Jun 11 2012 1:15pm

A Busman’s Holiday (or When Characters Have the Same Job You Do)

Birthright by Nora RobertsMy dad is a doctor, and years ago we got hooked on the TV show ER. We used to watch it together as a father-daughter bonding experience. Worst. Idea. Ever. He was critical of every single tiny little detail and drove me so crazy I was having murderous thoughts (although I finally got my answer as to why my parents never watched TV together). I promised myself I’d never to become that person, you know, the annoying friend/boyfriend/aunt/father who keeps complaining about inaccuracies and sucks the fun out of everything.

Flash forward several years later, and now I have major in Archaeology and a thing for Romance Novels. Archaeology is quite a romantic profession; we all have that idea of jungles, sweaty guys frolicking in the dirt and falling into a pit full of snakes. Which can be quite an accurate description, though in real life frolicking in the dirt in the middle of the jungle is not nearly as fun as it sounds, and the pit full of snakes is one tiny snake behind a glass on a detour we took to visit a local zoo once.

Changeling Dawn by Dani HarperThe reason I’m telling you all this is because I haven’t read many books with Archeologist in them. I don’t avoid them, but I don’t actively seek them either. And my overall experience with them has been mixed. Nora Roberts’s Birthright has an archaeological dig as a background, an archaeologist as a heroine and an anthropologist as a hero. I’m familiar with all of those things and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Dani Harper’s Changeling Dawn has an archaeologist as heroine and I couldn’t finish the book. Was the book bad? No, but the details were distracting and I began to nitpick to the point of making my dad proud.

One would think that reading about subjects we’re familiar with should be easy and comfortable, but more often than not, the opposite is true. Can historians read historical romances without letting the historical inaccuracies—even if minor- get in the way of their enjoyment of the book? Can we leave our professions or personal experiences outside the room while we read? Can a doctor read a Harlequin Medical Romance without nitpicking every detail? I think the answer is that they should, and that readers can demand certain degree of research and accuracy in their books.

Suspension of disbelief makes room for creative license, but there’s a limit to how far it can be stretched, especially when there’s a certain degree of familiarity with the subject matter. This also applies to any type of personal experience, not just professions. Extreme familiarity can be distracting.
Many see romance novels as escapism, so I wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to read about their jobs. But familiarity can and should enrich the reading experience. And if a book is well researched there shouldn’t be that many room for complain, right? To me, it’s more about effort than getting it right. I don’t expect perfection, I’m not even sure it exists, but I want to feel like the writer did some research. I can tell when an author based the character in Indiana Jones instead of an actual archaeologist, and I bet lawyers, sport fans, journalists, nurses and teachers can spot the difference between the real deal and, well, fiction.

Of course, reading is a personal experience unique to each reader, so the most researched book will always have detractors, just as the wackiest story will have fans.

How about you? Do you like reading familiar subjects, or do you tend to avoid them?


I love talking about books just as much as reading them. I review Romance Novels on my blog Romance Around the Corner and you can also find me on Twitter.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I definitely found I knew too much when I've tried to read books taking place in the music industry--one I read had a hero who was a music biz exec, and I just knew it wasn't the way the author wrote it, and it totally took me out of the book.
Allison Brennan
2. Allison_Brennan
If I wrote only what I have experience with, my books would be hugely boring. I lead a very boring life.

That said, I worked for 13 years in the California State Capitol and have set a couple short stories there, and because of my in depth knowledge of the building and how things work, those were fun to write! But I don't read many political thrillers because it's really not fun to read things I know too much about :/

I think an author can learn anything, and research is the key. A good friend who is married to a cop said that authors who write about cops screw it up with the small stuff -- the details. So I work hard on making the overall story accurate, and avoid the details (for me, it's medical stuff--I avoid it like the plague! Except when absolutely plot critical, then I have a doctor friend look it over.)

I had two emails that came the same day about the same books. One said something like, "I loved your book! I work in an FBI office (not an agent) and you nailed it." The other was, "My daughter is a police officer and you got everything wrong. How did you get this published?" ROFLOL. I still laugh about it. I have emails from different active cops on the same question, each contradicting the other about proper procedure.

My goal is to convince my readers that everything is plausible, so they can sink into the story and not sweat the details.
3. dbgVA
I'm a retired Naval Officer, lots of military heroes and heroines out there and I enjoy reading most of them. Even when I know what the author has written is WRONG, I try to apply Allison's rule of plausibility. It is after all fiction. I can overlook the big stuff if it is written in a plausible way.
The hero in one of my favorite author's books was a former Navy SEAL and she gave him the rank of Sergeant. There are NO Sergeants in the Navy. Getting that kind of detail wrong really disappointed me. It took me out of the story, I thought how could she get something so basic wrong. If she hadn't been a favorite author I might have set the book aside. But it was only mentioned once and really not important to the story so I was able to get back into the story and enjoy the rest of the book.
However, I read a new to me author who got pretty much everything wrong about the military and while I finished the book I never read another thing she wrote.
Allison Brennan
4. Allison_Brennan
@dbgVA -- I once got a small military detail wrong in a short story and it irked me to NO end. It was a throwaway detail, but someone gave me a 1 star on Amazon. It was a rank issue as well (and I thought I'd got it right because I went to the Army website, but I misunderstood what I was reading!) Now I ask someone. I know enough people in the military, in all branches, that I need to use them to verify facts!

