While we struggle with deepening our characters, filling plot gaps, strengthening structure and all those other novel elements, often we forget how the “simple” things can trip up our story or, even worse, cause readers to lose faith in our ability to tell a story that holds together.
How often have you read something and thought Hold on, that character couldn’t possibly have travelled so far in that time? Or Didn’t this story start on a Tuesday, but now it’s Monday? Or even This house is miles from anywhere so how are they on mains water? Our minds are pretty logical – after all, they have to be to deal with the dozens of everyday chores, details and appointments we endure. So glaring mistakes will get noticed. And if your readers are knowledgeable, specific mistakes (like the wrong kind of gun) will be noticed, too, and destroy your writer’s credibility.
What are some of the logistics you need to keep track of?
- Distance – how far apart places are, what lies in between, how long it will take your characters to travel, either on foot or by any kind of vehicle they use. I once needed to estimate how long it would take a 18th century sailing ship to sail from Barbados to New York, but I eventually found the information I needed to work it out. Because that leads to our next element…
- Time – how long it takes characters to carry out actions, from driving a car into the desert to dispose of a body to feeding a fractious baby a plate of porridge. Could someone really hand-sew a quilt in a day? Or take apart a car engine and put it back together again? How long does it take to forge a sword?
- Weather – is your setting a place that experiences distinct seasons, and how? Snow? Searing heat? During which months? Do you need to know moon phases to show whether your characters could see by moonlight on a certain night? How will the temperature affect the actions they need to take? Is a summer thunderstorm usual?
- Money and the cost of things – if your characters are not rich, they can’t afford to buy a Humvee for their getaway. If they are very poor, they’re unlikely to eat truffles. You might need to know how much a coffee costs in Paris (and what kinds of coffee are on the menu), or whether you can buy bottled water in Zimbabwe. You might need to know how much it would cost to rent a house in San Francisco in a certain area, or whether you could buy a car for $200 in Mexico. Along with this goes wages – how much would a labourer earn in 1920?
- Dates of inventions – this is more important in historical novels, but even something set ten years ago will have to be accurate. When were ballpoint pens first used? When did cell phones become commonly used? What did they look like? What kind of car would someone wealthy be driving in Melbourne in 1915? Even today, if your character travels to Kenya or Lima in Peru, will their cell phones still work?
- Tools and weapons – how did people harvest fields of crops in 1665? 1850? 1960? How did they cut down large trees in the 1800s? When did builders start using laser markers and gauges? How do you use an electric jigsaw? For what? For each job or profession your character engages in, do you know the tools they’d use? If you are writing crime or mystery fiction, you need to research guns and get those details correct, if they are part of your story.
- Geography – this is similar to distance but goes a lot further. It’s said that you can set a novel anywhere these days because you can research it (and virtually walk along streets on Google Earth), yet it’s the small details that count. What does that country pub smell like? What brands of beer do they sell on tap? How many lifts would a skyscraper have? Going to which floors? Where are the fire stairs?
Many of these elements tie in with the mechanics I talked about in a previous post, but they take it a step further. These are things that you need to know to “situate” the reader in the story and make them feel as though they are really there. When you read a novel by Michael Connelly, you know he knows Los Angeles inside out. You know when his characters get stuck on a certain freeway, he’s been there, too.
It’s why fantasy writers draw maps. It helps them to get the logistics (especially of distance, time and season/weather) right. If you have trouble keeping track of all of this kind of detail, try creating a “bible” for your novel, the same way that writers of TV series do. It’s so you can constantly keep track of the tiny details and build on them, making your fictional world more and more real. Between this and the maps and diagrams that keep your mechanics working, you can create a solid base from which your characters can do anything, and keep it logical!
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