Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Writing when you are not an expert

When I lived in England I had a rule.  No soap operas.  I forbade myself to watch Emmerdale, Eastenders, and Coronation Street because once you get involved you start following a particular storyline and then before you know it BAM.  You are hooked and cannot live without knowing who it was that burnt down the underwear factory, or who shot Phil Mitchell.  You can see that my rules were not always followed.

But when I moved to Cyprus everything changed.  New job, new routine, new home, new roads, new food, and new language.  In many respects at the beginning everything was so unfamiliar I may as well have been on the moon.  I didn’t know anyone or anything with the exception of my husband.  I am sure than in the first few weeks I walked around with a constantly surprised/confused look on my face.  Especially when somebody spoke to me.

The biggest thing to tackle was without doubt the language, and this is an ongoing challenge.  I am reasonably ‘fluent’ now, but still at times I meet somebody with such a strong accent that I feel like I haven’t learnt a single thing since day one, and I am left slack jawed and stupid looking when I don’t understand.  But luckily I am not shy, and don’t care about making mistakes, and it’s a good job because there have been plenty.  One example that stands out from the rest occurred whilst describing what I thought was a snowball fight to my in-laws.  It turns out it is very easy to get one word wrong and make this a very different story.  One that included balls of a very different nature.
But my previous rule about not watching soap operas has slowly dwindled.  You cannot imagine the excitement of watching the television in a foreign language and understanding for the first time.  It was like Christmas had come, and Santa Claus had brought it to me personally.   But what started off as a language learning exercise quickly turned into crack-like addiction and now there is not a night that goes by without watching a show called (insert bad translation) The Waltz of the Twelve Gods.
But there is another reason that I never wanted to watch soap operas, and that is because they just, well, aren’t really that good.  We’ve all seen the fight scene that left us laughing rather than concerned, or the kiss that looked more like their lips accidentally got glued together than passion had overcome them.  But why is this?  One theory is this.  The writer didn’t know how to write it.
So let’s take an example from last night’s viewing.  There is a big exit scene of the main star.  She is leaving the show.  Best way to exit has to be a death, right?  Now one thing I have witnessed in real life more times than I can count on any number of hands is death.  It tends to work that way when you work in a hospital for fifteen years.  What most people would be surprised about when things go wrong in a hospital is how calm everybody manages to stay.  OK, of course there is a bit of drama and there is a sense of urgency, but the staff involved know when somebody has a cardiac arrest there is a job to be done.  Somebody will manage an airway, somebody will start chest compressions, somebody will secure IV access if it hasn’t already been done, and in the case of where I used to work somebody will most likely call a cardiothoracic surgeon to come and help us out.  So because everybody knows what they are doing you’ll most likely have plenty of people that just look like they are hanging around.  There will be drips going up, drips coming down, somebody shouting I can’t find a vein, somebody else shouting that they are charging the defibrillator, and somebody else looking shattered and sweaty from the chest compressions.  It’ll look like chaos.  But organised chaos.  Ask anybody who worked in a ‘crash team’ to describe this situation, and this is roughly what you’ll get.  There are lots of good examples in film and television.  So how can a writer get it so wrong?  How can it look so fake?  Do the general public even know it looks fake?
Writing about something specific like a cardiac arrest needs an opinion of somebody who has actually been at one.  Without it you end up with a series of ten or so shocks (I lost count in the end) which happened through the patient’s clothes whilst the patient was wearing an oxygen mask.  Not only is this like to result in the most horrific case of hospital induced burns, there was nothing else at all happening around her.  No fuss, no drips, no help, no nothing.  It’s no wonder she died.
 At the moment I am writing Crazy Girl, a story about a woman who suffers with severe mental illness, and fortunately I have never been in this situation.  So what do I do?  Make it all up?  Yes, but not without a really good book called ‘Psychology for Writers’ and the help of a psychologist friend who I am sure is going to remove my email address from her contacts list soon.  If you don’t know about guns, find out about them before you write.  If you don’t know the first thing about being a cop but are writing about one, do some research that will add an air of authenticity to your work.  Soon I am planning to write the second instalment of Identity X and want to go to a shooting range to get a feel for a real handgun, and see what it would be like to actually shoot one.  Bringing authenticity into my writing always has to be a main aim and a central task.  This is what helps the characters come to life, to become real, and for the story to seem genuine and believable. 
I will keep watching my Greek soap opera and I know that I will forgive it for its flaws.  I can accept its issues.  Because it is above all entertaining, and that’s all any of us are really looking for in the television or in books, right?


  1. Oh, you just made me laugh with that awfully fabricated death scene! I hope that's what you were going for...

    I completely agree with you on the authenticity part. I can't stand watching something that is so obviously fake. My mother is a nurse and never watches hospital shows for two reasons: 1) She works doing that stuff all day so why would she want to watch it? and 2) None of it looks real to her. So, there you go!

  2. Sadly, that scene was actually what I watched on the television! Somebody actually wrote that and thought it would be good! I didn't make any of it up.

    I was always the same with hospital shows as they always seemed so far stretched, but it makes me wonder.........if I don't like hospital shows because I know they aren't very realistic, what about all the other stuff that makes it to our screens or in our books that somebody else has written. Maybe lawyers always find courtroom dramas ridiculous too. It makes me think that maybe all portrayals are a little bit left of reality.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments!

  3. And isn't the research part of the fun of writing? I love having to dig into the Internet and contact expert friends to figure out how something should go. That said, I am normally a nonfiction writer, so I have to enjoy research to do that, but as I write fiction I find it fun to create a world that seems real, and for that you have to know what "real" would be like.

    1. I do think it's part of the fun! I enjoy it too. For me, the ability to create something convincing is and element of the writing. I do not want to create something that just sounds nice on a superficial level, created with rich language and imagery. It has to sound convincing, otheriwse the rest is just a nice idea with no substance.

      Being a non fiction writer certainly gives you a head start in the reality stakes! Your brain must be trained to think in this way. But I think sometimes writer's don't do the research and it's a shame because just a few factual details makes all the difference - just like in the example I saw on the TV!

      Thanks for stopping by!