The Details That Help Build a Story: Time-sensitive topics—legal, medical, and technical stuff.
There are some details you simply have to get right when you’re writing fiction in order to keep your readers engaged in your story. That does not mean you need to become a legal scholar, a medical doctor, or a computer geek in order to include such things in your story—you are, after all, writing fiction—but it does mean you need to get the obvious things right, or at least close enough to right so only a licensed attorney, an M.D., or a computer geek will notice where you come up short. (And if you are any of those things, your story will be much easier to write!)
All three of these general areas are what librarians call “time-sensitive.” That is, if your story requires current information—or information from a specific historic period—then you need to be doubly aware of the publication date of the resource you use. Like those nineteenth-century matches I mentioned in my last post, you need to know via your research whether something in your story is possible during the time period during which your story takes place.
But it’s more than just “getting it right” when it comes to research and fiction. Doing your research can also enrich your story in significant ways. For example, in my novel, A Chance For Life, there is an embittered woman with an unwanted pregnancy who wants to force my protagonist to adopt her unborn baby. She wants the adoption all signed, sealed, and delivered before the baby comes, so I had to do a little research to be certain this was even possible. It turned out there is no state that allows the birth mother to sign over her baby until after the baby is actually born, and the time varies between state jurisdictions from just after birth to several weeks or even months. So my fictitious New England town was moved to Maryland, where the papers could be signed as soon as the baby was born. I also learned while adoption laws vary, every state requires an official interview with the prospective parent(s). This is where I hit the jackpot, because I found an online resource that not only explained the interview process and cost but also provided the actual questions asked during the interview. Using this list made the writing of this scene the easiest in the entire book!
Medical information can be a bit trickier, if only because pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals, and other various entities are out to get your money. Yes, there are a ton of medical resources online, from webMD.com to Healthline.com, but you will also find articles by physicians warning against using these sources exclusively, either because they are inaccurate or because they are simply incomplete. In my mind, a writer’s best bet is to “get a second opinion,” either from another general medical website or from a hospital. And if your story is entirely dependent upon a medical issue, think about finding a nearby university library where you can do scholarly research on a given topic—or even find a local doctor or specialist to interview.
You can often find enough medical information to make your story realistic via a Google search—for example, I was able to find a historical document on the Oregon Trail that gave me information on treating burns back then, which I used in one of my Oregon Trail romances—but do double check any medical information with another source for accuracy.
Technical details, like medical and legal, can trip writers up. Just last week my mom was reading a book set in the early 1800s in which a child was comforted by her Teddy bear. Of course, she might have had a stuffed bear back then, but since Teddy bears were named after Teddy Roosevelt (president from 1901-1909), this early 18th-century child did not have a Teddy bear!
Communication and transportation are the trickiest when it comes to research and time-sensitivity. I love watching movies in which the characters have to find a pay phone and a nickel—or a dime or a quarter—before they can make a call. Maybe your cop has a pager? Or can she whip out a cell phone? Is it the size of a brick, or is it a tiny flip phone? Do they have to use a key to open the car door, or can they unlock it with a key fob?
Larry D. Sweazy has recently written a delightful series of books set in the early 1960s about a woman who is a farmer’s wife in North Dakota who also works as a book indexer (See Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books). Here the technology limitations provide a wonderful historical setting for these mysteries, because Marjorie is still using index cards (no computers!), and her telephone interactions with her New York editor are complicated by the fact that though she has a home telephone, she is on a party line! (Those were the days, right?) These technical difficulties prove major impediments to Marjorie, enriching the story’s plot line, but they also add oodles of suspense to the story.
Just remember to double check the date of your story setting before you have your grandparents meeting their incoming grandchild at the airport—which was a lot easier to do prior to 2001 . . .
Next time we’ll continue by looking at primary documents and other useful resources for enriching your storytelling.