Keeping things realistic in your novel

This post is the twenty-first in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

You are watching an action movie, and during the fight scene, the two sides shoot and shoot and shoot some more. And while you are engrossed in the action, somewhere in the back of your mind you are wondering “Shouldn’t they run out of bullets or at least need to reload?”

Just like watching that action scene momentarily jars you out of the story, many things in your novel can have the same effect on your reader. And there is nothing worse than reading and enjoying a book when you come across something that pulls you out of the story.

I’m going to give some examples. Many of them are based on fantasy writing situations but hopefully you can correlate them to something in your novel that you need to make sure is believable.

Magic

Magic use to be prevalent only in fantasy novels but more and more, magic shows up in other genres, including romance and suspense.  Magic can certainly enhance a story, but you need to make sure it is believable. You need to clearly define (at least to yourself) what can and cannot be done with magic. There must be limits on magic otherwise the person using magic would always win and there would be no conflict in your story. Magic cannot be the answer to everything. Or as Rumpelstiltskin in ABC’s Once Upon a Time said, “All magic comes with a price.”

There are countless ways to limit magic: power is drawn from magical lines through the ground, and if you aren’t near one then you have no magic; magic is based on knowing spells, so you are limited by your knowledge; magic makes a sound other sorcerers can hear and thus can find you, and the list goes on and on. Decide which rules you want to use and then make sure you stick to them in your story.

Food

In a fantasy world, food is one area that can pull readers out of the story – or at least those readers paying attention.

Yes, this may be another world or time period. And, yes, food choices and eating habits may be different there. But everyone is familiar with food, so you should at least have the food choices make sense. Writers of fantasy novels too often ask us to believe that a roadside meal is cooked in the time it takes to water the horses or set up camp or that fresh fruit is available at all times – even the winter.

A quick search on the internet could spare these mistakes. Take rabbit stew for instance. A quick look reveals that in a modern kitchen, it takes two hours to cook and that doesn’t include prep time. So this isn’t practical for a roadside meal – or at least not a quick one. As with any camping trip, authors need to consider how all the supplies – food, tents, weapons, clothing – are going to be hauled. A lot fits in a car but you can carry less in your saddle bag.

Eating is such a big part of life that you can’t ignore it in your novel. Of course, you need not focus on it unless it advances the plot somehow such as a grain shortage. But do take the time to learn something about some of the foods that you mention so that you don’t jar the reader out of the story with something improbable.

Travel

Another thing I see in many novels is how fast it takes someone to get somewhere. Here again you need to be practical. You don’t want to have your character fly across the country in just four hours when it takes at least seven on a commercial airliner or travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours when it takes six. People in New York will know how long it takes to get across town and will be surprised if your character does it super-fast. And with fantasy writing if your characters are walking long distances, riding a horse to another city, or traveling by wagon, please research how long this will take. (For more you can check out this post.) https://wp.me/p2Dhbj-Dq

Details

To me it is a lot of the things that jar me out the story are part of the little details.

In one book I recently read, a woman won a lot of money. She spent quite a bit of it but supposedly still had millions to invest. I kept thinking that the numbers didn’t work out especially after she bought a large house and paid cash for it.

But it can also be something as simple as wearing a blue shirt one moment and a red one the next. Or have a character join a conversation when they are supposed to be elsewhere.

Being consistent with your details, whether they are about magic, food, travel or what someone is wearing is very important in allowing your reader to be immersed in your make-believe world. And when it comes to areas that you aren’t knowledgeable about (perhaps traveling a long distance on a horse), then make sure you do the research, so you can accurately portray the scene in your novel and not jar your reader out of the story with something as ridiculous as a gun that never runs out of bullets.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

#16 – Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

#17 – Hinting at what is to come with foreshadowing

#18 – Tips for writing different scenes in your novel

#19 – Dealing with Writer’s Block

#20 – Killing a Character in your Novel

Realistic Food in your Fantasy Novel

One way to pull your reader out of your fantasy world is to write something so strange or unbelievable that they pause to wonder how that can be. And one place that typically happens in a fantasy novel is when food is mentioned.

