A few weeks back, I was reading a chick-lit sweet Amish story* with lots of police procedural elements. Totally got immersed in the world and believed every detail that author dished out. Why? Because I had zero clue otherwise. My life is the exact polar opposite of “police procedural”. And legal stuff? I can’t tell the difference between “so moved” and “sustained”. Lordie help me if someone wants me to define a tort. (If I’m not mistaken, that’s a lovely lemony treat, right?)
Then in that same novel, something medical happened where stuff like guts or blood or bones or some anatomically gross thing happened. Of course, I’m eating all of that description up like…well, like a yummy torte…because of my Day Job. (I kind of dig blood ‘n’ guts.)
But then it happened. The author tripped and fell down. Like, total swing and a miss. This awesome, immersive experience grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hurled me out of book. Kind of like when in one of the Star Trek episodes they get thrown out of warp and how jarring that was with space-time and atoms splitting and stuff? Like that.
Lemony torte experience, ruined.
What happened? The author described an emergency tracheostomy. Of course, I’m like, yes I’m intrigued, bring it on, master author. But the description was wrong. It actually wasn’t a little bit wrong, it was All Wrong. The only way it could be wronger was if the dude had shoved the tube through the victim’s eyeball. That much wrong.
This author describes making an incision nowhere near the victim’s Adam’s apple/cricoid but way down at the base of the neck. Nope! Then the author described shoving the tube into the “esophagus”. Double nope! Not only is that maneuver anatomically not possible (you have to go through the WINDPIPE before getting to the esophagus)…but if one truly did cannulate the esophagus? That’d be one dead patient.
So am I a medical writing snob? No, not at all, and that’s not the point. I would totally make the same mistake if I tried to write, say, a police procedural sweet Amish chick-lit military suspense* novel myself. I can’t even accurately identify the most basic of parts of your average assault rifle, much less a how to book someone into jail. And don’t even get me near a crime scene for evidence collection. If I wrote that crime scene in my humorous sidekick Amish sweet inspirational procedural*, no reader would believe it, unless they were under the influence of mescaline. Actually, even someone who has completely dissociated with every scrap of reality would still know I was 10 pounds of BS in a 5 pound sack when it came to legal/crime madcap buddy chick-lit inspirational* novels.
There is so much advice out there – pro and con – about whether we should write what we know.
However, based on that colossal fail example (to be fair, I’m sure that all authors have tripped at times) from that well-known and excellent Amish military suspense* author, I’m going to give you this woman’s opinion: Anyone writing outside of their expertise needs to meticulously research so that their madcap sweet inspirational military buddies-to-lovers* novel is believable. So much research is needed, that the author should either shadow people doing the tasks, personally learn to do them, or should pump anyone they know** for legit information on the topic.
Heck, I’m knee deep in blood, guts, and humanity on most days of my Day Job, and I still ask colleagues for help with details. I pulled our Friendly Neighborhood Orthopedic Surgeon*** over to ask questions about open tib-fib fractures, external fixation devices, return to weight-bearing time, and typical healing times – all for a book I’m working on. Let’s just say that #1) Dr. Jones has no sense of humor and #2) he probably thinks I have a tortured human locked in my basement or something. (#2 is mostly because I also asked him a question about depressed skull fractures. Because this is a rural area and we have no neurosurgeons here, so I went with the next best thing: bone doctor. Beggars/choosers, people. Use what resources you have available.)
And no, I do not have a body in the basement, as far as you know.
But what I’m trying to say here is that I believe authors should start off in the beginning by writing what you know best. It’ll be the most realistic writing you’ll do. Why? Because you’ll sound like an authority… because you ARE an authority. Your readers will believe all that super authoritative information. And later, when you take some creative liberty, it’s easier to slide it by the unsuspecting reader who has been lulled into complaisance by your Authority. (You see how “author” is part of “authority”? That’s not an accident.) Also, if you branch out into an area where you’re not an expert? Research the heck out of it and blend it with the stuff you know well to create beautiful verisimilitude.
But above all? Never, ever snatch away your reader’s lemony torte.****
*Novel types have been changed to reduce chances of identifying the author.
** “anyone they know” should involve people with some level of subject expertise. Not Joe Shmoe off the street. Just in case I was a bit nebulous with my advice there.
***Let’s acknowledge the truth: that description of my colleague is clearly a joke. Ortho folks generally don’t have a well-developed sense of humor. And yes, that’s stereotyping. But to date, I haven’t seen an example to refute overwhelming evidence of serious jock-types in orthopedics. And no that’s not sexist; this description appears equally true for female orthopods.
****Later research has revealed that “torte” is more of a generic term for a “sweet cake” and there are, like, thousands of varieties of tortes, including chocolate, vanilla, berry, and yes, lemon. In case you feel like I’m locking you into one type of torte, I’m not. You can have any kind you want.
Author, daydreamer, and practitioner of trying very hard to duct tape folks together and help when I can.