Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Continuing Education: Weird Science

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored—Aldous Huxley

Kari Donald, A4A Member

It’s time for another installment of Continuing Education. Science surrounds us and has an enormous sphere of influence. It’s impossible to explain the physical world without it. No matter what genre you write, science and facts will have some involvement in your story. Inaccuracies and errors create distractions (which most readers definitely don’t enjoy). Today we’re going to look at the use of these types of information in your narrative, why they’re important, common pitfalls, and how to avoid mistakes. 

Are science and facts really so important in fiction?

Definitely. Accurate representation of known and accepted facts is very important in your story. I knew an Air Force pilot who described the movie “Top Gun” as a great comedy. Anyone who’s seen this movie will tell you it’s obviously intended as a drama, not a comedy. However, the misrepresentations of military aviation were so laughable to this person, they could not suspend disbelief enough to see the movie as anything other than a farce. 

Ideally, people from every walk of life should enjoy your book. Unless you’re planning on limiting your intended audience, make sure your facts are correct to avoid taking subject matter experts out of your story.  

Will readers really look that closely at the facts in a story?

Probably not. I seriously doubt anyone is googling the facts in your book while they read to check for accuracy. But once again, recall that our continuity read is looking for anachronisms and errors that could distract readers and pull them out of your story. 

For example, consider something as simple as a pond or lake freezing over. Your characters cannot go to sleep and even remotely hope that the overnight drop in temperature will freeze a body of water sufficiently to walk across it. Nor can they assume frozen solid edges indicate the entire pond is frozen solid. It takes time for the water to cool enough to freeze (lake turnover) and longer for deeper water to freeze solid enough to support weight, especially if the water is actively flowing. At the very least, you will lose any reader from climates with lots of lakes and cold temperatures, such as Minnesota or Michigan. 

While this may not be common knowledge for many, it is experience some people will have, making them de facto subject matter experts.

Would a small mistake about an obscure fact seriously impact my book?

Possibly not. But I have seen one star reviews where readers commented that they stopped reading a book because the author’s mistreatment of horses made it impossible to finish the story. And “mistreatment” in this sense was not beating the horses; it was unrealistic representations of a horse’s abilities or the ignorance of a supposedly expert handler. 

Again, people who have never had horses would have no clue there was a problem. However, as in this case, there are a lot of experienced horse lovers who are offended by such cavalier disregard for their beloved equines. Don’t make assumptions about what topics your readers may or may not be familiar with.

I also need to add if you really want proof about how readers can be VERY particular about “known facts,” ask any fantasy author what happens if their characters use the wrong armor or weapon during a story. Response from die-hard fantasy fans will be swift and brutal. Basically, consider the risk and the return on investment of research. 

What sorts of facts or topics need to be researched?  

Just about anything from a subject ending in “ology”? Seriously though, we aren’t born with innate knowledge of the universe. Everything we know, we had to learn somewhere—either at school, by life experience, from knowledgeable people, or through the internet (I saw it online so it must be true...). 

Everyone, especially writers, use language on a daily basis. Yet in spite of that, how often do we make mistakes or need to look up spellings, definitions, grammar, or punctuation? Now expand that idea to topics you never studied or haven’t thought about in years, and the potential for mistakes is huge. Any solution to a problem, especially medical, should be thoroughly researched. 

Should I get bitten by a venomous snake, I personally don’t want someone treating it by making incisions on the bite mark and trying to suck the poison out. That solution may be fine for a clich├ęd western, but should not be presented in a way that portrays it as a viable option for treatment. I am sure we all have examples of well-meaning people repeating something they read “somewhere” which really isn’t true.

How do I check for factual inaccuracies?

There are lots of things you can do. The internet is a great place to start. Just be careful about using reliable and comprehensive sources. A personal blog of someone with no credentials or education is probably not a great source. 

When including any type of fact, whether you think it’s common knowledge or something you’re sure you heard about somewhere, ask yourself how or where you learned it. Even if you have an old textbook, check for updates as science changes. Mythbusters was able to find enough material from movies and urban legends to fill 20 seasons worth of plausibility experiments, so things you only vaguely remember hearing about at some time may not be factual. Basically, anything that you haven’t studied recently or is outside your normal sphere of knowledge should be double-checked for accuracy. 

Don’t be afraid to ask experts in the field you are writing about for advice. Will your character experience a painful injury? Then interview someone with a medical background for feedback about the condition, its treatment, and recovery time. It doesn’t matter how skilled your surgeon is, there’s really no chance your character will be able to run a race less than a week after surgery repairing a torn ACL. Bleeding late in a pregnancy? Don’t follow in the footsteps of the male author who argued with his female editor and insisted it was perfectly normal for pregnant women to keep having periods. As such, it was a totally acceptable explanation for said bleeding. I am not making this one up. You can find it on TikTok. 

And while you are talking to that expert, don’t forget to ask about special jargon they use in their profession if you are going to portray characters in that field. Again, simply make sure your representations of science and other facts won’t distract someone familiar with the subject.  

But I am writing speculative fiction or fantasy, so facts don’t really matter.

Well...yes and no. There is a tricky balancing act when writing about alternate worlds and times. Modern medicine would never treat a fever by bleeding someone. However, it was acceptable therapy even as late as the 19th century. Obviously your facts need to fit your world. In your fantasy universe, it may be entirely possible to heal bones in 24 hours (Gotta love Skele-Gro!). 

The deciding factor is how closely you model your alternate reality after Earth. If a character in your book fetches some carrots from the garden, I would expect they’re dug up from the ground, not picked from a tree. When a process or item in your world has the same name as a process or item on earth, its description and function should match what people would reasonably expect—which means it needs to be accurate. By the time you either research something or manage expectations with explanations of how your item is different, you could have simply given it a unique name, removing the comparison. Just make sure you’re consistent using your new vocabulary in your book. 

That’s all for this week. Look for the next continuity blog, Well-Seasoned.

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