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…


Anonymous said...

One more thing worth noting is that an obviously wrong fact shouldn't be left in because it's hard to fix a story that relies on it happening that way. For example, a man gets stuck in an elevator, and the story needs him to be stuck for four days so there's no emergency phone.

Though at the same time, I'm also not as nitpicky about facts in the context of the story. A couple years ago, a writer was fussing about how thrillers have such inaccurate facts (i.e., finding Abraham Lincoln in the desert; a sword made out of a radioactive meteor; a man who makes the Elixir of Life). Sure, these things don't exist in real life, but in the world of the book, the writer made it believable.

The facts that derail people tend to be the small obvious things that says the writer was sloppy or just didn't bother doing the research.

Marian Perera said...

To paraphrase the saying, it's easier to believe the impossible than the improbable.

A story about intelligent bacteria trying to infect everyone in the world? I'll buy it. A story where E. coli is Gram positive? Nope.

Dawn Wilson said...

One wrong detail in a story can ruin the whole story. Especially for someone who is an expert on that subject. It's so important to do research. Check and double-check EVERYTHING. And that is good advice, actually. Use more than one source.

JH said...

I've often found that doing my homework means that an idea won't work like I originally had planned, but that three new possibilities open up to replace it. So there's that too.

colbymarshall said...

research is so important, because not only does it keep you from getting facts wrong and risking someone who DOES know reading it and going, Wait, what??? But it also enhances the detail of the story SO much rather than being spare bare. Good post!

Barbara Martin said...

Research is important as well as having a good copyeditor go over your work after it's been completed to catch those pesky things that just do not fit.