Getting it Right

So, over the last few days I’ve been involved with several arguments discussions, mostly with my poor husband, and all on the subject of artistic licence.  Some of them have been pretty heated, and to be honest, it’s all the fault of CSI.

Now, don’t get wrong, I love CSI, and I think there should be an entire channel devoted to it. (5USA over here pretty much is, but then they show other programmes after midnight. bah!) BUT, and this is where the show falls down, it’s grossly inaccurate and a huge misrepresentation of crime scene investigation.

Firstly, a lot of the science – especially the timings for results – is grossly optimistic at best, and some of the results are a little dubious, but I can over look that. What I can’t overlook is the lack of basic procedure – why are all those women allowed to have their hair flapping about their faces, especiallywhen working with anything DNA related – tie it back.  I’ve worked in labs, and that was golden rule number one – not only can it interfere with results, there is also a lot of machinery in a lab, and loose hair is (unlike lab coats) not fire resistant, and when it gets caught in stuff it hurts.

I’ll not even get into the issues of police procedure and why the crime lab folks would not be going on a run across country to catch anyone – that’s the for the real police officers.

But, my hubby argued that it’s fiction, so we should cut it some slack. After all, how interesting would a show about a couple of people looking test tubes all day actually be? Not very.

So here’s the question – how much artistic licence can we, as writers, use?

And sadly, there’s no easy answer to that. It really depends. I mean, obviously I KNOW that spaceships can’t travel at the speed of light, but Gene Roddenberry convinced me that, in his world, they could. Jurassic Park is one of my favourite books, and while I KNOW the science is hinky, and that dinosaurs don’t really live on an island in Costa Rica, Michael Crichton still convinced me that in his world they do.

However, I’ve also read books that told me it takes 10 hours to drive from Belfast to Dublin, when I KNOW it takes 2 hours tops. It’s only 100 miles after all. I actually remember one book, several years ago, where the MC took three weeks to drive across Ireland. A country that’s only about 300 miles long and 150 wide. You could WALK it in less time.

So, what CAN you get away with?

Well, like those little jumps in procedure in CSI, if you have a reason for it, other than an inhability to check facts, then I’ll let you away with it. If my attention is drawn to it in a way that pulls me out of the story to declare ‘But a PRIEST would never eat a bannana sandwich!’ (or that books equivenat) then you have got it wrong.

So how do you get it right?

Firstly you need to know your shit. If YOU don’t know then how can you convince me otherwise? Look at it this way, most readers know jack about spaceships, other than they go up. So you could tell me anything you want to, so long as you have a reason for it and a basic knowledge of things like gravity, and, if possible, what the parts of a ship are called. I might not know when you get it right, but I will know when you get it wrong.

That, I believe is the key.

It sounds a strange thing to say, but it’s all about convincing the reader that you know what you are talking about, and presenting them with those things that are ‘wrong’ in a gradual and careful manner that makes them entirely plausible.

This, of course, is after you spend at least twenty seconds Googling the info to find out how long Ireland is, for example. Basic errors where the writer is too lazy to come up with a better reason are not acceptable, but if you NEED me to believe something, then you’d better MAKE me believe it.

Keep on believing folks.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Getting it Right

  1. Mr. Claire

    Feel I deserve a right of reply here…
    It isn’t just that its fiction that we allow our sense of disbelief to be suspended further than normal, but because it is television fiction. TV producers have a very different agenda to a novelist, and because television (and US TV especially) is driven by sex appeal, we need to be able to see the actors. They do at least adopt basics in CSI, like the wearing of gloves, bagging evidence etc. More of an issue if you’ve done the research is the fact that CSIs wouldn’t be directly involved in police procedure, but on the show they are.

    Mythbusters on the other hand is quite good at showing us the stars clad head to toe in outfits which render the hosts unrecognisable, but which certainly would keep them safe. The difference as well being, that Mythbusters science is firmly grounded in reality, but isn’t meant to mean the difference between convicting a serial rapist or an innocent man.

    And one needs to think of the audience too. Most of the CSI audience are probably not scientists with lab experience.

    Speaking of the Ireland issue – I was asked to review a book a few years ago which was ostensibly about a spiritual journey through Ireland. Aside from being over-written, I objected to the three day trip from Belfast to Dublin, which made no sense at all narratively never meant the realities of the distance (Ireland isn’t America). Though it has taken me up to four hours via bus when I ran into rugby traffic on one occasion.

    The other problem these days I think, is that people like to show off their ‘superior knowledge’ and they pick up on all the little glitches and errors from others, and spout them off as reasons to deride a perfectly good piece of work. Back in the pre-VHS days, people tended to only see films maybe once or twice at the cinema, and seldom spotted all the gaffs that are inherently apparent when scrutinising and re-watching on DVD.

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