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

How fast can your hero travel? (Fantasy writing series)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about food in the fantasy novel. Today I want to discuss travel. If this is modern-day fantasy that takes place on Earth, then this discussion will probably not pertain to you. I am mainly thinking about those of us who have created a world where modern conveniences such as cars and planes don’t exist. Your hero or heroine is walking, riding a horse or riding in a wagon or carriage. Once again, you need to do your research and make the distance traveled in one day or even a month believable.

Walking

Northern Wilderness 109A healthy person can walk three to four miles in an hour on flat, even ground. So figuring your character is walking all day (say 12 hours), then he/she will cover about 36 to 48 miles in one day.  Most websites I checked estimated travel on foot in one day to 30-40 miles. Of course, a well-trained  army might be able to do more (or travel slower if they have to wait for the supply wagons).

The speed of travel also depends on the health of the walker and whether they are used to walking long distances. Keep in mind that a group walking will travel as fast as their slowest member.  And if your crew is traveling over uneven ground (say in the mountains or a thick jungle) then the distance they cover in one day will be affected.

Horses

horseSo instead of walking, you decide your hero and his friends will be riding horses. Now it is much harder to figure out how far in one day they will travel on horseback. Many factors such as type/age of the horse, how much weight they are carrying and the type of terrain will play into the distance traveled.

A horse walks at the speed of about three to four miles per hour, trots at about eight to ten, canter at ten to seventeen and gallops at speeds of thirty to forty miles an hour. But remember that horses do not canter or gallop all day long. Leave the gallop for quick chases from the encroaching hoards.

There are too many variables to give one “correct” answer, but you are probably looking at covering about 20 to 30 miles a day by horse. But horses that are bred and trained for this could possibly go 50 to 60 miles in a day.  Remember horses need to rest and will have to be cooled and rubbed down at the end of the day.

Wagon/carriage

TRNGR090Another option is to have your hero and companions travel in either a wagon or a carriage. But wagon travel is slow. You are looking at covering 15 to 25 miles a day.

If perhaps you are thinking more of a stagecoach that uses relays of fresh teams of horses, then you are probably looking at covering 100 to 150 miles in a 24-hour period. But a lot of this also depends upon the condition of the roads and how much weight the horses have to pull.

Just remember that whatever mode of transportation your hero relies on, it will take them much longer to travel places than it does today. You need to make the time it takes to travel realistic or risk jolting your reader out of the story with your unbelievably fast horses.

When researching travel speeds, I found this information from a group of published western writers particularly interesting.