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Posted by on Feb 8, 2013 in Friday Fiction Facts, Nature, Science, Writing | 3 comments

Friday Fiction Facts: 3 Things That (Almost) Never Happen

Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: sciency things that fiction writers need to know.

One phrase that’s thrown around a lot when folks worry about scary things is, “you’re more likely to be struck by lightning” – which happens to about a quarter-million people a year.  And that is true in a lot of cases – even for things that people think happen all the time.  Today I want to do a run-down of 3 occurrences that seem prevalent and often find their way into fiction, but in reality are highly unlikely to ever happen.

Spider Bite!

"Omg! It's biting me! Wait .. no .. c'mon .. bite me.." (Wolf Spider doing it's darndest by Chris Buddle)

“Omg! It’s biting me! Wait .. no .. c’mon ..try.. you can do it.. bite me..no really..try..” (Photo of wolf spider doing its darnedest by Chris Buddle)

How many times have you heard someone say, “a spider bit me”? Well, I am here to tell you..assure you… that there is a 99% chance (I’m making up that number, but you get the idea) that a spider did not bite them.

Now I was going to go on a long ranty rant about this but, luckily for me, someone has already done that for us. Meet Chris Buddle, Associate Professor of Entomology at McGill University, arachnologist, and writer of the blog Arthropod Ecology – in other words, he knows a thing or two about spiders.  Chris would like you all to know Spiders Do Not Bite:

There are a lot of misconceptions about spiders. The most common is the idea that spiders frequently bite people – they do not. Most so-called spider bites are caused by something else. Spiders generally have no interest in biting us, and would rather feed upon invertebrates. I have been working with spiders for over 15 years, and I have handled many, many kinds of live spiders and I have never been attacked by a spider.

Sure, there are a few caveats around that, but the fact is, unless you live in Australia, where venomous spiders are more prevalent (though still less dangerous than bees), Chris says, “Spider bites are very, very rare and other more likely causal factors should be given priority.”

Chris gives a bunch of reasons why spider bites are rare, but this one is my favorite:

For many species, the “fangs” of spiders (which are located at the end of the Chelicerae) are just too weak and small to be able to break the skin.  I have held many spiders and watched as they work away at trying to bite me, but they just can’t pull it off.  Our skin is generally too tough for their little, wimpy fangs. 

So there you have it from an expert: Wimpy. That’s what spiders are.

So don’t let your main character succumb to a spider bite. Instead, let her knowledgeably (and gently) pick up that spider and carry it outside where it won’t freak out her even wimpier friends.  And if you must have her get bit by something, make it a dog or cat or even a fearsome guinea pig!

Btw.. this post also applies to shark bites, snake bites, and pretty much any kind of attack by a wild animal. Almost never happens. Really.

Quicksand!

QuicksandQuick, what do you know about getting out of quicksand?

Don’t struggle? Move slowly? Stay calm?  Maybe you’ve seen Bear Gryllis do his Man vs Wild escape and know to try to ease your way on top of it before it sucks you under. Or maybe you’ve seen Adam and Jamie myth-bust “killer quicksand” (or you happened upon this study in Nature) and you are aware that being “sucked under” by quicksand is merely a Hollywood myth.

Aside from being a convenient plot device used in film to knock off a character,  allow our hero a dramatic rescue, or even add humour, in reality most people will never encounter quicksand – and if they did, it almost certainly wouldn’t kill them.

That’s an excerpt from a previous post I wrote which wasn’t really about quicksand, but about fear-mongering.  However, because of that post, one of the top search terms that lead people to my site is “how to escape from quicksand” or some variation on that.  Seems a lot of people worry about getting caught in quicksand.

Help! My boots are trying to drown me!

This is related to the quicksand story. Here’s how the scenario usually goes: Your character dons his chest-waders (or hip waders) and wades into the lake to do some fishing. Suddenly he steps into a hole and his waders fill with water! He goes under! Oh no!! He’s being dragged down! Pulled to the bottom of the lake by his boots! Aarrrhhhhhh!

Oh. Wait. No he’s not.

He’s neutrally buoyant. Whether the water is inside his waders or outside, he floats the same way.

First, water-filled waders won’t drag you to the bottom, much less “like an anchor.” The water inside your waders has the same density as the water outside; it doesn’t magically get heavier and pull you under. From the standpoint of buoyancy, it’s neutral, not negative.(Fly & Rod)

Sure, he can’t move well and his waders make it hard to navigate or even walk forward if he touches bottom, but they aren’t pulling him down. In fact, if he stays calm, he could probable just slip right out of them. Or he could just slowly propel himself towards shore.

Now if he freaks out, struggles, gets caught in a fast current, and exhausts himself, yup, he could be in trouble.  Fishermen do drown this way, when they get caught in a fast current or try to swim against the current. But that’s a matter of increased drag in moving water, not “heavy waders” pulling them under.

So there you have it writers — 3 things that almost never happen in real life.

3 Comments

  1. But mud, like, sucks.

    We were 11 or 12 years old, the day in March when we tried a short-cut across Dwight Riesberry’s ploughed field. About the middle of the field all three of us got sucked under. Well, not quite under, if you know what I mean; just frozen, not in the cold sense but in the sense that our feet would not move. Gripped by the suction of mud.Didn’t I say that mud sucks?

    First we panicked, delightfully. Who could think of a wilder adventure? Then, when twilight insisted that it was time for me to delivery papers, one of us found a solution: get out of the boots.

    Without the burden of our weight, the boots could be retrieved. And for reasons that I am sure Kim can explain, with muddy socks gripped in firmly in hand, our bare feet did not suffer the same fate: by bending the each foot just so we could free ourselves, slurp, sluck, splurgle, a sucking sound with each step. But we got free.

    Every after that we believed the quicksand story; could visualize the grip of mud that had the field been twelve feet deep would have swallowed us whole never to be seen again.

    It is a great relief, sixty years later, to know that this could not have happened. The worse we could have suffered would have been to remain anchored to the ploughed field, like tar babies, until the drying sun of summer came to set us free or bake us into clay statues.

  2. Bill,

    I am certain, if the current inhabitants of 3400 Medina Lane in Bowie Maryland dig deep enough into the red clay somewhere about dead center of the front yard, they will find my boot, sucked directly from my foot on my way home from 1st grade.

    Abandoning it seemed a much better fate than dying a long, slow muddy death (which I presumed was imminent) stuck in the clay, just meters from the dry safety of the porch.

    It was a close call, I tell you. A brush with death.

  3. Seriously? Vicious guinea pigs?? And they compare piggie bites to shark attacks??? In numbers only, my friend. A pig is unlikely to remove your arm if it does take a nip.
    I’ve kept numerous guinea pigs over the past decade, and I have never been bitten. We did have one little male who was bitey, but the worst he ever did was leave a scrape on my daughter’s hand. That particular little guy had not been properly socialized and objected to most handling.

    That’s certainly not to say that a guinea pig can’t inflict a nasty bite! They have the teeth for it, and like most animals, will bite if they feel threatened or annoyed. But to call them “dangerous” is a stretch. More dangerous than a spider, perhaps, but certainly not on the level with Jaws!

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