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 http://www.lindsayburoker.com/guest-posts/writing-tips-details-khaalidah-muhammad-ali/)