Friday, July 29, 2005

Stickler I be

It's the little things that kill
Tearin' at my brain again.
--Bush (the band), "Little Things"
As I'm revising my fantasy novel, the first book I've ever written that's not set in a modern time and place, I find myself making an enormous effort to get the little details right.

Case in point: last night I came to a part where one of the characters uses fresh chamomile flowers as a medicinal to help someone sleep. Yet chamomile only blooms in June and July, and the scene takes place in late summer/early fall. Argh! I had to rewrite it so that the character found the dried chamomile in a shed instead of picking it by moonlight, which I thought sounded much cooler.

My feeling is that when an author is expecting readers to believe in a non-ordinary setting, it's all the more important to get the reality-based details correct. Doing so lends the work more credence, and a reader will be more likely to buy the whole "you can do magic" business.

(Oh, great, now I have that America song stuck in my head. Share it with me, won't you*?)

I'm a beast when it comes to ecological or economical accuracies, since those are the two areas of reality I know anything about. I once edited another author's fantasy manuscript in which part of the society formed a cult around an animal that not only didn't inhabit that biome, but didn't even exist in that hemisphere. Many fantasy and science fiction novels make me wonder, where did they get the money to build that castle/warp drive? The tax structure must be brutal.

My husband made the following comment: "It's an alternate world. Why can't things work differently there?"

Maybe he's right. Maybe I shouldn't labor over what forms of liquor could realistically be created in a high mountain forest with no access to agricultural products (something made from fermented berries, perhaps?). Maybe I shouldn't worry about whether people will throw my book against the wall if I have a character harvesting wild carrot seed in the spring.

But I fear that letting the little things go, with the assumption that readers will forgive my lapses because it's "just fantasy," invites a kind of creative anarchy. If we want our genre to gain more respect, we can't fudge facts, not even for the sake of the story, much less for the sake of "it sounds cool."

What do you think? Do you watch Return of the King and wonder where all those people in the city of Minas Tirith get their food? (First person who says "lembas bread" gives me twenty pushups.)

*Together now, sing it:
Doo doo doo do do DOO
Doo doo doo do dooo, DOO!


On the whole, I'm with you. But your husband has something of a point. I'm reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire now. Rowling mixes things up a bit.Of course, Potter is supposedly for kids---or the perpetual kid at heart---but it has bearing on fantasy novels. You can stretch things a bit---a variety of chamomile that grows in the fall--but don't obsess over it. Most of your readers wouldn't know the difference. Like me.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 7/29/2005 7:11 PM

But there'll always be that one reader who knows I've botched it. Why risk annoying them when it's so easy to find the right answers?

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 7/29/2005 7:23 PM

But you'll always have someone who finds fault in your work, whatever it is. Yes, fix it if you can. I get steamed when I see egregious mistakes. But no one's perfect. Not even me. Just don't obsess over it.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 7/29/2005 9:51 PM

Couldn't the chamomile be late this season? Cold spring or something? I think moonlight picking sounds way cooler. That said, you know what you're trying to write, so your opinion counts more than mine.

As for Minis Tirith, there are vast open plains surrounding it that would probably support farming or livestock. There is also the port nearby (where Aragorn sails in on the Black Fleet). That would supply them in good times. They also knew the war was coming, so they would have expected and planned for a siege by laying in stores.

Posted by: Blogger Andrew at 8/01/2005 12:00 PM

Actually, it was originally valerian to be picked by moonlight, which sounds much cooler. But then I found out that valerian has to be given over a period of weeks to have any sedative effect. Then again, the healer does have magic at her disposal, so she could augment the valerian when she makes the medicine to create a fast-acting dose. Thanks for the feedback, y'all--I wouldn't have given it another thought otherwise, and now I've come up with a solution. Clearly I'm new at this magic stuff--shoulda played more D&D, I guess.

