The R-word to which I refer in this post is RESEARCH.
Some authors seem to think that this is an obscene activity that should not be conducted in public, and preferably not in private either. The thing is, the reader can tell. I’m not saying that an author has to be an expert on every matter that is alluded to in his or her book, regardless of how peripherally, but at least please try to avoid the obvious bloopers.
One author whose book I have recently read has the Evil Villain as a member – and a bishop, no less – of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). Fair enough, but an important plot point of the book (and evidence of his General Evilness) is that he is a polygamist. Unfortunately for the author, the LDS banned plural marriages in 1904 – and promised excommunication to any member of the church who enters into such a marriage. Although persons identifying themselves as Mormons still enter into plural marriages, these people are not members of the LDS church, but are rather members of splinter-groups that have split off over the last hundred years or so. Black mark for the author – by making this mistake, she demonstrated that:
1. She couldn’t be bothered to do any research, even to the level of going to look at Wikipedia.
2. She has potentially offended any LDS readers out there.
3. She has possibly demonstrated a prejudice against the LDS.
Once an author has made one major blunder, the reader either starts looking for more, or simply loses all trust in the author’s knowledge – or even, in extreme cases, all interest in reading any more of that author’s work.
Another thing is internal consistency. Willing suspension of disbelief is obviously necessary for enjoyment of many books, particularly those in the fantasy genre. However, please don’t make it more difficult than it has to be. Your plot, or world, should be consistent within the book, even if it doesn’t relate to the world outside the book.
One example of this is L.D. Modesitt’s The Soprano Sorceress. I actually really enjoyed this book, and I’ve read it several times. However, the main character (Anna) is a singer who gets transported to a different world (OK, not the most original plotline, but he deals with it quite well, I think). On arrival, her watch doesn’t work, and Anna ‘doesn’t feel that it will ever work’ – the clear implication being that in the world where she has arrived, magic works but technology doesn’t. The thing is, why wouldn’t technology work? Technology isn’t some mystical process – it’s an expression of the physical laws of the universe, from levers on up. If technology doesn’t work, this indicates that the physical laws of the universe have changed, and therefore Anna should probably be dead, because her body is designed to work on the old laws. Luckily, this aspect was only referred to briefly, and I could thankfully forget about it for the rest of the book.
If your ‘magic’ system seems to be something that anyone could do (e.g. poetry as magic – this was in a series of books where the internal inconsistency was somewhat more difficult to ignore) then you either need to have everyone able to do it, or explain why every recitation of a dirty limerick down the pub doesn’t result in magical consequences. You can’t just say ‘they don’t have poetry’ because – think about it – do you really believe in a society that never develops poetry? It’s harder to imagine than magic, because all you need is an appreciation of rhyme and rhythm and you’ve got poetry (not necessarily good poetry).
You see what I mean? If you’re writing, all you authors out there, please take the time to see where your ideas lead. Sometimes, they might be leading you right off a cliff.