As long as the detail is not plot critical, I can forgive it. But if it's a plot critical point, it has to be accurate.
Lege Artis
5. LegeArtis
Oh, I have similar problem, but it can't be avoided. I compete in pistol sports shooting for 15 years. Primarily I'm bullseye competitor, but for last five years I am training practical shooting as well. I am EVERY day in a shooting range and I know a bit about handling a gun. I can't tell you how frustrated action movies can be for me. Mistakes are frequent, silly and, worst of all, easy avoidable. For example: one handed shooting or shooting sideways- it's inaccurate and nearly impossible to shoot a target that way. Especially a moving target. Shooting is not easy, your arms hurt, gun is heavy and every time you pull a triger, recoil force strongly jerk muzzle upward. In movies they all seem to have granite hands; like they're handling a spoon.
From my experience, writers do their research more thoroughly, books are more accurate when it come to this. (Except for Stephen King who is notorious for his gun mistakes , but he says they're intentional (?). Alex Cross regularly fllicks off the safety off his Glock...) Yes, I notice them, but I can get over it if it's got nothing to do with plot and story is good.
6. Sarah6
I am a history professor. I can suspend disbelief for a historical romance, but I don't read books about the time period or place that I research. Part of that is because I don't find it relaxing to think about those places and people in my off time.

The books I avoid the most are student/professor romances. I think they are generally pretty yucky. I cannot suspend disbelief about those types of romances. It is very seriously against the rules at most universities and against the ethics of most professors. Also as a professor, you are in a position of authority over your students, and I like romances about equal relationships.
Saundra Peck
7. sk1336
I am a retired police you can only imagine the way I have to fight my urges to be critical of books, movies and shows!!! Officer safety (or more appropriately the lack of officer safety) drives me insane...
Brie Clementine
8. Brie.Clem
MFrampton: I don’t know anything about music so I don’t have a problem with that particular issue. But yeah, details like that can take you out of the book and that can be problematic.

Allison_Brennan: I hope the post didn’t make it seem as if I expect authors to just write from experience because that was not my intention at all. I just want them to try and be as accurate as possible so that, as you said, I can sink into the story and not sweat the details.

dbgVA: I’m like you, I can overlook some details, but there are mistakes no one should make. I mean, there’s not that much research involved into figuring out military ranks, right? Do you think you’re forgiving of authors you like than of new-to-you authors?

LegeArtis: how about the opposite? Since you see mistakes like these all the time, what happens when you read a book/watch a movie that gets is perfectly right? Do you notice? I wonder if getting it right can be as distracting as getting it wrong…

Sarah6: I also find student/professor romances a bit icky. Way too much power imbalance and so wrong!

sk1336: it must be hard, especially since policemen are so popular everywhere. Not just romance but movies, TV, general fiction.
Lege Artis
10. LegeArtis
@Brie- Oh, yes! I do notice. It's something I always look. I can't help it, it's training- if you don't hold your gun properly, you can get disqualified. It's ingrained in me. Gun handling in "Heat" is the best I ever seen, you can tell they had profesional consultant. Tom Cruise also did great job in few movies, his excesive training does show. On TV, Michael Westen from Burn Notice is awesome with gun.
Novels- Belive it or not, Laurell K. Hamilton. Yup, I noticed. (I read first nine books in series only).
11. SassyT
I hadn't really noticed it. My dad is retired Air Force (I spent a lot of time on various military bases not just Air Force) and most of my friends dad's are retired (Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines). Plus I have a whole host of family members in various branches. So yeah, I notice when they screw up the military stuff but I usually don't let it bother me if the story is good. I work in a research lab but I haven't read but one book (many, many moons ago) where they actually had a scientist in it. I actually finished the book so it must not have been that bad (but I haven't read one since with a scientist so maybe it was bad). My co-workers and I used to love to watch CSI (the original when Grissom was on there). We'd come into the lab and have ourselves a good laugh about how they constantly messed stuff up on the show. It didn't detract away from the just gave us something in common to chat about (kind of like a water cooler thing).
12. LibrarianJessi
I don't mind too much if their are inaccuracies in portrayals of librarianship (partially because being a librarian can mean a million things depending on the type and size of library you work for and what your actual job title is). What I hate is when the author relies completely on the librarian stereotype in place of actual character development.
Lynn Ristau
13. Elsandra
I'm a police officer but I've learned over the years not to nitpick or I'd never make it through most books. I have some of the same issues that sk1336 has and some of the procedural stuff at times. I have an author friend who writes mysteries/thrillers who asks me after I read his latest how he did on some of the police stuff so I give him a good critique. He also asks me stuff while writing his main series.

