That’s Just…Wrong

In my last post, I wrote about my own take on the old writer adage “Write What You Know”. When you take it with a grain of salt, I agree, it’s a good thing to do. But, of course, there are always things you can’t know. And, there are things you don’t even think about possibly being wrong, just because we’ve read and seen too many things that tell us that the wrong things are true.

So, for this blog, I will make it my mission to correct at least some of these unknown mistakes that won’t seem to die in fiction. (If you feel I’ve missed an important one, feel free to add it in the comments or message me and I’ll add it.)

1. If you’re knocked out for more than a minute, it’s very possible you will have brain damage. Despite what you’ve seen and read time and time again, if you are hit over the head and are knocked out long enough to be moved to an entirely new location (generally by the bad guys) you aren’t going to wake up a little dazed and then be walking around a few seconds later. It’s hard to get knocked out for a reason. If every bump on the head took you out for 10 or more minutes, many more humans would have been eaten by lions back in yonder-times.

2. Gold bars are HEAVY. Ever dream of breaking into Fort Knox (or the New York Federal Reserve if you want to be different) throwing a bunch of gold into a duffel and heading out rich? It’s a great “bank heist” standard after all. Yeah, gold is dense. The men who move gold bars around wear special toe protectors to make sure their feet aren’t crushed by a dropped bar, and each bar is something like 20 pounds. By all accounts, those 20 pounds being contained in such a small object makes each one feel more like 50 (sadly, I’ve never gotten to hold one to see…) Stick a bunch in a duffel bag and you’re either not going to be able to lift it, or the fabric’s going to tear before you get it out of the room.

3. The Middle Ages lasted for 10 centuries. Look it up, from about 400 A.D. to 1400 A.D. Fashion changed in that millennium. A lot changed in that millennium. If you’re doing a historical fiction (or a time travel fantasy, or…) it’s easy to fall into historical inaccuracies by grouping it together as one cohesive time.

4. “Blowing up” a picture doesn’t make it clearer. There’s only so many pixels in a camera picture. At some point, zooming in is going to just make the picture blurry (try it yourself. Find a small picture and start zooming in, or stretching it, on your computer. It will get bigger, but not get clearer).

5. Defibrillation doesn’t bring people back to life. The electric jolt “shock paddles” give actually are made to stop the heart for a split second so that the heart will “restart” with a regular beat. If the heart’s already not beating, it can’t help.

6. Potatoes aren’t native to Ireland. One that’s more important, again, for historical/time travel fiction, even though they are associated with Ireland these days (what with the Potato Famine and all) potatoes did not exist in Europe (the “old world”) prior to the Columbian Exchange.

7. Cars don’t explode. If you watch Mythbusters, you probably already know this, but cars don’t tend to explode (or catch on fire) when they crash. Not unless explosives have been set inside them. Yes, gas is flammable, but car manufacturers are careful about those things. They don’t want to, you know, kill their customers.

8. Sounds doesn’t travel in space. Without any matter (air) to move through, the sound waves aren’t going to travel. Doesn’t matter if it’s a giant explosion or someone talking, there’s some finagling you’ll have to do in your sci fi for that to work.

9. Just because you aren’t in the fire/explosion/lava doesn’t mean you can’t get burned. Heat travels away from things that cause heat. It’s why, even if you aren’t touching the flame, holding your finger over a candle will still end up with you getting burned. Standing next to hot lava will, likewise, burn you.

10. Elevators doors won’t open onto empty shafts. As a safety mechanism, the part of the elevator that opens the doors is on the car. If the elevator is not at the floor, the doors aren’t going to slide open (at least for newer models, I’m not sure about older ones if someone wants to look into that.) It is, however, possible to get stuck in an elevator. I speak from experience there…

Hopefully those will help writers with any plot holes, and–like I said–if you think I’m missing something important, contact me or add it yourself in the comments. Happy writing.

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Write What You Know

(Pre-Note: I’m planning on doing a YouTube interview answering questions anyone has about writing, editing, or publishing and am currently taking questions to answer over in the NaNoWriMo forums. If you have any of your own, feel free to email me them [jesskdall(a)gmail.com] twitter me [@JessicaDall] or post a comment below).

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Anyway, with that note out of the way…

Yesterday, thanks to a LivingSocial voucher, I was brought along to a shooting range. While I’m not sure I was very good (I was told I was perhaps the most focused shooter at least…) I have now fired a gun (Glock 17). Other than thinking ‘Holy s**t, I’m holding a gun’ it got me to thinking of the old adage “Write What You Know.”

Now, if you’re a writer you probably have heard this saying before. If not, now you have. More than a few people have written articles about it (like here, and here) most outlining the fact that it’s much too easily misunderstood. There’s a reason we write fiction. Most of our real lives are pretty boring. I promise none of the stories I have written are about someone with a generally happy childhood, vanilla high school career, and who now spends most of her time working behind a computer. Sure, that might be a good set up for a book, but until aliens attack, or my generally happy relationship falls apart and sends me off on a three year tour of Europe trying to “find myself” there really isn’t a book there.

The other articles tell you that “Write What You Know” comes from a place telling you to use what you know in real life (your neighborhood, a hobby you know well…) in your writing. That’s something I fully support. Last night, I had a friend complaining to me about a character in a novel taking the train from Union Station in DC to Grand Central in New York. As someone who’s taken the train between DC and New York, I can tell you that’s just not possible. The train goes to Penn Station from DC, not Grand Central. If the author had ever taken that train, they would have known that.

Of course, we can’t be expected to know everything every one of our characters will ever do in a story. We’re all going to get something wrong. And we’re all going to have something published that is wrong because both we and our editors never thought it was wrong. So, we should use what we can from what we know, but then jump and write what we don’t when we can’t know.

So where’s the line?

Honestly, I don’t think there’s any one answer. It depends. If it’s something that can be found out in a simple google search. Do it. It takes five seconds on the Amtrak website to figure out what stations you can get to by train. Need to figure out what classes you can take at Harvard, find the course catalogue, look it up. With Google Street View it’s even possible to actually see what it looks like on University Avenue in St. Paul. Yes we sometimes assume we know things that we shouldn’t, but there is really no excuse to not look into things that you can when you don’t know personally. Especially if you’re writing about a controversial issue. For example, if you want to write about a mental disorder, which you don’t have, you can, but please, please, please actually do your research. You can talk to people who have the disorder, you can read blogs about real people, you can learn about it without having to know it. At least not personally.

Still, there really is nothing that can be firsthand experience. If there’s something important to your story that you have the ability to experience, go do it. I’ve never had many guns in my stories. There just have never been a reason for them to be. But if I had tried to write about them before, either I wouldn’t have been able to give any details (Um, “He shot the gun” Yeah…that works…) or I would have gotten them wrong. A big metal thing that shoots something out of it at 1110ft/sec? (Just looked that up, yep). I expected it to be heavy, and the recoil to try to knock me back. Ok, maybe not that extreme, but I expected to find it harder to hold it out and shoot. Honestly, the hardest parts for me were: 1) I couldn’t get the feel for when the trigger was going to set the gun off, and 2) Every time the shell casing flew out after I shot, it made me completely jump through myself (not the best thing when you’re trying to bring the barrel back to level quickly).

So, write what you know. Learn what you don’t know. And experience what is possible to know. The people who do know will thank you. And, hey, it can be really fun. (If you haven’t gotten to try it, learning how to shoot is a fun thing to get to learn).