Yes, this is another world and food choices and eating habits may be different there. But everyone is familiar with food so you should at least have the food choices make sense. Writers of fantasy novels too often ask us to believe that a roadside meal is cooked in the time it takes to water the horses or set up camp or that fresh fruit is available at all times – even the winter.

There are simple ways to avoid these mistakes and add some solid, commonsense detail to your novel.

campfireFirst, you need to consider how long it does take to cook the meal. Take rabbit stew for instance. A quick look on the Internet shows that in a modern kitchen, it takes two hours to cook and that doesn’t include prep time. Yet, stew is pretty standard fare in many fantasy novels for many traveling heroes.

Second, think about how much room the food takes up in the travel bags. You already have your character carrying a tent or bedroll (or blanket). They have clothes, weapons and other items not to mention the pots, knives and plates needed for mealtime. And then you still have food to add to that list of travel essentials. Look at the size of a saddle bag and consider what will fit in there. Can they carry a day’s worth of food or a week’s worth? Even when spread among several riders, you may have to consider a few pack animals to help carry the load but remember that even then they will not be carrying a month’s supply of provisions or probably a very wide-spread fare.

Third, make your food choices realistic. Don’t have people eating beef if you don’t have cows in your world or lots of fresh fish if they are not near a lake, river or ocean. The poor people are going to have a limited, mostly bland diet, probably growing what they ate. Spices most likely are very rare and expensive though herbs probably more abundant. Salt would be used not only for flavoring but preserving meat and fish.

Eating is such a big part of life that you can’t ignore it in your novel. Of course, you need not focus on it unless it advances the plot somehow such as a grain shortage. But do take the time to learn something about some of the foods that you mention so that you don’t jar the reader out of the story with something improbable.

Allergic to Everything: Part Two – Eliminating Foods

My son was always a picky eater, so I was thrilled when my daughter liked fruit. I just never expected to find out that she was allergic to all the fruit and food that she loved. We saw an allergist to discover if any food or environmental allergens were causing some of the intense flare-ups in her eczema/atopic dermatitis.  I covered her allergy to pets last week.

She was tested for twenty seven common foods such as milk, egg, wheat, rice, chicken, and numerous fruits and vegetables. She came back allergic to every one of them. There was no way to eliminate everything. What would she eat? The allergist said to eliminate anything over a level 3 allergen so that included peanuts, carrots, lamb (don’t know how this was on the list as she had never eaten it), green beans, grapes, peaches, strawberries and yeast.

His recommendation then was to simplify her diet and whatever we fed her needed to be what she ate every day. So even though she was allergic to oranges if that is what we wanted to feed her, she needed to have it every day. This is kind of the principle behind allergy shots. They give you some of what you are allergic to in the hopes of your body getting use to the allergen.

Lexie’s feet in Dec. 2010.

We tried this for several months but by January even with all the pets gone and the dietary changes, she was still experiencing a lot of scratching. Her skin looked horrible. We decided it was time to start eliminating other foods from her diet one at a time. Since eczema is often linked to milk that was one of the first things to go. She didn’t like milk to drink, but she did love yogurt and ate it daily. I went through the pantry and removed anything that had milk as an ingredient. All butter, ice cream, and yogurt were off her diet. Sadly, I couldn’t see that this stopped her from scratching. Then one day as a test, I gave her a yogurt and within 20 minutes of eating it, she was scratching like crazy. The next day the same thing happened so we knew milk was definitely one of the things causing her itching.

Next, with milk still gone from her diet, I decided to eliminate wheat. I decided if wheat was going, I might as well go all the way and remove gluten. Anyone on a gluten-free diet can tell you that gluten-free products are more expensive. And I am sorry to report that most of them do not taste as good as the products we were replacing. But removing gluten didn’t help. Adding it back into her diet didn’t provide the same results that milk did, so we assumed wheat and gluten were okay.

For several weeks, we tried eliminating and reintroducing numerous foods that she tested allergic to. Some you could see a definite reaction while others there was almost no change. But even with all the things we eliminated, she still was scratching and bleeding and just miserable. So we decided to try something totally different to see if we could relieve her symptoms. Next week, I will discuss what we tried and how it helped us reintroduce both milk into her diet and the cats back into our house.