It’s All in the Details


Fábio Alves via Comp­fight

I’m that per­son who rolls her eyes in dis­gust when I watch a movie where the doc­tor checks for the patient’s pulse using his thumb.  I groan when a labor­ing woman gives birth to a baby with no umbil­i­cal cord who already looks mature enough to get up and walk away.  I hate when movie char­ac­ters wake up with per­fect make-up and hair.  I yell at the screen when a char­ac­ter doing CPR has his arms bent while giv­ing chest compressions…way too slow­ly.  And for the life of me, and don’t get me wrong, I love the Walk­ing Dead, but shouldn’t all those walk­ing dead, empha­sis on the word dead, have melt­ed into pud­dles of rot­ten goop in the sum­mer heat by now?

But that’s tele­vi­sion.  In books, we get it right.  Right?  Not so much.

Who would ever notice?  Who cares?  I do.  While there are few things about which I can claim being an expert, believe me when I say that I am pay­ing atten­tion to every­thing.  If I’m pay­ing atten­tion then rest assured that there is some nit­pick­ing pick­er who is scan­ning your prose with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.  If you don’t get the facts right, those lit­tle details, you’re like­ly to lose cred­i­bil­i­ty.  Check out 5 Com­mon Med­ical Errors in Movies.

When I wrote An Unpro­duc­tive Woman almost fif­teen years ago, I includ­ed a char­ac­ter named Khadi­jah who had recur­rent breast can­cer.  While I didn’t give hard details or facts about her dis­ease or treat­ment, I did say enough to get it wrong.  After com­plet­ing AUW, the man­u­script spent the next ten or so years in a box in my garage.  Who would have thought that in the inter­im, as I raised my two eldest chil­dren, I would even­tu­al­ly go to nurs­ing school and become a reg­is­tered and cer­ti­fied breast oncol­o­gy nurse?  Not me, that’s for sure.

When the oppor­tu­ni­ty to self-pub­lish AUW pre­sent­ed itself, I grabbed it with both hands.  I imme­di­ate­ly got to work re-read­ing and re-edit­ing.  It is while doing the final edit that I real­ized how wrong I had been.  Chemother­a­py typ­i­cal­ly lasts six months, not nine.  Radi­a­tion may burn the skin but does not cause the hair of the head to fall out, unless that is the area being radi­at­ed.  Not all chemother­a­py caus­es nau­sea and weight loss.

Wikipedia is a ter­rif­ic source of infor­ma­tion for some things, but some­times, it’s the small details that count.  Per­son­al­ly, I am impressed when I read about a char­ac­ter who’s received an intra­mus­cu­lar injec­tion in the right hip as opposed to a shot in the butt.  I’m not talk­ing info dumps here, nor am I look­ing for any House-like rare con­di­tions with cures that are even more off the wall, but the basics should always be spot on if we are to earn our reader’s con­fi­dence.  Unless we’re writ­ing fan­ta­sy, we can’t just make it up as we go along.  Actu­al­ly, you can’t always make it up with fan­ta­sy either.

For an accu­rate and up to date med­ical ref­er­ence, Med­scape is a ter­rif­ic online resource.  Look up any med­ical con­di­tion and you’ll get an expla­na­tion about dis­ease pre­sen­ta­tion, diag­nos­tic pro­ce­dures, and pos­si­ble treat­ments.  PubMed, while a tad schol­ar­ly, is a pret­ty good resource as well.  The reg­u­lar old Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol also pro­vides infor­ma­tion that’s easy for the lay per­son to under­stand.  When in absolute doubt, just ask an expert.  If you’re the shy type, send an email.

Ah, so, it’s not med­ical infor­ma­tion you need?  For more gen­er­al knowl­edge try The Order of Things: Hier­ar­chies, Struc­tures, and Peck­ing Orders by Bar­bara Ann Kipfer.  This book is a fan­tas­tic orga­nized ref­er­ence book with dozens of lists about every­thing from reli­gion, to phi­los­o­phy, to eco­nom­ics and more.

The long and short of it is, it’s all in the details, and as a writer, you need to pay atten­tion to them.  If you don’t, your read­er will.

And for the record, if you want to take out a zom­bie, a gun­shot to the frontal lobe isn’t like­ly to do the trick.  You’ve got to destroy or sev­er the brain stem.  Just say­ing.


(Orig­i­nal­ly guest-post­ed 02/2012 at