On Getting It “Right”

Once upon a time, in the days before the internet, research was hard.  You did it all via books or interviews.  And if you couldn’t find a source…well, you made it up and hoped for the best.  Depending on what you wrote, the percentage of your audience who KNOW you flagrantly made stuff up about the details was probably pretty slim.

And then came

The internet.

So much awesome.  I cannot describe to you how much I love the internet for its ability to FIND ME ANSWERS.  There’s Google.  If that doesn’t work, there’s Twitter, where you can put a question out into the void and have it RTed often enough that you just might find an actual human being willing to answer your questions who KNOWS.  There are also boocoodles (It’s a word, in the English language.  Look it up.) of specialized forums based on professions, hobbies, interests, and anything you can possibly imagine.  The FBI even has a whole section of their website for we writers.  Meaning that, by and large, authors have almost no excuse not to get stuff “right” when they write about stuff that they don’t know.

While this is really fabulous in a lot of ways, it’s also a lot of pressure.  I used to write romantic suspense–largely rooted in FBI and police procedure.  I have a copy of Practical Homicide Investigation and all SORTS of other specialized professional texts on my bookshelf because I was determined to get it “right”.  To the point that I froze up with worry that somewhere out there, an FBI agent or cop would read my book and throw it across the room because I’d made some egregious mistake in procedure.

Part of why I started the Mirus series, other than the fact that I was interested in diving back into the paranormal world, was to combine my love of the paranormal and my love of FBI style thrillers–so I created the IED (Investigation and Enforcement Division) and made up my own procedures.  Nevermind that it’s the Underground who really wanted their stories told…

In any event, sometimes you end up finding out, well into your story (or–GASP–even after it’s written) that you got something you didn’t expect WRONG.  Because it didn’t cross your mind that it was one of the things you should research.  EEP.

This happened to me this week.  I mentioned a while back that I’m working on a novella that’s my love song to White Christmas.  Favorite Christmas move EVAR.  The characters in the story are putting on a community theater production.  Now, I knew that they’d made an actual for stage production (White Christmas The Musical).  I bought the soundtrack.  A few of the songs were different, and I knew they would have to make SOME changes in order to facilitate set changes and transitions that work fine on screen but not so well on a physical stage for a live production.  But the musical only came out in 2004 and isn’t something you can just rent on video, so I hadn’t actually SEEN the show.

Well this week, I finally found a 20-something part series of videos on Youtube–a community theater production.  Probably that’s copyright violation somewhere, but whatever.  It helped my cause (Youtube is another great resource for research).  So I watched it.

Leaving aside the issue that I feel like the writers of the play totally took something precious and beat it bloody (I do NOT approve of any of the changes they made), they had changed HUGE, fundamental sections of the plot from the movie.  Whereas the movie I love is incredibly plot-driven, the stage version takes the bare minimum of very thin plot and strings together a whole bunch of songs.  And they’d taken out the parts that were key to driving an important part of MY plot.

So, I was left with a few choices.  I could abandon the story–not an option in my mind because a) it’s nearly finished and b) I love it.  I could change the show they were performing–which really defeated the purpose of the story…the whole POINT is that it’s White Christmas and that the best friends of the hero and heroine (who are playing Phil and Judy) actually PULL a Phil and Judy to get them back together.  I could put it out exactly as is and hope that only a miniscule portion of my audience realizes that a) the show I’ve written was wrong or b) that my community theater troupe totally violated the copyright of the Berlin estate (NOT something I really wanted to do, given I have that thing about getting things RIGHT).  Or I could do more research.

Now I happened to be in a super fortunate position on this because one of my husband’s best friends happens to BE a community theater director, and he’s been kind enough to let me pepper him with questions about a million things.  So I explained the sitch to him and he gave me the information I needed to find a way to make the plot work in a plausible manner.  Story saved.

But I might not have been that fortunate.  And then I’d have been back at those choices again.  Which brings up the issue of how “right” do you need to be as an author?  With the advent of the internet, it not only makes research easier, it also makes for a generally much more savvy audience than we used to have.  So where do you draw the line?  One of the great things about fiction is that you push your audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief.  Sometimes you push it too far.  I did that in Forsaken By Shadow for anybody who is actually in the military.  I totally knew I was doing it (because I couldn’t think of any other solution at the time).  It bugged me, but that was that.  It’s over and done.  And most of my readers were fine with it.  But I definitely got dinged (rightly so) in some reviews for that point.

