Here’s a post at Crime Reads that is certainly broadly applicable outside of mysteries and thrillers: WHY USING ACCURATE SCIENCE IN YOUR FICTION IS SO IMPORTANT
There’s a picture at the wolverine at the top of the post. This instantly made me think of the urban fantasy I read (ages ago, don’t remember much about it) where the protagonist turned herself into a mink and wound up having knock-down-drag-out fight with a rat, and I threw the book across the room (possibly literally, I don’t remember that either). A mink is not going to enter gladatorial combat with a rat. It will kill the rat and have dinner. From the physical description, it was perfectly clear that the author meant not “mink” but “ermine” or “white phase short-tailed weasel.” A short-tailed weasel weighs about 7 ounces, a bit smaller than a standard Norwegian rat, and therefore chooses smaller prey than rats. A mink weighs around 2 lbs and has no trouble killing rats. The author’s agent, first reader, editor, copy editor, or SOMEONE should have said, “Uh, you are not describing a mink.”
And that is what I thought of the second I saw a picture of a wolverine at the top of this post. I said to myself, Gosh, I hope the author of this post is planning to talk about wolverines, not ermine. Now, to actually read the post.
You can create a plot with explosions, acrobatic assassins that speak twelve languages, lost civilizations, hidden treasures, and ancient tomes, and the audience will drink it in. But make a factual error, like that Plato wrote those ancient tomes in Italian, and the reader can grind to a halt and be taken right out of the narrative.
So true! Except I would pass over that particular error with a puzzled, Uh, Italian? and go on, probably. Book-throwing requires something that hits me closer to home.
I vividly remember my first experience with this. I was happily reading a thriller that described how bubbles of air from Earth’s ancient atmosphere can get trapped in ice. Scientists then extract ice cores and can analyze those bubbles. “True, true,” I nodded, fascinated…. I felt charged up as the novel progressed, as the scientist characters leaned over their own ice core, taking samples. And then boom, there it was—the author stated that the ice being sampled by these scientists was 350 million years old. I lowered the book. The oldest ice on earth is around two million years.
The author of this post, as you may imagine, declares that she prefers to get details right when she puts her own novels together. Here’s her comment about her recent book:
[M]y upcoming thriller, A Solitude of Wolverines … features a wildlife biologist who lands a gig studying wolverines on a remote sanctuary in Montana. I didn’t want a wolverine researcher to pick up my book and end up scoffing at inaccuracies …
Indeed, wolverines! Very good! Also, sure, I’m personally interested. I like the sound of this protagonist. Depending on how the book looks, I could well want to try at least a sample. … Hmm. Sounds like it could be good.
I will just mention, though, before going on, that the author of this post declares that wolverines are seriously endangered in the contiguous US, with a population in the low hundreds. While this is true, and overall, wolverines are indeed considered somewhat endangered, the population numbers for wolverines in the Lower 48 are completely irrelevant. There are thought to be about 20,000 in Canada and Alaska. I really do not like to see people deliberately exaggerate the endangered status of random species to make a rhetorical point, which I think the author has done.
Further, the author of this post says “paternal behavior in carnivores is incredibly rare” which is basically not true. Of course the veracity of this statement depends on your definition of “incredibly.” Paternal behavior is seen in all or nearly all canid species. That’s, oh, about 30 species of canids to start with. We also see paternal behavior in many social viverrids. There are about 250 species of carnivores. I suppose probably under 15% show paternal behavior, call it between 10% and 15% as a fairly reasonable estimate. Isn’t ten percent more like “somewhat uncommon” than it is “incredibly” rare?
Just saying. I wouldn’t call that an inaccuracy of fact, but it’s a bit … what’s the term? … misleading by means of overwrought language? Would that be fair? I am less likely to try a novel if I feel the author is prone to exaggerated language.
Moving on, I will add, one of the (relatively rare) times I really wanted to get details right was when I wanted Miguel to make a car explode by shooting it in Shadow Twin. As you may recall, that didn’t happen, and the reason it didn’t happen — you can see this coming — is because I couldn’t figure out a way to make a normal car explode by shooting it with a normal gun.
It turns out that if you complain about this sort of thing on Facebook, a surprising number of people will at once tell you how to make a (prepared) car explode when you shoot it with a (special) gun. This is not, alas, helpful, if the car and gun must both be normal, so as you know, I did something else in that scene.
Let me see … okay, I also spent quite a bit of time looking up how to cook beaver tail and what that is like to eat for a scene in Tuyo. No, that detail didn’t make it into the book either, don’t bother trying to recall a moment when that was relevant.
The only time I remember doing a lot of research and actually using some of that research was for Tehre in Land of Burning Sands. Nearly every word that came out of her mouth was based on something from Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, by JE Gordan, a wonderfully readable book about materials science. That book lived on my coffee table, in easy reach of my laptop, for the whole time I was writing Sands. I hope, that on the no-doubt rare occasion that a real materials scientist reads the Griffin Mage trilogy, he or she is happy to see accurate comments about architraves versus arches and so on.