Thursday, May 7, 2009
When writers get facts wrong
I should start out by explaining that this particular post was, first and foremost, inspired by a Chick tract. Of course, very few people take those seriously or expect the stories in them to occur on the same planet we inhabit. But the tract reminded me of a query letter I once critiqued, which showed that it’s pretty easy to get details wrong when you take them for granted or don’t know a lot about a specialized field.
In the tract, a girl goes to a doctor to be tested for STDs, is told she is HIV positive and is then convinced that she will die “real soon”. What happened to retesting to make sure the result wasn’t a false positive? For that matter, what happened to taking drugs like Zidovudine which slow down the progress of the disease? HIV doesn’t kill “real soon”, which is one reason it spreads successfully. It gives its hosts plenty of time to infect others.
The problems with the query letter I critiqued were more subtle, but they would have stood out to anyone who’s worked for a medical laboratory network. Suffice to say that these days, there are a lot of security precautions – computerized and otherwise – when it comes to altering patients’ requisitions or reports. You can’t just doctor (pun intended) these without an e-paper trail being generated.
Information is so specialized these days that any writers can make such errors when in a field with which they’re not familiar. So, what’s the solution?
Do the research
What libraries don’t have, the Internet probably does. Cross-check facts and don’t rely on just one source for controversial or little-known information.
Ask people who might know
Most people like being asked for their experiences, opinions or advice. On the other hand, people with specialized knowledge are sometimes difficult to meet in real life or might be busy. It wouldn’t look good for me if I was taken away from my daily work by someone who wanted to know about how microbiology tests were done.
On the other hand, I love talking about this topic when I do have time, and if this happens online, I can formulate my answers and respond in more detail. There are dozens of discussion boards which have forums where people can ask questions, and in many of those, specialists in the field reply. If I need an answer quickly, though, I pop into a chatroom where people know me.
The more authentic a story appears, the more believable it is. And if details in the story are faked, don’t ever doubt that someone, somewhere, will spot the lack of authenticity. We live in such a global, hyper-connected age that if you say the “roundabout ahead” road signs in Satwa have white arrows on a red background, someone will point out that the background is actually blue.
At least, it was the last time I saw one, four years ago. I’d better look it up…