Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Getting the science right

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.

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13 Comments Getting the science right

  1. Allan Shampine

    No one’s ever going to get all the details right. I think the best that can reasonably be hoped for is to get the details right on things that are a major focus in the book (e.g., if your book focuses on wolverines, you should expect wolverine enthusiasts who will be annoyed if you get the details wrong). However, if you have a science based MacGuffin (and I had to explain to my daughters what a MacGuffin was – they understood when I said it was the same as a Goober from Into the Spiderverse), odds are that very few people will have the knowledge to pass judgment, and it can be very difficult to do the research. Even worse, we often do not know what we do not know! In the example above about ice, I suspect the author had run into some number that stuck in her head and didn’t realize that it was erroneous! And it’s not the sort of thing your average beta reader or editor is going to catch.

    One nice example here is the author Barry Eisler, who really sweats getting his martial arts / firearms / assassination device details right. At one point a reader wrote to him that he had been mistaken in whether a taser left marks or not, so he went out to the garage, laid down the mats, and tasered himself to check! He actually has a blog where he posts mistakes in his books that is very interesting reading. https://www.barryeisler.com/mistakes/

  2. Allan Shampine

    One more quick note from Eisler’s blog on mistakes. At one point he wrote a throwaway bit where a character’s background was a Marine Corpsman (medic). But the Marines get all of their Corpsmen from the Navy, so there is no such thing as a Marine Corpsman! It’s something that a person with general familiarity with the military would assume exists, though, and a nice example of how we don’t always know what we don’t know! (And I should say I have no personal knowledge about this whatsoever, so I’m just assuming the Marine who wrote in to Mr. Eisler was correct!)

  3. Elaine T

    On what we don’t know what we don’t know, I recall reading YA Seven Swans retelling set in medieval Europe. Except the bishop and religious stuff was all wrong for the setting.

    When I looked up the author I discovered she’s Mormon. they have people they call bishops which are very very different from standard Catholic bishops especially how those would live in a High Middle Ages setting.

    I’m sure she thought she knew what a bishop was.

  4. Pete Mack

    Oh yes! It is quite annoying when an author makes a silly error in Newtonian physics about–say–missiles warfare between spaceships. Then–say–a few books later he corrects the physics, supposedly because of R&D by one side in a conflict, and *turns it into a major plot point by which a war is won*.

  5. Rachel

    Elaine, yes, I’ve read a couple of Carla Kelly’s Mormon romances, and “bishops” are certainly very different from what a Catholic means by the term.

    I doubt I could ever be sufficiently committed to finding out whether tasers leave marks that I’d tase myself! That’s certainly above and beyond!

    And certainly, it’s the unknowns unknowns that trip you up. It’s just startling to me that five or so layers of readers could ALL miss something as basic as what a mink is. But I wouldn’t bet actual money that I’ve never put in something as egregious as that, in some other field.

  6. Allan Shampine

    I’m personally not at all surprised at not knowing what a mink is, as I don’t know myself, and wouldn’t have thought twice about a mink fighting a rat!

  7. Rachel

    Grrr, all you people who don’t know zoology! SOMEONE should have known!

    Actually, even visualizing a mink coat ought to make it clear that the animals that produced those furs were much bigger than rats. Not that many of us have ever seen a mink coat, but I’ve seen them in movies.

    I remember a time Craig commented about watching a movie while in college or grad school, and the characters in the movie rode around a hill and a lake stretched out before them … and another student, a geology major, sat up straight and exclaimed, “There would NEVER be a lake THERE!”

    Thus clarifying that if you get the right people together, ALL DETAILS will be criticizable, and criticized, often in vehement terms.

  8. Evelyn M. Hill

    I read a book about a woman coming to the end of the Oregon Trail, and since I was writing a book in that setting I happily settled down to read it.
    Oh boy.
    Not only did the author miss things she could have caught by looking at any map (towns in the wrong place), she defied the laws of physics by having the heroine float down the Columbia River on a raft and then float up the Willamette. (This was a historical. No motors on that raft.)
    I think of all the persnickety things my editor queried regarding historical details and wonder why no one caught those errors.

  9. Mary Catelli

    what fun!

    I’m investigating the elemental composition of soil. You’d think that something with so much variation would be easier to work with, but it took a fair amount of search engine tricks before I could get a range.

  10. Rachel

    Mary, some basic facts are startlingly hard to find out, aren’t they? Now I’m wondering why you needed to know about the elemental composition of soils.

    Evelyn, floating up the Willamette River made me laugh! That’s really funny. I wonder how in the world no one caught that.

  11. Mary Catelli

    Magic that can control things on the atomic level and no further. Dirt is the handiest source of some elements.

  12. Meera

    I am not a materials scientist, but I am a female civil engineer working for a state road authority (geotechnical to be specific). I was game to follow Gereint’s story, but I really sat up when Tehre turned up! Team Tehre all the way here! Do you know how rare civil engineers are in SFF!?! Lady ones!!! Her opening conversation took me right back to my materials lectures twenty years ago, about why airplane windows have rounded corners (reduces stress concentration and cracking). I still thought a lot about Gereint, and redemption, as the story went on. (But mostly I was here for Tehre and the road building). Going to reread now!

  13. Rachel

    Meera, I am SO HAPPY to know that a (female) civil engineer read SANDS and enjoyed Tehre. Hah! That is wonderful! I hope that you didn’t spot anything that Tehre, or I, got egregiously wrong. But STRUCTURES is such an easy-to-read book that I hope I got things right. Pretty sure I remember Gordon discussing rounded windows while he explained the difference between stress and strain and how both work. I’m certain I remember him describing stress concentrations around pointy corners.

    I don’t know much about JE Gordon, but I am sure he was a teacher. You can HEAR him talking to a class full of undergraduates when he writes things like,

    If the lines of force get outside the wall, then the wall will tip up and fall over.

    It really will.

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