If you’re familiar with my blogs you already know that I’m a details freak. I believe that getting them right can make or break a story because as soon as something doesn’t ring true the spell you’re trying to cast is broken. When I see the same mistake in two different books by two different authors it sends up an alarm which implies that particular bit of knowledge may be missing at a more pervasive level than a simple oversight by one uninformed or possibly distracted author.
As I think about it, it’s very possible that the subject of my rant du jour was never specifically taught past grade school, if then, considering the current state of education. Ironically, most of these facts surround you on a daily basis if you’re paying attention. If you weren’t before, I hope this will motivate you to take note whether you’re an author or an editor. Maybe an author caught up in an inspired run of prose dictated by his or her personal muse can be excused for missing a few mundane details. Editors who let such things slip by should be ashamed of themselves.
Most novels incorporate the magic of at least one sunrise or sunset. Not only is it something everyone can relate to and thus draw them into the story, it also operates at the subconscious level as an archetype for a new beginning or ending, respectively. If I’m reading your story and you’re describing watching a sunset over the Atlantic Ocean I sincerely hope that your protagonist is viewing it from Bermuda, perhaps somewhere in Europe or the west coast of Africa. Conversely, if he’s watching the sun rise over the Pacific, I truly hope he’s in Hawaii, a South Sea Island, Japan, Australia, etc.
Because for those of you who haven’t noticed, perhaps due to living in a city or mountainous region where the horizon is obstructed, the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Seriously. Every day, with some seasonal variations I’ll get into later. Thus, unless you do some serious geographic gymnastics with your setting (no pun intended) they are not going to be watching both a sunrise and a sunset over the same body of water, at least from the same location. People on an island could of course see both as well as those onboard a ship at sea but they would have to change locations, or at least the direction they’re facing. Get the picture?
Seasons are another archetype used to emphasize a sense of timing or even a phase of life. Most locales have seasons which bring some weather variation (unless they’re along the equator) though many don’t conform to the stereotyped four, i.e., spring, summer, fall and winter. (As a baby-boomer I learned the names of the seasons from watching Howdy Doody which had a female Native American character named Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring.)
I have only lived in one place in my life that actually had four which was the southern part of New York State; most have had three, at least judging by the weather. For example, in Utah I called what was considered spring on the calendar as winter simply because it was still snowing, sometimes as late as the end of May. In Central Texas where I currently live there really isn’t a winter, more like a protracted autumn, yet in many areas the stereotype display of autumn color is missing; the leaves turn brown and fall off without any eye-pleasing fanfare. What’s my point? Make sure the weather in your story’s locale conforms to reality. You can use it to enhance your sense of place, an important story element, and also emphasize plot action or the passing of time. You should describe your setting with the same care with which you do your characters and that includes the season and perhaps even the weather.
I’m sure you know what I mean about using weather to set a mood, like in the classic opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.” In some cases the weather itself can be the major antagonist in the story. It can provide a backdrop that provides additional depth and feeling. Just get it right. A rainy day has entirely different implications in New England versus New Mexico. Rain is not “normal” in numerous places except at certain times of year. If you don’t know and have never lived there then look it up. Wikipedia probably has all the information you need and it will take you five or ten minutes of research to enhance your story’s credibility, particularly for any readers who live there. Readers rolling their eyes at your ignorance are less likely to become fans.
Seasons are marked by four events which relate to the relationship between the Earth and the Sun. These are known as the Vernal or Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumnal or Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice. The equinoxes mark the day when night and day are of equal length. The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year and conversely, the Winter Solstice is the shortest. Winter and summer are reversed in different places on the planet, depending on whether you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. When it is summer in the USA and Europe, it is winter in South American, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
This variation in the length of days in the different seasons is because the path of the Sun across the sky, known as the ecliptic, changes. If you really want to get a handle on this find a place where you can note how the Sun’s location changes with time. This is most easily done from a place where you can watch an actual sunrise or sunset at the horizon, such as over a large body of water, a flat plain, or perhaps even an upper floor in a building, anywhere you can note how the Sun’s setting or rising location changes with time. Literally. You won’t be able to make this observation at the same time every day because, in case you haven’t noticed, that varies by a minute or so each day as well.
At the least try to do so at the equinoxes and the solstices. Take note that where the Sun rises and sets on the equinoxes is true East and West, respectively. The solstices will mark the extremes in the other directions, toward the northwest in summer and southwest in winter. During the winter the path of the Sun is shortened which is why the days are shorter. Conversely, in the summer, the path is longer, placing the Sun in the sky for more hours which lengthens the days and brings about the use of Daylight Savings Time. Speaking of which, if you have a difficult time remembering which is earlier, Eastern or Pacific Time, just remember the Sun rises in the East, thus hitting the East Coast first. Easy.
Accuracy in such details adds life to your story. Your readers will feel as if they’re there and may even learn something along the way. Authors are usually looked up to as amongst the upper echelons of society and expected to be smarter than the populace as a whole. Living up to those expectations begins with knowing your stuff. Now repeat after me: The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The Sun….
(Picture taken by the author on September 12, 2011 over Lake Buchanan in the Texas Hill Country.)