The characters in my novels and stories frequently roam around in the dark, often on some sort of nefarious business. Writing those scenes can be tough. If I want a character to see something important, I have to furnish a plausible light source. In fiction set in the present day, there are reliable flashlights and the mobile phone’s flashlight feature. Imminent battery death can supply a bit of tension to the scene.
But what about earlier eras? Much of my writing is set in the past, specifically the early to mid 20th century. I’ve spent a good deal of time checking whether a specific light source existed at a particular time. When did electric torches (otherwise known as flashlights) come into common use? Eighteen ninety-six. What about car headlights? The earliest ones were carbide lamps. Integrated all-electric lights weren’t common until the 1920s.
Sources of Light
Other light sources include torches (the kind with actual flames), camp fires, glowing lava, candles, oil lamps, gaslights, street lights, moonlight, starlight, lightning flashes, and the ability to see in the dark. (The last is not to be bestowed on a character unless they’re really special, because for humans, it’s a superpower.) Whichever mode of illumination I select, it has to fit the situation. No flashlights (or electric torches) before the late 19th century. Lightning bolts aren’t predictable and usually involve other phenomena as well. If someone is close enough to molten lava for it to show details, they may be dead. Moonlight doesn’t show colours or details all that well, so forget about characters seeing eye colours or reading maps by moonlight. Starlight sounds magical, but is even dimmer.
Matches as we know them didn’t exist until the 19th century and personal cigarette lighters until the 1930s. (The match has an exceedingly interesting history, complete with bad smells, explosions, and phosphorus poisoning, both accidental and intentional.) For even earlier settings, it would be advisable to learn about fire starting methods such as flint and steel, and containers such as fire pots for maintaining and transporting the precious results.
Other Considerations and the “Ambient Glow”
Candles and torches (the flaming kind) are fire hazards, a fact that can be useful or annoying, depending on your plot. Light can reveal one’s presence as well as help one see. It can conceal as well as reveal if it’s bright enough to blind. The writer must exercise as much caution with light in the darkness as his or her characters. Unless, of course, the action involves the supernatural. In paranormal situations, the ever-popular ambient glow (sourceless, magical light) may be invoked judiciously, as I did in key scenes of my novel She Who Comes Forth.
In other scenes, the main character of that novel must endure absolute darkness — the kind where you can’t see anything, even your own hand in front of your face. That degree of darkness is hard to come by, but it’s worth experiencing if you’re planning to write about it. In fact, before writing a scene that takes place in any kind of darkness, the best research might be to replicate the conditions and literally see what you can see (or not).