I find it easier to read when an author doesn't get too bogged down in details for police procedurals/mysteries because some it isn't always the same from department to department. Jargon is different from area to area so don't have Midwest characters spouting terms that police in Boston use specifically, etc. I went from a police department in SE Minnesota to one in NW Wisconsin (both on the borders) and was surprised by the drifference in terminology (heck, even the 10 Codes were different!).
14. dbgVA
I not consciencely aware of being more forgiving of my favorite writers than to new-to-me writers. As long as it isn’t critical to the story I can forgive it. And I understand that authors sometimes change things on purpose, especially location specifics, to fit the story. Having gone to college in LA, and having lived in San Diego and the Washington DC area I frequently find location specific items that I know are wrong but can overlook for the sake of the story. True on TV as well, I love the way Gibbs and team on NCIS hop back and forth from DC to Norfolk like it’s no big deal. Its 200 miles and a 4 hour drive with no traffic.
Claire Louise Thompson
15. Nefersitra
This makes me thankful that I work in a call centre and as far as I know no-one has set anything in a call centre.

That said I am no longer allowed to watch Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves with my BFF as I have pointed out that the Sheriff appears to have access to a time-machine to hire the Celts as at the time the people of Scotland would have been Scots and dressed and behaved like the English. It's joining The Mummy, Gladiator and the Highlander films in the pile of things I've ruined for her by pointing out the anachronisms.
16. SassyT
@dbgVA: Yeah, I live in the DC area and I always raise my eyebrows at how fast Gibbs and crew seem to be able to get from the Navy Yard to Norfolk or somewhere in MD. I figure that whoever the writers are they have obviously never tried to navigate traffic in this area (and haven't looked at a map other than to pick out the names of towns). Still, it doesn't make me NOT watch the show. It's just one of those quirks that I just shrug off. If the story is good, I can ignore just about anything else that isn't exactly accurate.
Brie Clementine
17. Brie.Clem
Allison_Brennan: Thank you! I’m enjoying the comments too ;-)

LegeArtis: everyone keeps mentioning Burn Notice, must watch that show. In the Last Indiana Jones, that should go away because it ruined an amazing series (yes, I’m an Indy fan, believe it or not), he mentions a famous archaeologist, just in passing, but I noticed. I also noticed how terrible that movie was, but I’m not talking about it.

SassyT: I think yours is the best approach, take it with humor and don’t let it bother you. I think we’re more permissive with movies and TV than with books, at least I am.

LibrarianJessi: when heroines are librarians, they usually are uptight and goodie two-shoes. It’s a stereotype they can’t escape. I’m surprised you don’t avoid books with librarians, because I can think of one that doesn’t fit this description. Actually, I think I can, but it’s a sexy librarian, so we just went from bad to worse!

Elsandra: it must be really hard for you guys, because law enforcement is one of the most popular careers for romance protagonists. Maybe you’re so used to the mistakes that you have become desensitized.

dbgVA: it’s the magic of TV. Extra speed, no traffic, and when you wake up you have make up on and great hair! LOL

Nefersitra: ha! Now I must go and look for a hero or heroine who works on a call center, there must be at least one. I’ll let you know what I find ;-)
18. mapgirl
I am a cartographer and authors who get their geography and topography wrong drive me crazy, particularly when the characters are traveling and it only takes a few hours to get from Los Angeles to Denver! Talk about time travel! Or when the character gets off a plane in Montana in November wearing only a very revealing tank top and doesn't get frostbite! Or travel from the coast of northern California without crossing any mountains. It's for just this stuff google earth was created!
19. Bookstore Veteran
For me it doesn't have to be anything as technical as the military or police work for jarring details to kill the mood the author is building. I get annoyed when authors ignore the normal realities of life like money issues. Nora Roberts has the heroine in one of her many trilogies opening a new bookstore in the same building where her friends were opening their own specialty shops. As the opening looms, the details of the decor and coffee shop and cute gift sidelines were lovingly described, but what was glaringly missing to me were the nitty gritty details. Things like contacting publishers, ordering books, lines of credit, and those nasty compromises that budgets force on entrepeneurs were not even hinted at. I like my heroines to live in the real world where unless the author has endowed them with wealth, in the midst of adventure and romance they have to keep an eye on the bottomline or end up living on ramen.
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