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I am currently writing a short story/novella. This piece of fiction describes a child who has vivid dreams. His dreamworld starts to blend with the real world by him being able to manipulate his dreams and call other people into his dreamworld. In the story I have sent him to a fictional institute for sleep analysis, there he is observed overnight with equipment which tracks his brainwaves during sleep. Stumped by the data, the doctor in charge sends out an e-mail for help, first of all anonymising the data. After being sent through a second set of data that is similar to his patient the doctor starts to compare what he has.

My question is about authenticity. Knowing this is a work of fiction and does not have to be correct, I was wondering if I should research how a real doctor might approach this. I found a Wikipedia article that relates to brianwaves and was thinking of using some information from there to enhance the story.

I know nothing about this subject so might get the finer details incorrect and I don't fully believe that going into detail will add much to the story. Am I over-complicating this?

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6 Answers 6

Please check this What is the term for an accessible character that knows nothing? It's not the same question but I think it might help.

Basically, I think it's an error to try to be too much specific in an expertize field you are not an expert yourself, since you won't ever be able to tell if what you think you know is the real deal or not, what extends the potential to disaster. Somethings are possible to understand in a quick research, some are not. I don't think dreams and sleep analysis are such a lazy theme to be comprehended shortly.

That doesn't mean research is worthless, on the contrary. It's truly important. You just need to comprehend that you are only a layman, and need to write under that perspective, running away from the temptation of giving too much details. The more specific you talk, the more chances you will have to make it wrong.

Stay on the surface. You can make another layman - like myself - understand. A doctor in the field would probably say it's incomplete, but you are not writing a technical manual. The key point here is: the doctor in the field will say it's incomplete, but not completely wrong.

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I like this explanation, it's something along the lines of what I was thinking. The Wiki page I pasted is not only huge but hugely complex and I can't see myself understanding it. I was going to 'gloss-over' the facts to keep the reader reading and not loose them in the depth of analysis I know nothing about. –  Catharsis Jun 3 '13 at 12:53
    
In fact I did this in a book of mine ;-) –  Psicofrenia Jun 3 '13 at 16:05
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If you're not knowledgeable in the field, then it is unlikely that anything you write will be convincing to someone who is. But as several have said, if you're writing a novel, then by definition it's a made up story and not real life. If you're writing a science fiction novel, then there is going to be made up science.

I'm a computer guy by profession. I routinely get a laugh out of depictions of computers in fiction. From small details to basic concepts, they often get it completely wrong. Like I saw a cop show once where the police are tracking down the computer used to commit the crime, and so they're all standing around watching a computer monitor, and then it finds the criminal's computer, and it flashes up an IP address of "510.1.698.42". Well, that's impossible, because each of the pieces of an IP address is a number between 0 and 255 -- you can't have "510" or "698". I found it quite funny, and apparently I wasn't the only one to think so, because the way I can tell you the exact number is because some other computer geek thought it was funny too and got a screen shot of that scene and circulated it around the Internet. But I'm guessing that if you're not a computer geek and I tell you this, your reaction is, "So what?" I'm sure most non-geeks didn't notice anything wrong, and even if it's explained to them why it's impossible, they shrug it off as trivial.

Or on a totally different note, have you ever seen the movie "Twelve Angry Men"? It's a classic movie about a jury deciding a murder case. Except if a jury really did what the jurors in that movie did and the judge found out about it, the judge would declare a mistrial. Like, a key point in the prosecution case that the knife used to commit the murder was very unusual, and witnesses saw the defendant with such a knife, and it was just about impossible for the defendant to just by chance have a knife so similar to the murder weapon. And so in the jury room one of the jurors produces an almost identical knife and dramatically stabs it into the table, explaining that he bought it at a pawn shop that day. His point being that he was easily able to find a similar knife on a day's notice. Well that's great, except ... jurors are not allowed to introduce their own evidence. They're supposed to only consider the evidence presented during the trial. The reasoning for this is that if evidence is presented in the jury room, the other side in the case has no opportunity to respond to it and perhaps present a rebuttal.