Good points about Minas Tirith, Andrew. No push-ups for you.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 8/01/2005 2:25 PM

Miss Snark, Literary Agent has a post on this very subject today.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 8/01/2005 2:47 PM

WRT to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (which Cecilia said she's reading) - there is a cautionary tale surrounding it. The first edition had a major continuity error in the climax. I don't wan't to spoil the ending, so I won't describe it. You can find several sites that explain it. Rowling had to re-write the part of the book for subsequent printings.

The mistake bothered Rowling a lot, and it is part of the reason she took a lot more time on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Posted by: Blogger Andrew at 8/01/2005 4:14 PM

Ok, so today I was reading Henry and Mudge and the Wild Goose Chase with my kids. In it, Henry's mother wants to go to the farm stand to get fresh blueberries and corn. (That's a bit of a reach, since blueberries tend to be over around mid-July and corn starts now, but I'll allow it.) The major continuity issue here is- IN ALL THE PICTURES, EVERYONE'S WEARING LONG SLEEVE SWEATERS. What? There was a mid-summer cold wave? I guess that would explain the late blueberries?

Now I'm not going to make a big fuss or write Cynthia Rylant and tell her off. But as a reader, I appreciate the extra mile when the author spends a line mentioning the special mountain chamomile that blooms late in the season. Even when it's a book for beginning readers.

Posted by: Blogger Sharon GR at 8/01/2005 6:07 PM

Hmm, maybe the long sleeves were a protection from mosquitos? Mosquitos with really long proboscises that would pierce the average cotton shirt. Or maybe the artist couldn't draw arms.

I noticed that the blueberries at our store now are from Jersey. They were a bit past prime, though. Next week it'll be Quebec blueberries, then none at all. Sigh...but hey, it's peach/plum/nectarine season!

Andrew, is it only the first editions of Goblet of Fire that are messed up? I've still only read the first two books in that series.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 8/01/2005 7:30 PM

I think it was only the first publishing run. After that it was fixed. Our copy has the mistake. Later I listened to the book on CD, and it had the updated version.

Posted by: Blogger Andrew at 8/02/2005 10:09 AM

I thought I saw a continuity problem, but I can't check b/c I gave it back to Adrian this weekend. Now, I'm the kind of dweeb who reads the end of the book after the first few chapters (which doesn't gurantee I understand the ending or am any less surprised by it, Cold Mountain being the most graphic example). So since I won't get to re-read Goblet PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE tell me what the problem was. If you'd rather, get my e-mail from Jeriand secretly e-mail me. Look, I'm old, I haven't got much time left. Don't let me die w/o knowing! (Did that work?)


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 8/02/2005 10:17 PM

Yeah, please don't post the answer here, since some of me have only read the first two books. Andrew, I can't find your e-mail, so contact me for Cecilia's addy.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 8/02/2005 11:15 PM

This is a comment to your July 29th 2005 post "Stickler I be." (Dontcha hate it when someone comments on an old post and you can't find it?)

Anyway, I though of this when reading a post from a fellow NJ blogger, Suzette. Here's another reader who appreciates when you go the extra mile.

Posted by: Blogger Sharon GR at 1/07/2006 3:34 PM

Hi Sharon,

Actually, when the comment is e-mailed to me, it links to the post in question, so that's nice. Thanks so much for mentioning me!

Suzette, that thing about the lilacs in fall would've driven me nuts, too. Arrggh.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 1/07/2006 8:07 PM

Post a Comment


This Side of Salvation

This Side of Salvation, Jeri's new contemporary YA novel!

Now available in hardcover and ebook.

“A smart, well-rounded, and unpredictable tale...bringing to light issues of belief versus free will, spirit versus body, and family versus self.” —Booklist, **Starred Review**


Order from Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, or



"Shattered," a Shade novella!

Available here on this website as a free download in all major ebook formats, as well as a printable PDF (now with photos!).

More about "Shattered"

About the author

Jeri Smith-Ready

Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

Learn more about Jeri...

Photo © Geoffrey C. Baker

Sign up for Jeri's newsletter

  • First draft of secret new project

Current Reads