Common writers’ (factual) mistakes

This page is for the errors, mistakes and howlers that keep appearing in novels. They’re often those little factoids that everyone thinks are true so nobody bothers to check. Of course, the problem is, you don’t know it’s a howler until someone else points it out to you – because if you realise it’s wrong, you will check…

Geographical

City blocks: American authors, please note:  towns and cities in the UK are not usually built on the grid system (unless your novel is set in Milton Keynes) so characters can’t walk “a block” the way they can in an American city.

Martial

Bows: are never fired. Longbows and crossbows (or any other kind of bow-and-arrow type weapon) are never fired. Fire is not involved in any way, unlike firearms, which are called firearms because they involve fire. The first firearms involved an actual burning fuse being applied to the gunpowder. Hence, firearm. Bows do not involve fire, therefore are not fired. Arrows/bolts may be shot or loosed.

Fire arrows: require preparation. If you just light one end of an ordinary arrow and then shoot it, the air movement will blow it out. You need to have some kind of inflammable substance on the end that will stay burning even while flying through the air. You can do this by having a combustible substance (e.g. oil-soaked tow) fastened to the head of the arrow, or a packet of a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and pitch. The latter is particularly good fun as it spits burning sulphur for up to about a minute and is therefore particularly useful for setting fire to the baddie’s thatched roof.

Practice: being brilliant at martial arts takes a lot of this. Trust me.

Swords: are not too heavy for untrained persons (especially women) to lift. A reasonable “average” weight for most sword types was 2.5-3.5lb.

Medical

CPR: ordinary CPR, without a defibrillator, is almost certainly not going to restart a stopped heart. However, it may well keep enough circulation going, and get enough oxygen in, to keep someone going until someone arrives with a defibrillator. That’s how it saves lives.

Life expectancy: it is often assumed that people in history (e.g. the medieval period) could only expect to live to about 30 or so, thus summoning up a picture of a population a bit like Logan’s Run, where everyone is comparatively young. However, the thing about life expectancy at birth is that it’s the average (mean) life expectancy for every baby born. So in societies with high infant mortality, the average is dragged down by all those people who never make it to age 5. Once a person gets past the danger period of young childhood, the average lifespan of people who make it that far is much increased. It has been calculated, for example, that if you made it past childhood, you could probably live to your fifties or sixties during most of the medieval period (excepting the Black Death years). And if you visit old churches, or look at illuminated manuscripts, you can see that this must be so – there are plenty of graves of old people, or pictures of old people, which wouldn’t be the case if pretty much everyone died young.

Postmortem hair/nail growth: doesn’t occur. Flesh shrinks a bit, so it looks like hair and nails have grown – but that’s it.

Really long hair: is very rare. I have not been able to track down reliable references, but it is generally stated that hair grows for up to about 7 years, and then stops and falls out. It can usually attain a length of up to a metre – maybe 1.5m – although there are exceptions. So, I can believe one character with hair down to her ankles, but not lots all in the same book. Plus, long hair can be a pain in the neck. If it’s long, it can be heavy – so if you put it up in a bun it gives you a headache, and if you don’t, it gets in the way. I have not yet come across a long-haired character who has to deal with the day-to-day problems of having really long hair. Like, it just not being practical to leave it loose any more. My hair comes down to mid-thigh, and believe me, it needs to be put up every morning. It also takes hours to dry after washing, and shed hair gets everywhere. This is never mentioned in books, strangely enough.

Unused brain portions: the old myth about people only using 10% of their brain is… a myth (Jim Butcher, you need to tell Harry Dresden this, because every time he refers to it, it’s like fingernails scraping across a blackboard). You don’t use all of your brain at the same time, and if you damage one part another bit might learn to compensate, but there aren’t vast tracts of dormant tissue.

Social

Names: if you are writing historical fiction, please make the effort to find out what kind of names people gave their children. Americans named their children differently from English people. Or Welsh people. Or Scottish people. Twenty-first century names are not the same as nineteenth century names. Yes, of course you want your protagonist’s name to be memorable – but please, not because your English earl sounds like American trailer-trash.

Titles: no, the daughter of an earl who marries a commoner would not ever be a Mrs. An earl’s daughter is always Lady Jane Smith, unless she marries a man with a title of his own, in which case she becomes Lady Jones. And so on. Read Debrett, people. The good parts are online for free now!

Weddings: in England, since the Marriage Act 1753, you have had to get special dispensation to marry anywhere other than “approved premises”. So, no getting married in your garden or in your drawing room unless you’ve done the right paperwork first. Civil marriages in registry offices weren’t possible until 1836. So if your book is set after 1753, have your characters get married in church unless you’ve got a good reason not to.

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