Research can be a hassle. Still, most of us writers agree that we need to understand the facts to portray different places and times authentically.
But sometimes we’re so focused on wars and revolutions, architecture, and major landmarks that we forget the smaller details. The elements in a character’s immediate environment have the power to either distract readers or plunge them into a vibrant setting. If we put care into those areas, our stories will feel real.
Your characters will likely eat during the story, and whether it’s a brief action or an entire scene around the kitchen table, the items on their plates must be believable. The culture, time period, technology, and the availability of ingredients all need to be considered.
During the first draft of my dystopian novel, I looked up pioneer rations in the 1800s, since my society had fallen to similar conditions. I gave the characters a diet of bread, meats, and vegetables. However, in my most recent rewrite, I realized that the isolated community would be unable to buy supplies for bread baking and seeds for planting. Wild game with little seasoning wouldn’t taste like five-star steak dinners either. So I had to simplify their provisions, which I think will make the final product more convincing.
As another example, I beta read a fantasy novel with a Roman-inspired setting a few years ago. The weapons, clothing, and architecture were all consistent. Then the characters sat down to a meal of cornbread and beans, and I screeched to a halt. The stereotypical cowboy grub conflicted with all the other fantastic worldbuilding. I still enjoyed and finished the story, but authors risk losing readers when a piece of the backdrop is incongruent.
Speculative fiction authors have a slight advantage. Earthly customs and trends don’t influence their worlds. Or so they argue.
Regardless of your genre, you should keep stereotypes and preconceptions in mind. Readers can distinguish a medieval doublet from a Victorian waistcoat, and a cowhand’s getup from a space walker’s uniform. Straying beyond those boundaries will ruin the suspension of disbelief rather than spice up the story. People appreciate the unique but also gravitate to the familiar.
Though you don’t need to describe every outfit stitch by stitch, you should allow for limitations that could affect the story. I recently discovered that lavender dye didn’t exist in medieval days, so my princess’s gown couldn’t be that color. Only a history buff would notice, but changing the fabric wasn’t a big deal.
Have you ever seen one of those cop shows where a woman goes undercover to bust a gang? She maneuvers with ease in stilettos, her makeup never smears, and her wig remains flawless. Cue the eye roll. Your scenes will be more relatable and tense if the hero struggles under the weight of his armor, or the maiden trips while running in hoop skirts.
Any object or societal structure that fills a character’s surroundings has the potential to either disorient or ground readers. When I received a critique on the first chapter of my dystopian, the hodgepodge of modern, historic, and futuristic elements prevented my reader from identifying the time period. If a book is more confusing than captivating, it’s in danger of being shelved, so I knew I needed to revise.
The Selection by Kiera Cass suffers from this issue. The opening chapters introduce a monarchy, social classes, and a war between the United States and China. If the author had clearly established the time period sooner, the blend of old-fashioned traditions and futuristic problems would have been interesting instead of baffling.
In another manuscript I was beta reading, soldiers carried swords, houses had parlors and Victorian style furniture, and trains were the primary mode of transportation. When the hero finally confronted the villain, he spun around in a swivel chair. The story featured technology—even computers. But the author had painstakingly shown the Victorian overlay, and the swivel chair clashed with what I had been trained to picture for this world.
Though the above scenarios are from speculative fiction, the concepts apply to all genres. If you write about a Nebraskan pioneer family living in a four-bedroom log cabin, you didn’t do your research. Nebraskan prairie homes were usually one room and constructed with sod or dug into a hillside due to trees being sparse. Depicting the struggles of that lifestyle will humanize the characters so that readers root for their survival.
The year is 1850 in a dusty cowtown. The hero dismounts and wipes the sweat off his face before jerking the rigging loose on his saddle. “I’m pulling out early. I promised Mary I’d take her to the dance in town tonight.”
“Okay, cool,” says his partner. “See you tomorrow.”
“Cool?” The hero raises an eyebrow. “I thought it was hot.”
The wrong terminology can derail a conversation between characters and date your work. If a character shouts “YOLO!” before leaping from a plane with a parachute, readers will assume the story is happening (or was written) a few years ago because no one says that anymore. Be sure to research the common slang for the era you’re writing in—and check that the meanings haven’t become offensive.
The words you choose set the tone for the whole story. In my latest WIP about a Viking girl, the scenery, clothing, weapons, and narrative all fit the culture. Except the warriors sounded like modern American teenagers. Though I didn’t insert any words like yeet, mood, or meme, their dialogue lacked a distinct flavor. So I archived the file until I can research how Vikings talked. I might need a translator.
5. Animal Behavior
This one is my personal pet peeve. I rarely close a book without finishing it. I’m just that stubborn. But if a horse, dog, or earthworm gazes at its owner and nods encouragingly, I will. Writing like that is lazy and cringe-inducing.
I’ve grown close to many of my pets. Animals are smart and can sense people’s moods. But they can’t reason. They don’t have souls, so their reactions and bonds are based on instinct. A horse won’t carry a wounded soldier five hundred miles in a single night because she’s worried he’ll die. At best, she’ll wander to a nearby town or farm. Again, if you stay true to what’s real, your story will be more gripping.
If you’ve never owned the animal you’re writing about, speak to someone who has. Even boring creatures like cows have quirks that often get misrepresented in fiction. You may also need to learn how far saddle animals can travel in a day and the appropriate tack to use. If your English queen is astride a western saddle with a horn, you’re going to raise eyebrows.
Read Books, Take Trips, and Make Calls
Now that I’ve told you what to watch for, where do you dig up the facts?
For anything historical, I love the Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life series. The books cover multiple eras and contain extensive lists of resources. Google is also your friend. It’s not 100 percent reliable, but with patience you can usually find the information you need. For a modern setting, you can’t beat experiencing it yourself, or interviewing someone who has.
While we hope an agent or reader will overlook small inaccuracies or generic worldbuilding, good enough isn’t our goal. We’ll leave a stronger impression if we add layers to our characters and universe with consistent details.
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and children. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.