Over the weekend I participated in a spring wildflower hike. It was a small group, and we decided to take the time to identify some flowers down to their exact species rather than leaving it at family and genus. Being that exact often requires attention to the miniscule differences in leaf shapes and growth patterns. Knowing these tiny differences can help determine whether the plant you’re looking at is native or non-native, grows in uplands or wetlands, or even if it’s safe or toxic to you and your pets. The tiny differences provide a great amount of important knowledge.
Writers, when they are researching or building up character and plot details, can fall victim to too much information. Details can be key to creating a compelling and believable story, but at the same time, it’s possible to have too much or too many. A character’s approximate age and general location of where they grew up can go a long way in helping a writer develop their personality and motivations. Knowing the character’s exact birth date and childhood mailing address might not have any discernible impact on the plotline, however, regardless of whether you are the writer or the reader of the story. Some details, while they may be worth knowing in real life, are meaningless when it comes to writing a novel.
Other details, even if they never make it into the text of a story, can prevent a writer from making mistakes in their storytelling that would hamper believability. Knowing when various inventions became commonplace can prevent a historical fiction writer from having a character use a non-existent appliance or machine as applied to their chosen time period. Also, knowing the origins of common phrases and everyday slang can prevent a fantasy or science fiction writer from inserting non-sensical dialogue into their story. Some things have become so ingrained into our everyday lives and speech that picking out these details may prove tedious for some, but an attentive editor or beta reader can help you pick out the inconsistent details you overlook.
Sorting details can be tedious, but only you as the writer can determine what is relevant when building up your story’s universe. Don’t get bogged down by the inconsequential. At the same time, remember to check your storytelling for anachronisms. Unless you’re a history buff with a love for the evolution of language, picking out inconsistent details may be tedious, but calling on some help from other writers can make the task less difficult.