My point with these examples is: Someone who spends every day working in some field will likely find many errors in a work of fiction. If they're small details, he'll probably laugh it off and move on with the story. Even if they're big, he might just accept it for the sake of the story. I've enjoyed stories that prominently feature computers that are totally absurd from any serious technical point of view. But I generally enjoy stories more that sound at least moderately plausible.

So my point -- and I do have a point -- is: Don't agonize over details. It is unlikely that you will ever get them all exactly right. Try to get the general tone right. If it's a science fiction reader, any fair reader is going to accept some made-up science as the basic premise of the story. There are plenty of good scientific reasons to doubt that faster-than-light travel or time travel are possible, but plenty of very serious scientists enjoy such stories anyway. It's routinely accepted that if you just throw in some pseudo-scientific jargon that the readers will buy the premise. But keep the tone as close to reality as possible. Like -- to take a deliberately extreme example -- I'd guess most dream research is done at universities. At least, that would be a plausible setting. If you say that your dream researchers work in the back of a candy store, that would be so far out that it would be jarring. Less absurd, if you said that your dream researchers work at MIT, and in fact there has never been any dream research done at MIT (I have no idea if there has or not, I'm just making this up for an example), most readers would have no idea and think nothing of it, but an expert in the field might say, "What? They don't do dream research! What are you talking about?"

Getting a few details right can add color. If you do even a little research you should be able to pick up some tidbits that you can throw in, like a casual reference to some experiment considered famous and important in the field, the right names for some of the equipment used, etc. Again, tone is most important. If in a doctor story the diagnostician mentions testing the patient with "an EKG and a BRM", even though I just made up the acronym "BRM", I think it would go past most readers as sounding plausible, and most real doctors would probably brush it off as "okay, he's making up some new machine because he needs it for his story". But if the diagnostician said the patient should be tested with "an EKG and that big blue machine with the wire thingees", well that's just not how doctors talk. Maybe if you had presented the doctor as routinely using flippant language you could get away with this, but it would be tough to pull off: real doctors would say, Yes, very amusing, but really now, isn't such language likely to result in the tech using the WRONG "big blue machine with wire thingees", and then what's he going to say? Sorry, I was just kidding around?

Sorry for the long answer. I know I rambled.

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Note that the invalid IP could have been done on purpose, just like movies use phone numbers which are guaranteed to never be assigned. There are enough stupid people who try to call those phone numbers, and I guess there might also be enough people with enough computer knowledge but not enough brain who might cause trouble for anyone who happens to have the IP shown in the movie. Using a clearly invalid IP helps against that. –  celtschk Jun 3 '13 at 16:49
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@celtschk Then the IP should have started with 555. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 3 '13 at 19:24
    
Or just 192.168.0.1 :) –  micapam Jun 4 '13 at 0:41
    
Coincidentally I also have a phone number in there using '555', thanks for the info –  Catharsis Jun 4 '13 at 8:40
    
@celtschk Yeah, that possibility occurred to me. I think if I was writing the script and that was the point I would have put a 555 in it just to be cute. Or have a website for the movie or TV show and give your own IP. –  Jay Jun 4 '13 at 13:18
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When in doubt quote Lester Dent:

Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

i.e. Learn one piece of trivia and drop it, assuredly, into the dialogue or whatever in order to "fake" reality. Of course in the high adventure days of pulp writers had limited research opportunities, these days we have the interweb.

I think some of this kind of thing is now, therefore, de rigeur but like Mr. Dent says too much and the reader will "get dizzy" and no one wants that.

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My feeling is that if your story is set in the real world with real-world technology and does not involve magic or sci-fi tech, you should do some research (Wikipedia does not qualify) to make sure you aren't presenting something completely impossible. You don't have to have a legitimate medical explanation for your dream world — that can be "magical" or involve [TECH] waves or whatever — but getting there should be feasible.

