03 November 2012

GenreCon: What Do Writers Get Wrong in Crime and Medical Dramas?

the Con* started on Friday arvo, with panel sessions and a cocktail party, which I skipped cos I was knackered. I missed the morning sessions on Saturday too cos I'd not got much sleep Friday night, and finally got to GenreCon at midday, in time for lunch (included, and there was some food I could eat - yay!). Had a lovely catch-up with author Cheryse Durrant/Cherie Curtis .

There were three program strands in most timeslots. the first session after lunch I chose What Writers Get Wrong, with former police detectives PM Newton and Simon Higgins, and medical doctor & engineer Charlotte Nash Stewart (all fiction authors) talking with Aimée Lindorff; very informative and entertaining, with great questions from Aimée and excellent answers from the panel.

Some highlights:

What common errors really stand out in genre fiction (text, film or TV)?
PM: cops taking case files home with them and spreading them out all over their living room, and pinning crime scene photos up on their walls. no cop she's known has ever done that.
Simon: dramatic arrests on rooftops, and the bad guy falling to his death.
Charlotte: CPR is usually wrong, particularly defibrillation, and childbirth. and internal inconsistency distresses her. in spec fic, you can make up the rules regarding physics, biology, etc - but please stick to them once you've written them. cited end of Walking Dead season 1 as an example of internal medical inconsistency (won't reveal cos of possible spoilers).

Tell us some other things that are unrealistic:
Charlotte: the speed of pathology tests in crime shows, e.g. CSI. the tests themselves take time - 48 hours to grow a culture to identify an infection.
PM and Simon: and there's the bureaucracy that you have to go through to send stuff off to the lab, doing the paperwork. And the lab will have a backlog anyway.
Simon: and why are the pathologists going out, armed with guns, and kicking in suspects' doors? they don't do that, a tactical response team would.
PM: and the detectives would do interviews, and write up case notes. then someone else might sift through all the info to see what was significant...

Simon: We don't fight over whose jurisdiction a case falls under - there aren't territorial disputes between cops, district attorneys/public prosecutors.
PM: more likely to be happy for someone else to take the case.

How many cases are you likely to be handling at one time?
Charlotte: it depends on the setting. in a big metropolitan hospital, you're more likely to specialise, but there'll still be lots of patients in your area (e.g. cardio-thoracic, oncology) that you'll be responsible for at one time. in a small country town, you get everything, don't specialise, but still have lots of cases.

PM spoke about being the only cop covering a big rural area in northern New South Wales - based in Macksville, including Dorrigo, Nambucca Heads... Not only does that solo cop deal with all the cases, she then sees the people she arrested last week in a social setting. can be very awkward. great demand to keep confidentiality, to keep professional boundaries. can lead to cops feeling isolated and barricading themselves in psychologically.

Charlotte: the same for the GP in a one-doctor town. you know so much about everyone, and the community needs to trust that you'll keep confidences, and not think about those things when they see you in other contexts.

Simon: coming back to how many cases - lots of overlapping cases, unlike one case/story per episode on most crime shows. they don't even get phone calls about anything except that one case.

All the authors were talking about what is factual, and also what makes a good story. Depending on the style in which you're writing, your audience/readers can make allowances for unrealistic things if it's e.g. a crime-com (I thought of Castle, which is clearly screwball crime-com, and should be watched with the perspective that it's about as realistic as the average coincidence-ridden rom-com). Simon said you need to set up the readers' expectations of lightness/seriousness in the first chapter or two, with your tone and the events you create, then stay with it, don't mess the reader around.

Aimée read out a list of cliches and asked True or False:

Angry and budget conscious cop in charge:
PM said true, though not necessarily both at the same time. She's known plenty of angry cops, and some very budget conscious bosses. in small country town, sometimes she wouldn't go out to a case at night because the boss didn't want to pay her overtime.

High body count and/or high speed car chases:
Rarely, but sometimes True: Simon told dramatic story of a high speed car chase that went from Adelaide Hills into centre of city, with way too many cop cars involved, chasing a driver who kept going when all the tires on his car blew out, and he was driving on the wheel rims.

Tracheotomy with a pen:
True, but very risky. Charlotte explained how a tracheotomy is usually done - it's a specialised surgical procedure, and is extremely risky if you don't have medical knowledge and the right equipment. She also explained a crichothyroidotomy (which is what is often shown in medical dramas) and we in the audience felt on our necks where the little space is between the thyroid cartilege and the cricoid cartilege. I wouldn't want to try cutting into there with a pen, penknife or even scalpel, trying to avoid damage to the person's thyroid, larynx (voicebox), trachea (windpipe), and any nerves and blood vessels in the vicinity. Charlotte pointed out that a clicky pen wouldn't work, you'd need a simple barrel-type ball point, and even that would be a bit narrow. Rolling up a business card into a cylinder might be better.
I asked about the Diana Gabaldon novel The Fiery Cross, in which one of the characters is hanged but survives, with major trauma to his throat. another character does an emergency crichothyroidotomy and uses the stem of a pipe (cleaned) to keep the wound open and provide passage for air into the trachea below the area of swelling and bruising. Yep, she could have done that.

Blue Heelers syndrome - that if you're in a small town, you get all the weirdest cases:
True, and in fact Charlotte had had an example when she first took up a position as GP in a one-doctor town of someone who'd had an emergency tracheotomy done on the spot in the consulting room by the previous GP.

Private Investigators breaking into suspects' houses:
False, said Simon, who has worked as a PI. He has taken people's garbage on several occasions though - this isn't illegal if the garbage has been put out at the kerb for collection.

Then someone (PM?) raised the cliche of a character - an informant, or a cop or PI ringing a colleague - ringing the hero investigator to say "I have crucial information about this case. Meet me at this deserted warehouse/creepy underground carpark/rooftop so I can tell you" and then the caller is killed either before they get to the meeting place, or at the meeting place, just as the hero arrives, so they don't find out the crucial info. why not just say it in the phone call?!

Charlotte mentioned that Petri dishes are cultivated upside down, so that condensation doesn't fall onto the culture (it's in a gel, so it doesn't fall onto the lid when upside down).

Aimée asked each author: what is sheer fiction that you wish was true?

Simon: that the cops I worked with were all sexy women like the lead females of TV crime shows. And that I could be Rick Deckard of Blade Runner

Charlotte: That there really was a way to diagnose every case you came across, and a cure for every disease and condition.

PM: That I could bounce back from a punch or a night of too much whisky the way noir detectives do.

After that panel, I went to Villains, Monsters and Cads - a great discussion about creating characters that readers will fear or hate (in a good way), with Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kim Wilkins, and Christina Brooke, chaired by Peta Freestone. Fun and thought-provoking, with mention of Vikings, harpies, manticores, the Gothic dark hero, re-working myths, villains who think they're heroes, heroes who think they're villains, the Laxdaela Saga, wicked women of classical Rome, and the dearth of female villains with convincing motivation.

but I'll blog about that one later - need sleep now so I can get to lots more of the Con tomorrow.

*GenreCon, a convention for writers, readers, editors and publishers of various genres of fiction, present by the Australian Writers' Marketplace and organised by Peter M Ball and Meg Vann of the Queensland Writers' Centre. Held at Rydges Parramatta (which is actually at Rosehill, right opposite Rosehill Racecourse).

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