The weight of water

A couple of years ago I read a murder mystery, the solution of which depended on the fact that the guilty party had moved an aquarium from one room to another. The author didn’t specify the capacity of the aquarium. She did say that it contained a koi, and that the investigator thought that if he caught a salmon the size of that koi, he’d be a happy fisherman.

Koi are pond fish; they get way too large for an aquarium (unless you can afford one that holds about a thousand gallons). But never mind that; obviously the fish was big. Let’s say it was twenty-four inches long, which is probably a minimum size for a spawning salmon. The absolutely smallest tank you’d be able to keep such a fish alive in is sixty gallons, and even then, the fish would be cramped.

Now here’s the catch: water weighs eight pounds per gallon. A sixty-gallon tank is a glass box holding almost four hundred and eighty pounds of water. There is no way on God’s green earth that one man could even lift that weight. Even empty, the tank weighs between fifty and seventy-five pounds. In other words, our author fingered the wrong guy. She should have been looking for Louis St. Cyr.

So what’s my point? It’s that there’s research, and research. Perhaps you can get away with a flyer spinning wheel in France in 1200 A.D. Who’s going to know it’s wrong – besides me, I mean? But anyone who’s ever carried a full bucket knows how heavy water is. That kind of fact is too easy to check.

I’m thinking about this in part because I’m learning to write mysteries, and I want my solutions to be plausible, and workable. I’ve also seen too many stories with errors that could have been avoided quite easily. (I remember one science fiction story with a character who was described as large. He was two meters tall and massed two kilograms. Scrawny bugger.) When I run across an error like the weight of water, it ruins the story for me. It might not bother anyone else; it clearly didn’t faze the author, or her editor. And, yes, I wrote a note to the author about it (and I assure you, I was very polite) and heard – nothing.

This is, I suppose, about craftsmanship. It’s the difference between someone who really cares how her work comes out, and someone who doesn’t. I check facts. I do my research. When I don’t, I’m really unhappy with myself. Perhaps I’m a tad obsessive, but I feel that if it’s worth writing a story, it’s worth doing the best job I can. And if I’m going to ask people to pay to read it, then it’s doubly worth it.

I realize I’m saying here that an author who can’t be bothered to check a fact like the effect of a poison, the weight of a kilogram – or of water – doesn’t really care. So be it, then.

I think the weight of evidence is with me.

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