This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Today’s expert is biostatistician Dustin Fife. He received his PhD in Quantitative Psychology from the University of Oklahoma. He’s published stats articles in various quant psych journals including Educational and Psychological Measurement, Multivariate Behavioral Research, and The British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology, and currently works as the Senior Biostatistician at OMRF.
While riding the bus to and from his day job, Dustin writes science fiction. He’s completed 2.9378 novels and he’s seeking representation for his first book (his “baby”), slaving to finish his third, and simmering his second in a locked drawer. To learn more about Dustin as a writer, visit his writing blog. To learn more about his work with statistics, visit his stats blog.
Woodworking Myths in Fiction
I’m a biostatistician. I get paid for my brain, not my back. But sometimes, I just want to smell the walnut sawdust, spend a day in good-to-the-bone labor that brings a backache and a truck-load of satisfaction at the end of the day. I love the release of woodworking—love letting the manual labor pull my mind from the stresses of biased estimates, violations of homoscedasticity, and alpha inflation.
Several years ago, I began woodworking. I’ve made free-standing desks:
A Japanese Garden Bench.
A jewelry cabinet
Infant props for my wife’s newborn photography business.
And I tell you—there’s nothing like walking by that piece of furniture you built and knowing that your own hands shaped that wood, planed it, and smoothed it. It’s not unlike that feeling you get when you finish your most recent draft of a novel and read through it as a reader, not an editor.
Mighty fine feeling, folks. Mighty, mighty, fine.
With that introduction, let me offer a few of my pet peeves when it comes to woodworking in fiction. By correcting these, not only will you spare frustration among my woodworking peers, but you might add some depth to the world you’re building that you’d otherwise miss.
1. Everything smells like sawdust.
Yeah…um…what kind of sawdust? Is it nutty like walnut? Does it smell like popcorn like alder does? Does it smell like McDonald’s BBQ sauce after spending a few hours in the sun? (oak). Is it acrid like pine?
You see, saying that the room smells like sawdust is like saying a kitchen smells like food.
Give us more! Does it smell like pizza? Basil? Broccoli? Tuna?
Is it cedar? Is it maple? Is it applewood?
Next time you want to describe the scent of a woodshop or sawmill, spice up your rhetoric a little. I might even recommend going to your local Woodcraft or lumberyard and sniffing out the wood. Seriously! I guarantee you will not be the first to do it! (Woodworkers too love the scent of different types of wood, so you’d fit right in ;)).
2. Mahogany is expensive–and cliche.
I see writers referencing mahogany all the time in fiction, so much so that it’s become cliché. (Remember Effie Trinket on the first Hunter Games—‘That’s mahogany!’).
The truth is, Mahogany isn’t really that expensive. Sure it has to be imported, but where it grows, it grows abundantly! In fact, in places like Cuba and Honduras, many of the homes’ siding is made of mahogany.
Just to give you an idea, I called my local hardwood dealer and they quoted me at $7 a board foot for mahogany. Walnut, a home-grown wood, sells for the same price. A bit pricey perhaps, but not all that exotic. Teak, on the other hand, sells for $20 a board foot!
If you really want to show a character’s home as exotic and expensive, why not say it’s made of ebony (a whopping $100 a board foot!)? Or how about bubinga ($15 a board foot)? Maybe some zebrawood ($25 a board foot) or cocobolo ($35 a board foot)?
Just make sure you study some pictures online so you know how to describe it 😉
Which brings me to…
3. Improperly describing wood.
Let me begin by saying that I think it’s awesome when writers of fiction are specific. Rather than saying the man slept in a log cabin, say he slept in a cedar cabin! Or instead of saying he rested his hands on the wood table, say he rested them on the oak table! These sorts of details add dimensions to your world.
Just be careful.
Before I talk about this particular pet peeve, let me talk about how wood is milled. There are two categories of woods: soft woods and hard woods. Soft woods tend to come from conifers. They tend to have a ton of branches all throughout the tree and grow really fast. They’re great for construction but not so good for fine furniture building. Hard woods, on the other hand, have massive trunks with few branches until you get to the top. They grow a whole lot slower, but the wood is much harder, and much better for building fine furniture.
Something like pine is a softwood and tends to have a lot of knots in it (because of the branches). Oak, being a hardwood, very rarely has knots in it (because loggers harvest from the trunk below the branches).
So, imagine my dismay when I’m reading someone’s novel and she says, “She gazed at the knotty oak chair.”
Um, excuse me? Oak ain’t knotty sista! If it is, someone harvested it improperly.
Or perhaps someone is describing the “grainy texture of the maple desk.”
Not really. Oak has a very coarse grain, the type that will put hair on your chest. Maple has a much more subtle grain.
Or maybe, “The dark maple chest.”
I suppose maple could be dark, if you stained it. But why open up that can o’ worms? Why not just call it walnut
Nobody expects you, fare reader, to memorize every possible grain structure and characteristic of wood. But if you reference a piece of wood, at least look at a picture first.
Chances are, no agent or editor will refuse your book if you describe “knotty oak” or “smell the sawdust” or build a table out of mahogany. None but the Dustin Fife’s, Norm Abrams, and Nick Offerman’s of the world will laugh at you. But if you do it right, you’ll add some depth to your world that you might otherwise miss.
Now go sniff some wood.
Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Dustin and his wife on the birth of their baby girl, which happened while we were putting this post together. Here she is, on a photo prop that Dustin built.
Dustin’s wife runs a newborn photography business and we have her to thank for all of the lovely photos.
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