By way of example, if I wanted to write about a male pregnancy, I wouldn't say that the conception happened orally, because the digestive system and the reproductive system don't cross paths, and the acid in the stomach would damage or destroy any fetal material. But I could, without much more than lay medical knowledge, have a male character who was trans FtoM, or a hermaphrodite with a blind uterus, or a government agent with a secret pouch created behind his navel. Those situations are stretches, but not against the laws of medicine and biology as we know them.

Basically you should research just enough to make sure that actual experts are not going to fling your book across the room yelling.

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I suggest that you make it how you think it would be done. You can also do the research, if you like that method better. Also, it doesn't seem like you're over-complicating this to me. In my opinion, it is only over-complicated if you think it is. Anything goes when it comes to if you think it is or isn't.

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On what basis do you make these recommendations? (That the OP can do either of those is already established in the question, so a good answer here will explain why an option is good or bad.) –  Monica Cellio Jun 7 '13 at 18:45
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Well, shows like CSI, and authors like Dan Brown, clearly illustrate that you can be wildly successful without knowing anything about your subject (see note at the end for examples). But if your goal is to actually be a good author and produce a quality work, then I wouldn't follow either of their examples.

The worst thing that will happen is you'll get something blatantly wrong and thoroughly alienate any reader who happens to know enough about the subject to know that you're wrong. This is particularly problematic if the thing you get wrong is very basic information, because that means: a) more people will know you're wrong, and b) it will likely be that much more repulsive because of the relative ease with which you could have gotten it right.

Ideally, you would take some time to get at least a cursory education in the field you're dealing with, and then also have an expert in the field as a consultant, or at least as a final reviewer to tell you whether or not you've produced something that will alienate them and others in their field.

Assuming you don't have the resources for this, a very brief introduction to the field might still be possible, using online resources like wikipedia. This will at least give you some sense of what the field is about. But do not use this brief introduction as a means to "knowledge-drop" buzzwords into your story that you don't actually understand. You may also be able to find a professor, or even a student, at a nearby university who can help you with a final review.

I would say the most important thing is to not put in anything that could potentially be very wrong. If you're unsure, gloss over it, or leave it out altogether. If you don't know the difference between alpha waves and beta waves, then don't try to distinguish between them in the story.

If you want to go into more detail about the field, I think the only safe way to do it is to learn more about it. The more detail you want to use, the more you'll need to learn in order to make sure you're using it correctly. I think you'll benefit much more from a story which doesn't provide a lot of details on an obscure topic, then one which provides incorrect details on an obscure topic.

Personal anecdotes about this, vis. CSI and Dan Brown

The first and last episode of CSI I ever watched stated that someone fell off a three story building and reached "critical velocity" of 9.8 meters per second per second. I was only in high school at the time, and I still knew enough physics to know that this didn't make any sense. It would take a much further fall to reach critical velocity, and velocity is measured in meters per second, not meters per second per second. The figure they were actually referencing is the acceleration due to gravity on the earth's surface. This bothered me so much I never watched the show again. What was particularly troublesome was that anybody in a high school physics class could have gotten this right, which illustrated both ignorance and laziness on the part of the writers.

You probably already know that Dan Brown has been widely discredited for including a plethora of false information in his books, despite claiming that he does a lot of research and that all of the facts in his books are true. The one that bothered me most was his novel "Digital Fortress." I'm a computer engineer, and the book was so riddled with not only inaccuracies and errors, but things that just straight up didn't make sense, that I was thoroughly disgusted by the whole thing and haven't read any more of his books. Again, what was most bothersome were the things that anybody who had done even a little bit of computer programming (say for instance a middle schooler) would have caught as bogus. It just gives the reader a sense of "what on earth made him think he could write this story when he clearly has absolutely know familiarity what so ever with the topic?"

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sh1ftst0rm: Then my advice for you is to stay away from Tom Clancy. His concepts of cryptography are... misinformed at best. –  SF. Jun 8 '13 at 16:04
    
Thanks, @SF. I've never read any of his work, but had the same impression. –  sh1ftst0rm Jun 9 '13 at 18:56
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