I am currently reading a pretty funny, awesome book and I love it. But there is one thing that struck me as strange. Somebody fell off a roof while climbing facades. The protagonist is investigating his death and decides to go climbing himself. So what does he do? He puts on his climbing shoes while still in his flat and then walks down several flights of stairs and several streets before he reaches the building he wants to climb. The shoes are brand new and when he puts them on, it’s described as “a feeling of adventure”.
From that paragraph alone, it’s blatantly obvious to any person who ever went rock climbing that the author has no clue what they are talking about. This isn’t bad in itself. Even if you’ve done your research, you can still make mistakes. What makes me shake my head though is that this is a published novel in traditional publishing that has gone through many hands before ending up in mine – and nobody picked up on the fact that this description is just wrong. (If anyone wonders: New climbing shoes hurt like hell when you put them on. And walking more than a few meters in climbing shoes is generally something you only do if you are hardcore masochistic.)
Another example (and this led to me putting the book in question down and never touching it again) was the following story: The protagonist-guitarrist hasn’t played music for months. His band mates shipped a whole bunch of his guitars to his current abode by mail but he hasn’t opened the cases since. At some point he hears his love-interest-neighbour play the guitar and sing and decides to join her. So he gets an acoustic guitar out of its case, walks over, sits down with his neighbour and plays with her.
Notice anything? Yeah, exactly, neighbour-chick wouldn’t be too happy about somebody joining her with a completely out-of-tune instrument, would she?
I think I told way too many people about this and have heard the same reaction from almost all of them: “You’re too harsh. These are such fine details.”
Well, for me, these details are important and getting them wrong breaks the flow of the story because both the climbing and the music-playing are central themes in the respective stories. It’s the same as watching C.I.S. and, for the ump-teenth time, groaning in agony because they just put a single reaction tube into a centrifuge without putting a balance-weight in and then hold the bloody thing into the air after a short spin declaring “We have the DNA result!”. (If you have nothing to do with biology: This is not how this works!)
If it’s a minor detail, like if there’s a kitchen utensil that is used only once in the entire book in an unimportant sidenote, I don’t mind if the exact handling of it isn’t described properly, but if you write about a cook who works in a four star restaurant, you should definitely know how to filet a fish and which knife to use for it. Or you should have a beta-reader or editor who knows how to do that. (Side-note: I have absolutely no idea how to filet a fish.)
The devil’s in the detail and if you have important bits and pieces in your story that you haven’t tried with your own hands or seen with your own eyes, talking to actual people – instead of only looking stuff up on the internet – is paramount if you don’t want your readers to notice that you’re clueless.
I’m not saying that I am omniscient and never make mistakes. Far from it. But I am aware of how important details can be.