I think every author has their line on this, and maybe it changes from story to story.  I think you get more latitude in paranormal and fantasy literature because you’re already in a whole other world.  You’ve got to be more careful in anything set in the real world, talking about real issues.

I’d love to see other authors weigh in.  Where is your line?  Do you worry about getting it right?

14 thoughts on “On Getting It “Right”

  1. Do I shriek in disbelief when a fictional police officer asks someone if they have a permit for their handgun IN VERMONT? Yes, yes I do. Do I ever forget it happened? Apparently not. Do I throw the book at the wall and never read the author again?

    No, not if it’s a good book by a good author, especially one who’s given me so many hours of reading pleasure.

    It kind of sucks to think about how many great stories we’ve missed out on, by gifted writers with such creative minds, because those writers were afraid of having someone find a mistake. I base this muchly on how many stories I’ve been afraid to write because I didn’t feel I could become expert enough on some aspect of setting or procedure.

    If everyone got mad and quit reading every author who put a safety on a revolver or harvested berries in the wrong season, publishing would have gone under a long time ago. Maybe part of suspension of disbelief is about forgiveness.

  2. As you well know, I’m GOOD at finding errors in stories (especially movies). You’ve seen me pick apart a movie, for all kinds of errors, be it from a physics standpoint, a science standpoint, or most likely a fight scene. BUT, I rarely let that mistake keep me from finishing the story if it’s good. Take that stupid scene in LOTR, when Legolas mounts that horse all kinds of impossibly wrong. I hate it. It makes me cringe, but I still watch! We laugh about it, and move on.

      1. The announcers on the news and baseball games have also made mistakes like saying the inning is over when it isn’t, or saying the wrong opposing team’s name. I just ignore it and enjoy the game.

    1. See, that would bother me even more because Tolkien never would have… ah, what’s the point? It’s too easy to criticise the LoTR films…

  3. I wonder if you could have someone write a completely different musical based on the actual movie? I don’t know if that’s feasible since I don’t know the whole story.

    I really don’t get bent out of shape over little errors, but if it’s big enough, I’m like “Seriously?” But if it’s a really good book, it certainly won’t make me stop reading, nor would it make me refuse to read other books by the author. I would just laugh at the error.

    From what I understand, historical romance readers are the most hard core “get it right” people on the planet. I’ve seen readers tear regency romance writers apart for getting the history wrong.

    This is why I like to write paranormal. 🙂

  4. Heh–I love watching Glee, but I have to turn off my former show choir brain because THAT’S NOT HOW SHOW CHOIR WORKS!! *pant pant* A lineup is polished and rehearsed for months at a time, not wrapped up within a week. One certainly does not write and choreograph original songs the day before a national-flipping competition. I did the same thing with the Tudors, screaming “That’s not what happened!”.

    So, yeah–as an author I bug out a lot about getting it right. Not getting it right makes me come over all growly.

    1. OMG YES. That part makes me twitch! I get why they do it, but it drives me batty. I actually love Pitch Perfect because that felt a lot more like what competition was like.

          1. Nor will we talk about how many times the hubs and I have had this discussion:
            Hubs: why do we have this discussion every time Glee is on?
            Me: It’s not a discussion…it’s a gorram RANT and IT NEEDS TO BE SAID.
            Hubs: … o.O
            *returns to Pitch Perfect*

  5. I worried about getting Road Salt right with the main part of the plot featuring the designer drug Bath Salts. When I was writing it, I couldn’t find any accurate information about the substance since it was so new. Even the drug counselors couldn’t help me. Then I had an epiphany. I worked in the past with someone who was and still is an EMT. He even teaches the course to this day. I contacted him and told him what I was trying to do and why. It turned out he was a gold mine for a source of information and was more than happy to help me.

  6. I don’t feel it has to be perfect, as long as it is close then I am okay. That is why I like fantasy, I made my characters similar to legends but not the same as others have made them. I felt it made them stand out.
    As for not reading them, I wouldn’t go so far as not to read them. We are all far from perfect. I have however, been totally thrown off by movies with stupid mistakes.

  7. I’m a stickler for accuracy and research BUT a good detailed Author’s Note explaining certain changes and the reasons behind them will go a long way.
    Not sure about the greater latitude in fantasy and SF – I can actually be more picky, because if someone’s creating a world, they’d better be consistent and have explanations for everything that’s possible. No changing the rules based on what magic/powers/languages the characters might need in a specific scene.
    But you’d expect me to say that, being a Tolkien fan 🙂

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