Friday, August 10, 2012

You've Never Done This. Have You?

Every writer has stuff s/he doesn't know.

Don't wing it. Or don't get caught winging it.

My wife started watching The Glades on Instant Netflix after a few episodes I joined her. The first season was pretty good. And then in the second season they did "the postpartum episode." It was like an after-school special where they had to raise awareness about something. The postpartum business was written fairly well, because the writers knew what they were talking about. It was OK for plot-filler.

But then the wheels fell off. Soon, we were openly ridiculing the stupid things coming out of one character's mouth because the writer had completely lost credibility. For one thing, real bosses do not tell a subordinate to keep away from a beautiful woman and turn around in the very next episode to assign them to work together. But cheesy writers will put ridiculous things in a character's mouth when s/he's winging it. The same idiot boss later said that a walkie-talkie couldn't be triangulated. Oh, really. Was this a spread-spectrum frequency hopping radio? Is there a real problem of multipath radio propagation in this swamp? I hate stupidity in writing.

What's infuriating when you see that the writer just made something up about something s/he knows nothing about. Neal Stephenson is generally pretty good. But I figured he probably saw Tora Tora Tora and the scene with the marching band, and that's what he used in Cryptonomicon.

Consider the geeks on Big Bang Theory. They're pretty funny. But I went to grad school and the guys I ran with were Math majors. They were nothing like Sheldon and the boys. Not being scary-smart grad students, or knowing any scary-smart grad students, the writers pull from the stereotypes rattling around in their heads.

Same for The It Crowd. I have spent a career with geeks and have the Star Trek Technical Guide to prove it. Geeks can be distracted, absent-minded, and manifest low social skills (great opportunities for comedy here), but we are not stupid. The It Crowd got the pilot right, but in the second episode they depicted the geeks as stupid. Not being geeks, or knowing any geeks, the writers pull from the stereotypes rattling around in their heads.

Or how about when a story depicts a religion-user. If the writers just pull from the stereotypes rattling around in their heads, the depiction will be tone-deaf.

Any sub-culture maintains trust cues that are used to recognize fellow members of the sub-culture. If you get them wrong, the members of said sub-culture recognize an imposter and respond negatively. (Get it right and you've got friends for life.)

Likewise, every profession has its own rituals and habits of thinking passed along to its members. These are mine-fields for the writer to cross.

In Finding Time, I put a Russian submarine in the wake of the Titanic. Happily, one of my beta readers once worked on subs and he told me I got the Sonar wrong. In another story I made the stupid mistake of putting Romans in Alexandria in the wrong century. But one of the guys in my writers group caught it. Then I had a girl in Roanoke colony quoting Pilgrim's Progress. Thankfully, I learned Roanoke colony was 50 years earlier than I had thought.

In each of these cases, I was winging it, BUT I had friends looking at my stuff who knew what I did not and they were backstopping the gaps in my knowledge.

The writer can't know everything. That's what research is for. The writer can't research everything, and that's what friends are for. If you've got a police procedural, then by gum you'd better run your prose past some cops. If you've got a faith healing service, then by gum you'd better run it past a Bible thumper. Don't get a Baptist. Or a Presbyterian. You need a Pentecostal. Or maybe a Charismatic in a pinch. If you're desperate you might find someone from a Vineyard church.

Oh, you don't know the difference? Then you're pulling from the stereotypes rattling around in your head. Maybe a faith healing service isn't a good an idea until you can get someone who actually believes that stuff to vet your scene.

Remember that 2nd paragraph above. I lied. You DO want to get caught winging it, but you want to get caught by one of your friends BEFORE you send out your writing. And after your friend, the expert in Russian subs, says you've got the scene right, THEN you can send it out. If you get caught winging it after it's published, you're screwed.

I get by with a little help from my friends.


  1. True words here. Someone in my writers' group is doing a romance set in Bohemia in the 1500s or thereabouts in both time and space, but she can't be bothered to learn anything about the actual time and space. Oy!

    Doing basic research takes time and has to be done. Since I write about things that interest me, I enjoy the process of learning everything I can find and putting bits of it into the story.

  2. Excellent article Steve! I find as I'm incorporating a new location, an item I have no knowledge of, say for instance, automobiles, or if I must state a definitive time period, then I stop, go and research until I'm saturated with it, and THEN write. Plus it gives me time to take a mental 'me' break and learn something new about something I didn't know before! I actually enjoy researching, and expanding my mental neurons.

  3. The joy of research is one of the best parts of writing.


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