Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wait a Minute, There Aren’t Any Hummingbirds in England!

Okay, I know that’s a weird title for a blog post.  It’s a thought I had recently while reading a book.  And okay, I also know that’s a weird thought to have while reading a book, so let me explain:  The book was a historical YA set in turn-of-the-century England.  The main character had lived in a small English village her entire life.  No mention of her ever traveling, certainly not to other countries or continents, and given the time period, she’d likely have very limited knowledge of faraway places.  I mean, it’s not like she could Google them or anything.  So when she ventured to muse that a certain person in her life reminded her of a hummingbird, the first thought that leapt to my mind was, Wait a minute, there aren’t any hummingbirds in England!  How would she know what one looked like?

Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on hummingbirds, but I have a certain fondness for them.  I like watching them flit around in the sun, pretty little shimmers of green and blue.  I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to lure them into my yard so I might delight in their fluttery forms.  And when I bought my first hummingbird feeder a few years ago, I searched online to find the best way to attract these little feathered beauties.  Thanks to these online searches, I know that hummingbirds are drawn to the color red—it reminds them of flowers—so tying a red ribbon to a hummingbird feeder is helpful.  I know that if I don’t have store-bought hummingbird nectar on hand, I can make my own by boiling 1 part sugar and 4 parts water.  I know it’s against Federal law to keep any part of a hummingbird nest or egg—yes, really—as hummingbirds are protected migratory birds.  I also know that hummingbirds are a New World species, found only in the Americas.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  This is obviously a very tiny detail, not important to the main story arch of the book, and I don’t fault the American author for slipping on this itsy-bitsy factoid.  If I hadn’t read up on hummingbirds, I probably wouldn’t know they’re not in England either.  I’m certainly not going to pretend that it detracted from my enjoyment of the book in any way.  Come on, I’m not that nit-picky.  It did make me think, however, how easily details can trip us up, especially when writing about a different culture, time period, or geographic location.  I suppose this is why research is so key.

Of course, getting the major details right is the most important goal.  Hopefully your slip-ups will be so minor that either 1) most readers won’t even realize you’ve made a mistake, or 2) the rest of your story is engaging enough that they are willing to forgive you an erroneous hummingbird here or there.

What kind of inaccuracies have you found in books?  And let’s be nice by not mentioning any specific author names or book titles, please.  Especially not if the error is in one of my books ;)


  1. It is VERY easy to make mistakes like that. Which is why it's great to have a whole publishing team behind you, helping you catch those mistakes. I just completed a grueling line edit with my editor, in which she questioned every detail of my 1867 setting -- cupcakes, shoes, bedding plants -- everything. Sometimes I was right, but lots of times she was right, and I was relieved she caught my error.

    Even then, stuff still gets by. When my first book came out, my very first professional reviewer slammed me for using a single word 50 years before its time. Ouch.

  2. I've been very lucky to have factual errors caught by beta readers and CPs. I can't think of a specific example I've caught myself, but I'm generally forgiving of details if the story and the characters are good.

  3. I've been reading a dystopian YA and had the same reaction. It was a few hundred years in the future and their knowledge about our current civilization was limited, but someone looked like "frankenstein". Not saying it couldn't happen, but it distracted me from the story for a page or two.

  4. I notice it when the dialog doesn't quite match up. When historical characters fall into slangy speech, or, more infuriatingly, when they adopt modern post-feminist ideals. It irks me when a pre-Romantic heroine is moony over true love or when a character from history is seeking self-actualization/achieving their dreams.

    In my first draft of Storybound, the characters were celebrating Thanksgiving one day and then the next day was Sunday. Oops. None of that is in the final version, but an example of when absent-mindedness rather than lack of research can produce errors.

  5. I love this post, Dawn. I must say that, even though I'm English, I probably wouldn't have caught a detail like that. I guess I need to become a more critical and careful reader.

  6. This is a terrific example of the little things that can trip us up. I wouldn't have caught this one, though. I had NO idea there are no hummingbirds in England.

  7. I can only imagine the attention to detail that must go into writing a historical, so yes, I try to be very forgiving if I come across little slip-ups like this. Any author could easily make the same type of mistake.

  8. Oh, I know what you mean--there is a potato metaphor right at the beginning of Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days, which is set in central Asia, pre New World exploration. It bothered me all out of proportion, and I had a hard time trusting the book.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!