This happens so regularly, it has become one of my editing bugbears. To make matters worse, I recently read a traditionally-published novel (where the main character spends Christmas at a beach hut), printed by a well-known publisher (think star constellation with a belt), that had the exact problem. The exact problem being that when it is dark and there is no moonlight, street light, torch, candle, or any form of illumination, a character can see exactly what they are doing and where they are going, in great detail!
Although it’s obvious that we humans cannot actually see much in complete darkness, this simple fact is constantly overlooked by writers, and in straightforward genres where nothing unusual or different is taking place. In fact, the last couple of novels I have read have all had the problem. If I’m not careful, it will become an obsession.
What’s worse, though, is when the author, in realising the problem, has their character pulling out a lighter, torch, hurricane lamp, from their pocket that had never previously existed before… and the editors have not spotted this! But let’s not forget the torch app on the smartphone, which has now become the answer to every character’s tenebrous needs. The battery life on some mobile phones is amazing!
I urge all writers whose characters perform an activity or make an observation in scenes of darkness to first carry out some research of their own. Try running through a forest without so much as a glow worm. Stand on a shoreline looking out to sea – what can you actually see? Walk into an unknown house in the middle of nowhere and not only find your way around with ease but also describe what’s there…
While I’m ranting about light levels, I do feel the need to mention sunrise, sunset, and the various stages of twilight: civil, nautical, and astronomical.
- Civil twilight is the brightest of the three. The sun is just below the horizon, so there is generally enough natural light to carry out most outdoor activities.
- Nautical twilight is the second phase. Both the horizon and the brighter stars are usually visible at this time, making it possible to navigate at sea.
- Astronomical twilight is the darkest of the three. It is the earliest stage of dawn in the morning and the last stage of dusk in the evening. Before and after astronomical twilight, it is night.
The bullet points were taken from a great website: https://www.timeanddate.com. You’ll find more information on the above, as well as other celestial matters. There’s a useful chart that provides sunrise, sunset, and twilight times for any given day during the year. Just type in the city and off you go. Very handy for calculating whether or not your character can see what they are doing!