As writers, the last thing we want to do is pop the complex bubble of unreality that makes up the story enveloping our readers. We never want to dump them abruptly back onto the hard, uneven sidewalk of real life because they’re mentally shouting, “That couldn’t be!”
Alas, the reader’s acceptance of a story’s reality can be just as evanescent as those shimmery soap bubbles we blew as children, where the smallest flaw or touch destroys the entire sphere in an instant. You need to realize that your readers will come from many backgrounds and have expertise in many more areas than you have. A detail-in-passing that you wrote off the top of your head and forgot may be a major, story-wrecking flaw in the eye of a reader.
How do I know this? Because even though I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, every time I come to the part where the Fellowship has left Lothlorien and Sam Gamgee is trying to work out how long they were there, I cringe.
He invokes a sound concept of time-telling: that they seemed to have been there barely a week or so, and yet the exact same moon phase greeted them their first night on the trail again, meaning at least a month had passed. But in describing the moon’s phase, Tolkien made Sam say that a moon “as thin as a nail-paring” had “popped up” in the evening sky. That’s the glaring mistake for me.
It’s all too easy to equate moonrise with nighttime, yet even very slight thought will remind us that we often see a waxing or waning moon in the morning or afternoon sky. Only the full moon belongs to the overnight hours alone—and in summer, long days can have even a full moon rising in the twilight and being overtaken by predawn light before it sets.
The moon’s phases relate to the sun, with a full moon opposite the sun and the new moon very close indeed—so close that perfect alignment gives a solar eclipse somewhere on earth. Moonrise creeps about 50 minutes earlier daily, meaning the moon slowly gets further away from its conjunction with the sun, moving from new moon to full, and then circles back again from full to new.
Most of us learn this in an earth science course sometime during the middle school-to-college period—and many promptly forget it again after the final exam. But I grew up with a sailor father who understands celestial navigation. He started teaching me, and then my brother, about the relative motions and positions of moon and stars as soon as we were old enough to be away after dark. I coasted through a college astronomy course on what I’d learned from my father, reinforced by an eighth grade earth science course.
So my understanding of lunar phases goes nearly bone-deep. I don’t have to think about what I’ve read to know something is wrong. And what Tolkien got wrong is position and timing: the sliver of new moon FOLLOWS the sun. It doesn’t “pop up” in the evening sky because it rises in the east—it would be creeping up just before or after sunrise. So Tolkien should have had Sam (a country-wise hobbit who surely would have known better) say—and a savvy editor should have suggested to the author—that the slender moon was “hanging low” in the western sky.
What does this mean for our writing? It tells us that carefully chosen first readers, meticulous editors—and even hired fact-checkers—can be invaluable to our work, especially if our writing touches on subjects outside our core expertise. There’s good reason for those long paragraphs thanking all sorts of people for help with background information about a place, occupation, or portion of history that the author has included in the story.
And even with all that help, you’ll want to hope that the Force is with you, accuracy-wise, or you’ll still miss something that will be an obvious error to someone else. Which explains in a nutshell the many “all remaining mistakes are my own” statements at the end of authors’ lists thanking everyone who helped with the product.
Some authors even go further and invite readers to let them know about any mistakes so future editions can be corrected. I rather like that approach—it tells readers you really care, even if you did miss something despite all your editorial reads.