, but it kept turning into a rant, so sat on my hands.

    J.M. Ney-Grimm gets fiber arts right. The Teen says Cedar Sanderson got millking goats exactly right in Vulcan’s Kittens

    The dogs in Seer’s Blood are acting right. I’m enjoying it, too. Love the voice.

  3. Rachel

    Have you read HILD? I was really surprised to see how utterly central cloth and the tools for making cloth were for women — though it makes sense.

    Glad you’re enjoying SEER’S BLOOD! I need to re-read that. And now I’m curious about VULCAN’S KITTENS.

  4. SarahZ

    I’m sure there are things like this that bugged me, but I can’t think of any- the ones that stick with me are the character inconsistencies. The supposedly brilliant strategist who does really stupid things, for example. (The sequel to Winners Curse drove me nuts)

  5. Rachel

    Sarah, I detest reaching a moment in a book and thinking, Seriously? THIS is your plan?

    When I send a manuscript to my brother, that’s what I most want him to look for — unaccountable stupidity in the actions of the main characters. Ugh.

    On the other hand, when I read the most recent Vlad Taltos book, I trusted Brust aaaalll the way through the book and it paid off, because No, that was not the actual plan. The real plan was cleverer.

  6. Elaine T

    Yes, HILD got it right. Cloth is a ton of work, and we don’t understand that in modern times.

    It was a non-fiction that really drove home what the underpinnings of economies, are: Gold & Spices by (IIRC) Favrier. We have so many more layers on top of the basics in these days, we don’t grasp how important the non-techy, the common stuff is. (even food. California feeds the country, and we’re building over all the good land, and people campaign against farmers. (fidgets with soapbox, puts it DOWN.) Think carefully about consequences. )

  7. Karen K

    There was one book I read where the main character wears eye glasses and is legally blind without them. I am very familiar with this since that describes my boyfriend. Not once did she fuss with the eye glasses or grope for them after waking up or getting out of the shower. Nor did they fall off and/or break when she was in several physical fights, including one where her head was shoved into a wall. Actually ruined the story for me because the characterization was wrong. People who are legally blind without their glasses are very concerned about said glasses getting lost or broken.

  8. Kim Aippersbach

    It’s the difference between okay writers and really good writers, and I’ve read enough really good ones that I’m pretty impatient with the ones who just don’t bother. I don’t always know when they get things wrong (I’m not really an expert on anything), but it’s always obvious when details are lacking entirely, glossed over, or stock (pine trees on mountains, for example).

    But too true about not knowing what you don’t know. I never realized how ignorant I was about the world I live in until I started to write a novel and I swear every single scene required me to look something up. Thank goodness for Google! (And for kind people willing to answer questions about how drought affects hemp plants.)

    (Also very true about the glasses—that would have thrown me right out of that story!)

  9. Rachel

    So, how *does* drought affect hemp? Yes, I agree, you can just constantly trip over details. I find that way more true about the sort-of contemporary setting for Black Dog than for a secondary world fantasy.

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