Thursday, August 13, 2009

It ain't necessarily so

It's what you know that ain't so that bites you. There is a rather sad example of this on Baen's Bar right now, but rather than embarrass the culprit I'm going to tell a few tales against myself instead. I figure after I subbed for Sarah yesterday, she being somewhere in Portugal right now, you didn't need pointless pontification from the pulpit (actually it's a soapbox, and I'm sure it escaped from Terry Pratchett because it has lots of little legs and it just keeps ambushing me).

Anyway, writers need to keep an open mind because what we write gets to all kinds of people, and a lot of them get upset when we make a mistake with something they're very familiar with. This is where that big time-sink known as research comes in. There's just one problem. You know to research things you know nothing, or very little about. But how do you find the things where you think you know it but you really don't?

Google is your friend. So is listening to and reading just about everything - and being willing to re-evaluate what you think at any time. Take me (actually, don't. My husband would be a little unhappy about that). One of my more interesting exploits was a 1500 mile drive with a broken right ankle. How did I manage that?

To start with, I didn't realize it was broken. After all, you can't walk if you've broken anything more serious than a toe, right?

Yes, you can. The position of the foot has to be exactly right, and it certainly doesn't work for every broken limb, but there are times when you can actually put weight on a broken ankle, and walk. Well, hobble. And yes, drive.

It does hurt. Rather a lot, I might add. And that's another one I thought I knew and it weren't so - extreme pain does not necessarily cause screaming. In my cause it mostly caused whimpering, but I could still function, more or less. Towards the end of the drive - it was a 2.5 day trip - I was pretty much mono-focused and on a double-dose of painkiller to stay more or less functional, but I was still on my feet. Yes, including the broken one, which by this stage had reached something more than twice the usual size, attained a truly spectacular range of color in the blue, black, and purple range, and was blistering the skin.

When the pain stopped - thank you IV painkillers - I went to sleep, which was another what I knew what ain't so. I hadn't realized until then just how exhausting prolonged pain can be, and how the first reaction when it stops is to pass out because up until then you hurt too much for that. Of course by this time I had Emergency Room nurses telling me they'd personally come and kill me if I put any weight on that foot before an orthopedic surgeon said I could (something like that, anyway. I was a bit hazy, for some reason).

When I was doing research on trauma injury for a work in progress and stumbled across this site, I read through all two thousand plus on-topic posts half in horrified fascination, and half because I expected to see my broken ankle there. I recommend it for anyone who's interested in the many and bizarre ways people injure themselves, and what they do afterwards. Fair warning: sometimes it's spray worthy, and others kind of gross. It's very educational. If the experiences of American city ER staff are any guide, the most dangerous occupation in urban USA is "standing on the corner, minding my own business". And watch out for "some guy" or "that dude". They're trouble. Reading your Bible increases the risk factor.

The point here, of course, is that if you don't go looking even for the things you think you know, you might get smacked with them later. Hopefully not in quite such a vivid and painful way as I learned about walking on a broken ankle, but usually the experience isn't fun. There's nothing quite so deflating as the person two rows back loudly telling everyone that he's a professional horseman and what you describe on page X is physically impossible because horse's legs don't bend that way. (No, this hasn't happened to me. Yet. I'm hoping to avoid this fate).

What are some of the ways what you thought you knew has smacked you in the face? Feel free to conceal names to protect the guilty.


Anonymous said...

The single thing I had the most misconceptions about was children. Babies.

Prior to, well, conception. Now that I'm an Empty Nester, I find myself hazy on some of the timing and details. But at least I know there's an age by which a baby can roll over, scoot, crawl, start pulling themselves to their feet and so forth. I've been inside an elementary school since i passed sixth grade myself. If I'd tried to write some of the female characters I write now, back before I was even aware of the sheer time involved in caring for a mere infant . . . well, the results would not have been good.

And not that I'm writing a "How to Raise Baby" book, but when one's Main Character has a baby at mid-winter, it's nice to know she'll be trying to keep track of a speed crawler by late summer. Not a toddler, and no speech yet. And that in the intervening months, MC may have managed one or two long hot luxurious baths.

A lot of what you need to get right is background information. My book does not revolve around parenting issues, I just got tired of books where raising babies was apparently effortless, if of course, the mother survived childbirth (about a 80% fatality rate for MC's mothers, as far as I can see).

Kate said...


I have to wonder if the fatality rate for mothers of MCs is because the author knows they can't write it right and is taking the easy way out?

Since I haven't had that particular experience, I suspect it would surprise me a lot, too.

And yes, it's the background information where these things matter. That's usually where the most dedicated snarkage from readers happens.

Anonymous said...

No body else willing to admit they were wrong once or twice in the far distant past?

My degree's in geology. I _always_ double check mineral compositions. And having only worked for oil companies, I'm especially careful to check on anything involving hard rock mining.

What? Mining in SF? Geeze guys, my Martian Lizards go looking for Uranium ore in Jurrassic Antarctica. Can't risk getting the background wrong on that one . . .

Dave Freer said...

What is even more scary is that percieved knowledge trumps real. I've screwed up a few times meself, but my favorite has to be the guy who posted that Liz from Pyramid Scheme was too american. That I should have done some homework on South Africa.

Kate said...


I'm a former geo, too (graduated right after the 87 stock market crash. Oh, look, there goes a career down the toilet!) - I make the same kind of checks. Authors plonking a convenient volcano, hot spring or whatever without any concern for whether it should actually be there drive me nuts.

Kate said...


Sadly, true. Liz not being "South African enough" is a hoot, though! If you'd made her any more South African, you'd have had to tone her down or the 'Merkins wouldn't understand her.

I could hear everything she said in the South African accent - you did that very well.

And yeah, perceived usually does trump real - until the real smacks you in the face.