Perhaps this issue is less relevant in the science fiction realms, where I spend most of my time, than other genres, but it’s still something that requires consideration. The question of accuracy in the details when writing. When to do research, and when to make it up. Or, leave it out all together.
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being irked when reading a book or watching a TV show that gets the facts or details wrong…or just makes you shutter thinking, Come on, seriously? For me there is one in particular that comes up over and over again in just about any show or book that depicts anyone in uniform. Military, cops, fictional freedom-fighting force from another planet, it doesn’t seem to matter.
This major pet peeve of mine is a fictional senior officer of any kind emphasizing their command by saying…you’ve all heard it…”That’s an order!” or worse “That’s an order, soldier!”
Every time I hear those words I cringe. It’s like someone scraping the bottom of a dinner plate repeatedly with their steak knife seemingly unaware that they have already successfully sliced the meat. Perhaps it’s because my military experience is Canadian (and Navy/Air Force at that), but never, in four years at military college or in five years of service afterward, do I ever recall hearing anyone say those words (and I was called a lot of things but never soldier)–except maybe in jest. If I did hear such I thing, I would fear the individual who spoke was at high risk of finding shaving cream in their shoes.
That said, it would appear from most of what I’ve read (and watched on television) that most writers are ok with filling the gaps in their knowledge with believable-ish jargon from their imaginations, or copied clichés that they know the majority of us have been brainwashed to accept as whatever they are trying to represent–like a take-no-bullshit officer let’s say. And does it really matter? Obviously I continue to watch these shows and read these books despite the momentary break in the illusion.
As Stephen King says: I want a little bit, but not the whole thing. Don’t confuse me with the facts. I want to know just enough so that I can lie colorfully. Actually, it was one of his characters who said it and I think the character was quoting someone else, but the character was a writer (I’ve noticed a lot of writers like to write protagonists who are also writers. Write what ya know and all that, I suppose). Anyway, this passage brings to the forefront that magic balance between leaving the reader dizzyingly confused and making them grind their teeth with irritation at the writer’s ignorance.
I am still struggling with this one. Though I’m sure I have been, and will be in the future, guilty of the latter, I tend more toward the former–so I’m told–especially when the topic I’m writing about is of particular interest to me. If I’m interested the reader will be too, right? Not necessarily. Take the early chapters of Dosterra for example where I try to combine my understanding of quantum physics with the possibilities my imagination leaps to based on that knowledge, mostly to the confusion of everyone but my husband who loves the geekiest of hard science fiction more than most.
Part of the problem, of course, is that when it comes to these topics ‘I know just enough to be dangerous’, as they say. I do have a fairly strong science background, but when it comes to quantum physics and cosmology (good Sci Fi material) I am mostly self taught. I think I understand what I read as well as the next person, but I don’t always pass the Richard Feynamn litmus test: Could I explain it to a guy standing at the bus stop? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you have a firm grasp on the concept, if the answer is ‘no’…well…maybe keep your thoughts to yourself, or do some more research.
Even when I do pass this test, how much does the reader really care? Usually not as much as they care about the experiences of the characters themselves. The other stuff is mainly there to make the experience feel real. Beyond that the details can get in the way, or simply bore the reader. The danger is, however, if you gloss over the details too much then the reader feels cheated or patronized, and that’s no good either. Confused yet?
My latest food for thought for other aspiring writers out there.