Cat eyes in the dark

Seeing in the Dark

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.

Utter Darkness

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).

Image by Михаил Прокопенко from Pixabay


  1. I think I will make sure my stories are set in more modern times, as there is far too much to not only consider, but also to remember.
    Brilliant take on the subject, Audrey…

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Your post reminds me of a Chinese boy, Nong You-hui, who apparently has some kind of birth defect that allows him to see in the dark, like a cat.

    I’m not scared of the dark in real life, but there’s something about a character feeling his or her way in total darkness that’s terrifying!

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    1. That’s interesting; I actually wondered if any humans might have that ability. And yes–total darkness would be terrifying, especially in underground situations where you’re not sure you’ll ever find your way out.

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  3. I think I have experienced utter darkness only once when we left the foresters’ camp and kept walking into the forest of south west Western Australia. Then we turned the torch off – I say we as I would not have done this alone! Even so it was scary, perhaps our ancestors always kept a fire going. But the dark is a great setting.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It seems once humans started using fire, they had ways of keeping it going and even carrying live embers with them in fire pots, because starting fires then required skill and the right materials and conditions. It’s actually surprising that matches weren’t invented earlier.

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  4. Reblogged this on e-Quips and commented:
    Audrey Driscoll has provided a helpful tutorial on when various illumination sources were invented and the limitations of each source. A helpful tutorial for writers that have the need to use such information in their writings.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My intelligent termites have an interesting problem in that only one of the three Castes (the Alates) have eyes, and yet the Warriors and the Workers get along perfectly well with other senses, notably chemical and electrical signals. No termite has the sense of hearing, either. The eyeless Castes do rely on the Alates, however, for long-distance perception. You’ll note in the Ki’shto’ba series, I never use the word “see” in relation to the Warriors or Workers – it’s always “What do you perceive?” or some such.
    My human scientists do have the futuristic advantage of night-vision goggles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have noticed your wording in the Ki’shto’ba books. That’s one of the many things I like about them–that you never forget termite physiology and anatomy. At times when reading I stop and remind myself that some of the characters are blind, but of course for them it’s not a deprivation but normality. And the night-vision goggles are a good detail for the humans.

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  6. I haven’t written about a time period before modern light sources but this is interesting research. We’re use to having artificial sources of light that we don’t often experience the absolute darkness common in ancient times. I was once lost in the woods at night and it is a very eerie feeling.

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  7. So true. I wonder if any readers know just how much research goes into the simplest things? Then again, I suppose that’s precisely what we don’t want them to know because then the magic of the story would be lost.

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