Monday, September 3, 2012

Wordcraft -- Heavenly writing research

There are a lot of dog walkers in my neighborhood, but the one who’s kept me company for decades is a big guy in the sky, the constellation Orion. He’s usually thought of as a winter constellation, but like me, he rises before the sun is up in the summer to exercise his old dog, Canis Major, before the heat of the day.

I grew up in the country and have used celestial events several times in stories. But not until a fellow writer in a workshop asked why a character couldn’t see very well in the dark did I realize that the subject can be baffling to writers -- and readers -- accustomed to constant city lights. Anyone who writes historical fiction has an interest in knowing what her characters saw in the world around them before they had the internet for entertainment. But what’s overhead isn’t just of historical interest. If your characters live in post-apocalyptic worlds, or a rural site, or if they pull a night shift they’ll want to know what’s up in the sky.

Hoping that you’ll be able to guide them, I’m providing a few of my favorite references to the lights in the sky. And I’d love to hear about your own favorite research tools.

To answer my puzzled workshop member, illumination from starlight alone will limit your character’s vision to shades of gray. To add more visual detail, you’ll need to conjure some moonlight. Years ago, I used G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville book, The Muslim and Christian Calendars, to convert dates, then realized it could also tell me what phase of the moon my characters saw. (Because the Muslim calendar is strictly lunar, the first day of any month will always fall on a new moon.) If you’re writing from a Muslim point of view, you can reverse the process to determine what solar season your character is experiencing. There are lots of online calculators now, but you may still find Freeman-Grenville’s guidance helpful, especially if your characters are using the older Julian calendar.

You can follow the progress of northern hemisphere constellations with another book on my reference shelf, The Summer Stargazer, by Robert Claiborne. Although because it’s aimed at evening skies, eliminating my fellow dog walker, Orion. (Both Claiborne’s and Freeman-Grenville’s books are readily available through

If you’re writing about southern hemisphere constellations, provides a guide to star gazing down under, including a tip that hadn’t occurred to me about the inversion (to northern eyes) of constellations, as in the image of Orion over Victoria Falls which accompanies this post. (For the whole image, see my Pinterest page,

The moon and stars change in regular ways. But what if your character experiences a less predictable celestial event -- such as a comet? One of my historical characters predicted his own death from the medieval appearance of a comet visible in his Central Asian homeland. Obviously it had a big emotional impact, but when I tried to track the comet’s characteristics, the history books were silent. An online search turned up a candidate from a source I didn’t expect -- NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, with its list of great comets, There it was, unnamed comet 1264 N1, reported by Chinese astronomers July 17 of that year (by the Julian calendar). Imagine the consternation you can cause by dropping a similarly-traumatic sight into your own character’s universe.


Note to readers in Richardson, Texas -- The Richardson Library offers free tickets to hear Chitra Divakaruni discuss her book, One Amazing Thing, starting tomorrow, September 4. I’ve heard Divakaruni speak -- she is amazing.

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