The different kinds of mistakes.

Just because we call it fiction, it still has to be factual.Whether we’re writing about sword-fighting, computer programming or STDs, our depiction needs to be accurate, or at least not inaccurate. Assuming no-one will ever spot it is a mistake: Someone will, and they’ll probably write a blog post about it.
All mistakes are not equal however: Some, IMHO, are quite forgivable.
At the most basic level we have facts that are so obviously wrong, there’s no excuse. I remember a sword-and-sorcery novel from the 1970s that describes one creature as both a crustacean and a mollusc; describing a cat as a lizard would be more accurate. The same novel also confused the Hindu Thuggee murder cult with the Islamic Assassins (formally known as the Nizar Is’maili). I know Internet research wasn’t an option 40 years ago, but thirty seconds of proofreading and fact-checking could have taken care of this. Ditto the idea that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was actually based on Texas events (Leatherface is one of many screen avatars of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin murderer).
Slacktivist finds an example in Tribulation Force at this level: “militia forces have threatened nuclear war on New York City, primarily Kennedy International Airport.” As if a nuclear bomb could “primarily” target an airport rather than devastating everything around it for miles.
Next level is stuff readers and viewers miss unless they have some experience/knowledge of the field. The book Reel Justice, for example, reviews a variety of legal movies and points out how they depart from what actually happens in law, for those of us with no legal knowledge. Slacktivist, again, points out that you can rarely go online and research 30 year old newspapers because almost no papers have old issues digitized (microfilm is still the media). Even though computers are magic, it won’t work.
The fact a lot of people miss this stuff is no excuse for the errors. Researching trials or police procedure isn’t brain surgery (and yes, you should research that too if you write medical thrillers). Believe me, before I finally get done with Brain From Outer Space, I’m going to research the National Guard and make sure it’s functioning in the book like the real one (or as real as you can get in an alt.history like mine).
On the other hand, some mistakes slip by because the writer probably didn’t realize there was anything to research. L. Neil Smith’s Pallas is a libertarian polemic in which, in one scene, the hero——forced into lifelong vegetarianism by his nanny-state government (I’ve discussed the libertarian/right-wing hate for vegetarianism here) eats a big bowl of rabbit stew and discovers mmmm, eating meat is wonderful!
Smith neglected to mention that his protagonist would spend the following night not getting off the toilet (trust me on this), but in fairness, even a lot of vegetarians don’t know that can happen. Why would Smith think hmm, I wonder if lifelong vegetarians can actually digest meat? Better check that out!
Plus, of course, it was a minor point in the plot: I’d be harsher if the story hinged on it. Other stories, however, have fallen apart because the author saw no need to research some key plot point (something Raymond Chandler discusses in “The Simple Art of Murder.”).
I’m quite sure there will always be errors, any time I step outside the stuff I know well. But believe me, I won’t stop trying to catch them.

2 Comments

Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Story Problems, Writing

2 responses to “The different kinds of mistakes.

  1. Good post. I do spend quite a bit of time making sure the little details add up. Only time will tell whether I’m right and like you say expect blog entries if you’re wrong!

    • frasersherman

      Absolutely–I assume I’ll get just as much criticism if I screw up as I give out to others (except, of course, not as cleverly written and phrased. 🙂 )

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