There are readers out there who take great pleasure in pointing out mistakes to authors. Whether it’s typos or the fact that the author made a New York street one way in the wrong direction, you can be sure that the author has received several emails about it. Of course, these emails accomplish nothing: the book is written, thousands of copies have been printed and bought. No one is going to go change it now.
I do understand the impulse of the reader, though. If it’s something you know or are passionate about (or you live on that street in NYC), it probably does irk you to see it improperly in a book. Personally, I read a book once where the professional ballet dancer heroine kept talking about her “toe shoes” and “dancing on toe.” (They’re pointe shoes, and you dance en pointe. Of course the assumption is that if you’re a female dancer over the age of 13, you’re en pointe anyway – and if it’s a professional company, it would be exceedingly strange for you not to be.) But did I write the author? No. She may have done it out of ignorance – and it’s not like the book’s plot hinged on this fact – or she may have consciously decided to use “toe” instead of “pointe” because not every reader in America knows what pointe shoes are.
And therein lies the rub – was it intentional on the author’s part?
With every book, I’m faced with a choice: how much of this research do I put in the book? And I’m often faced with an even harder choice: do I write it like it is or like people think it is?
And when I say “like people think it is,” that’s a bigger issue than folks might realize. After all, after my first book came out, I got an email from a reader telling me that she enjoyed the book overall, but it was ridiculous that my heroine was wearing shorts on the beach in October. It would be much too cold. It totally pulled her out of the book. Um, The Secret Mistress Arrangement is set in south Alabama – it might be a little chilly in October, but cold? Not really. (Of course, I’ve also learned that not all beaches are warm, either. I have a great picture of me on the beach in Scotland in late June – wearing boots, a wool coat, and a hat.) That wasn’t a mistake on my part as an author – that was an erroneous assumption on the part of the reader.
And those assumptions cause big hassles. Have you ever watched Law and Order and noticed how when the victims take the stand to testify, they always still have very visible bruises from the attack? Now, anyone who has ever had the misfortune to get tangled up in the legal system should know that the chances of getting a trial date before the bruises heal would be close to impossible. But the story would lose its immediacy and pacing if the show had to do a “six months pass” montage to be realistic. I know it drives lawyers crazy, but lawyers are a small percentage of the population and an even smaller percentage of the target audience. So the writers ignore the reality and go with what’s best for the story.
Anthologists interviewing witnesses for the FBI? Lawyers sleeping with their clients? Cops beating confessions out of a killer? These things make for great TV, but they’re not realistic.
We all know that police officers spend more time writing tickets and directing traffic than they spend in high-action shootouts. For every ride the ER doctor takes on the gurney desperately doing CPR, they spend months dealing with ingrown toenails and kids with stomach flu. I’m not saying that this isn’t important stuff – it is, but it’s hardly drama. And we all know that every job has paperwork, and watching someone do paperwork is deathly boring.
Not only would readers doze off if books were overly realistic and true to life, there’d be a whole bunch of people who would be thinking the author made a mistake because that’s not how it is on TV or in other books, movies, etc. (I read an article recently that all those medical shows have had an adverse affect on medical students. They’ve seen a procedure on TV – like “Insert a chest tube!” – and they think that’s what it’s supposed to look like. But it’s not.)
And I’m not saying I’m immune, by the way. I’ve written things without researching it because I *think* I know (or I’ve seen it on TV), only to find out later that I was really wrong.
On TV, one bullet to a car will blow up the gas tank in a fiery ball. (Want to get a science nerd worked up? Ask him about fiery explosions in space.*) The hero can take a bullet to the shoulder and still wrestle a gator to the ground (or make sweet love to the heroine). These things are all very handy for creating entertainment, but they’re not realistic.
So what’s an author to do? I have a scene in a book (I won’t say which one) where the hero and heroine are doing something (I won’t say what), and since I happen to have a good friend who did exactly that for a living, I sent it to him for some fact-checking even though I’d seen and read characters doing this dozens of times in books, TV and movies. I thought he might be able to add a little depth or a fun fact. His response was immediate and succinct: You couldn’t be more wrong if you had them setting fire to hamsters. He then proceeded to enlighten me. My response was also immediate and succinct: No one will believe that (activity) is that freaking boring. I want to kill them and myself just thinking about it.
It just got ugly from there.~grin~
So, y’all are smart people. You read widely, watch TV, and know what “fiction” means. You are probably also an expert in something that you’ve seen totally messed up at some point. Does it bother you? Can you just let it go and enjoy the story for what it is? Should entertainment strive to be factual or is it okay to bend the facts in order to be entertaining? What’s the breaking point for you where you finally roll your eyes and walk away?
*There’s no oxygen in space. No oxygen, no fireball. Yes, my Geek felt the need to explain this to me. He feels very strongly about it.