Write about what you know!
As writers we’re often told “write what you know” – which admittedly is kinda tricky when you’re writing SF&F! – but it holds true no matter what genre or medium you work in. When it comes down to facts (and even the most fanciful of stories contains a few), you really have a duty to get them right. And if you don’t know the facts, you need to a) do your research and b) get someone more knowledgeable than you to check them.
On Sunday night, Mr L and I watched the latest episode of “The Mentalist” to grace UK TV screens. I have to confess that I love US crime/mystery shows, even though the formula has become so formulaic (feisty female detective, maverick male sidekick, obligatory black boss) as to be embarrassing. Anyway, we knew we were in for a few cringe-worthy moments as soon as it transpired that one of the characters was British…
(Warning – mild spoilers for episode 217 “The Red Box”)
Now, I can easily forgive a character with a Yorkshire accent professing to be a Liverpool F.C. fan – the major teams have followers everywhere, not just in their home city. But there were two “facts” in the story that I found totally implausible, one of which revealed that the writer knew bugger-all about British culture – or worse still, didn’t care.
First, we were expected to believe that an inexpensive replica of an Ancient Egyptian ring, from the British Museum gift shop no less, could be successfully passed off as the original. Perhaps to an extremely gullible member of the American public, but to a dealer in stolen antiquities? I have a handsome replica Anglo-Saxon ring from that very establishment, made of gilt bronze, and not only is it very obviously machine-made and therefore mass-produced, but it bears a modern hallmark! Admittedly “The Mentalist” is hardly CSI – it’s more about showing off the central character’s eccentric personality and kewl skillz than portraying realistic investigations – but this is the kind of slipshod plotting that gives cozies a bad name. I can only assume that, by using the British Museum rather than, say, the Smithsonian, the writer hoped to give the plot-hole a gloss of plausibility, but it’s a plot-hole nonetheless.
The second gaffe was the one that made me laugh out loud, however. Examining the body, Jane observes a scar on the young man’s face, and says that he can’t have been at Eton or he would have had plastic surgery to remove the scar. Seriously? Americans seem to be obsessed with how bad our teeth are (and admittedly we don’t worship orthodontists the way they do) – so why would they perversely think that that we share their attitude to cosmetic surgery? I know the world has changed a lot since I was young, but even now I’m pretty sure that, unless the scar was really noticeable and disfiguring, a young chap at Eton would not even think of having it removed; on the contrary, if he had the surgery he would likely be teased mercilessly for being so vain. But obviously the writer thought it was a cool clue, and used it regardless of its plausibility.
To paraphrase the show’s pilot episode: “It irks me. It’s irksome.”
Now, I’m not going to stop watching the show just because of a few stupid errors – it’s entertaining fluff, and Simon Baker is certainly easy on the eye 🙂 But if this were a book, I’d be tempted to throw it at the wall, because I hold novelists to a higher standard than TV hacks. A flaw like those described above breaks the willing suspension of disbelief, and throws the reader out of the story.
Of course I’m setting myself up for a fall here, because I’m sure that sooner or later I’ll make a historical gaffe in my own work that will irk someone else and maybe even lose me a reader, but I guess that’s a chance we all take when we set pen to paper. No-one ever made art by playing it safe.