I was reading a YA romance novel set on the coast of Maine. The teen girl woke up at 5am on July 4 to sneak out and meet the guy at a dock. She described the diamond-like stars sparkling in an inky-dark sky.
BANG-THUNK-KLUNK (Sounds of a reader tripping over a detail.)
Clearly the writer or the editor or both had never been awake at 5 o’clock on a July morning on the coast of Maine. But that’s no excuse for an error that jolts a reader out of the story, especially when astronomy mistakes are SO EASY TO AVOID.
And this isn’t the only astronomy mistake I’ve read in the past couple of years. Here are a few more:
- The full moon rising at midnight. (Only rises at sunset)
- A crescent moon rising at sunset. (When you see one at the end of the day, it’s setting. Always.)
- Seeing the constellation Orion in June (Orion is only visible in late fall, winter, and early spring.)
- Seeing the constellation Scorpio in October (Scorpio is the astrological sign for most of October. That means the sun is “in” the constellation Scorpio. In other words, Scorpio is in the sky in the daytime. You can’t see it.)
- The moon has phases because it is in Earth’s shadow. (That’s a lunar eclipse, it only happens during a full moon, and it can’t happen every month.)
- A kayak left at the edge of the ocean at low tide is still there the next morning. (High tide would have carried it away. And yes, tides have to do with astronomy—they’re caused by the moon.)
Are you confused? Worried? Scared of using any astronomical details for fear of making astronomical errors? Don’t be. The sun, moon, and stars are so predictable that you can look this stuff up online. Any of it. All of it. For anywhere on Earth—and that’s important because you’ll see different constellations in Australia and New Zealand than you will in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., or any other northern-hemisphere country.
The good news: The sun, moon, and stars are so predictable that you can look this stuff up online.
Or maybe you’re rolling your eyes that nobody knows this stuff anyway, and the writer should get credit for knowing the name of ANY constellation. Do your readers agree? ALL of them? What about their friends? Why risk it? Get it right BEFORE the book is published. Maybe you can’t see the stars from New York City (publishing capital of the U.S.), but a lot of readers in other places can. And you don’t want ANY READERS to be taken out of the story, right?
Okay, so how can you get astronomy right? Here are some resources:
SunriseSunset.com provides sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, moon phases, and twilight times for any location around the world, any time between 1901 and 2099. TimeandDate.com has the similar information in a different format, plus solar and lunar eclipses.
NASA Eclipse Web Site lists the dates and locations of many decades of solar and lunar eclipses, but is not as user-friendly as TimeandDate.com.
WWW Tide and Current Predictor generates tide tables for anywhere in the world, by region. Tide-Forecast lists nearby tides based on your IP address. (I don’t know what info it lists if you’re in the middle of a continent; if you find out please let me know in the comments!)
Starry Night Education Star Chart generates maps of the stars, constellations, and visible planets for different dates and locations on Earth.
Bad Astronomy/Misconceptions. Do you really know what you think you know about astronomy? Would you like an explanation of moon phases, not just a chart? This is a good place to start. You may be surprised that even some “smarty-pants facts” aren’t true.
A final thought:
Of course there are times when getting it wrong serves the writer’s purpose. In an MG I read recently, the character describes circling a city block enough times that, if the character was the sun and the block was Earth, a month would have gone by. In other words, the sun is orbiting Earth. But he wasn’t describing actual observations, he was using a colorful description for a long walk in the city. Only total science nerds like me will even notice it–and when I did, I just smiled, because this kind of mistake was IN character FOR that character.
What takes YOU out of a story? Historical or cultural errors? Inaccurate geography? Share it in the comments.
 Some examples are from published works, others are from manuscripts I’ve critiqued. Critique groups are exactly where mistakes should be noticed and corrected, so I’m not faulting anyone for those.
Thanks to my sister-in-law Susie Knowles, who got up at 4:45 on July 4 to photograph the sky from her coastal Maine home.