Recently I read a blog post titled, “Details, Details (Do They Matter?).” In it, the writer relates how a certain reader refused to buy a book because, although good otherwise, it had Black-eyed Susans blooming in May. In case you don’t know – and why should you? – Black-eyed Susans don’t bloom until summer. And thus was a sale lost.
The moral the writer drew from this story is that authors should pay attention to details. The moral I drew is that some readers are far too picky.
It is not that I believe that details don’t matter, or that authors should not make sure of them. Even minor errors can cost a writer credibility, or break the suspension of disbelief and pull the reader out of the story. Research is a necessary part of writing, even for speculative fiction writers who could say that dragon-flowers bloom when the moon is full and red, and nobody could say otherwise. Authors should be scrupulous about their research. A neglect of research can have real consequences, such as losing all of Colorado’s convention delegates.
And still: How much, really, do the Black-eyed Susans matter?
The importance of minor factual slips varies on a number of factors. (These would, incidentally, be different for fiction and nonfiction; I am focusing only on fiction.) The first criterion is whether the Black-eyed Susans (standing for all small details) are scenery or have any broader significance. Details of that order can be keys to certain truths (it happened when the flowers were blooming), or become symbols within the story. The greater the significance, the more the detail matters.
Another factor is whether the inaccurate fact is common knowledge, by which I mean “common knowledge across the continental United States.” Some people forget that what “everybody” knows in their area or social circle could easily be what nobody knows in another city or in another circle. Common knowledge is what any reasonably educated person ought to know, such as who invented electricity or where to find the Pacific Ocean. When the Black-eyed Susans bloom is not common knowledge, nor is there any reason it ought to be.
When the Black-eyed Susans hold no greater significance, and when it’s not the sort of thing a grown-up simply should know, how much do they matter? Not a whole lot, I would say. Certainly not more than the entire book.
Readers who expect no typos, no mistaken details, or no small slips expect too much. Books come to the public neat and pulled-together and all at once; they are made through a long and scattered process, undergoing revisions and surgeries, altered by authors and editors. Every stage of the process is an opportunity to catch mistakes, and to create new ones. It must happen, on occasion, that books emerge from all this human handling without errors. But I wouldn’t expect it, and I don’t know why anybody would require it.
Authors are not geniuses, and even if they were, they’d still be only human. When dealing with human beings, a little forgiveness is always needed.
Even for not Googling when Black-eyed Susans bloom.