by Lois Winston
Years ago I made a huge geographical error in Talk Gertie to Me, my first published novel. Even though the manuscript had been read by members of my critique group, my agent, my acquiring editor, and the line and copy editors at the publishing house, no one caught the fact that I’d set the Mississippi River on the wrong side of Iowa. It took a reader to point the error out to me within weeks of the book’s release.
His comment came as a shock because I really do remember pulling the Atlas off my bookshelf and checking the location of the river. This was before Google Maps, and unfortunately, the Atlas was small, and my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, thanks to so many hours each day staring at a computer screen. The font was way too small to read. I saw a line bisecting the map of the United States and running down into the Gulf of Mexico. I assumed it was the Mississippi. It wasn’t. I should have noticed that what I thought was the river didn’t come anywhere near the state of Mississippi. I was mortified that I’d made such a dumb mistake and upset that no one had caught it before the book went to press.
Ever since then, I’ve checked and double-checked all the facts and every piece of research I do for my books, especially when it comes to geography. Since that first published book (which has since been corrected for the e-book release,) I’ve also had the good fortune to work with editors who took their responsibilities more seriously and always double-check my research. Readers notice when you make mistakes, and they let you know about them. Few things are more disheartening than receiving an email from a reader who points out you need a remedial course in geography!
However, I’ve come to realize that novel authors are held to a much higher standard than scriptwriters, who apparently have even less of a grasp on geography than I do. Over the past few years I’ve come across countless geographical errors in television shows.
The first time I became aware of this was watching House. That show was set in the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Medical Center in New Jersey. I live in New Jersey. I know the Princeton and Plainsboro areas. And I know that no one would ever hop a plane to get from there to Baltimore for a conference, as House and Stacy did in one episode. It’s only a 2-1/2 hour drive. When you consider the distance to either the Philadelphia or Newark airport and the time needed to get through security, you could be in Baltimore before the plane took off. Why didn’t the writers know this? Unlike me, they certainly had Google Maps available to them at the time.
If you’re going to set a story in a location you don’t know well or even at all, you need to learn about the area. Yet time and again I see television shows where the writers don’t even bother to check out the basics. I recently watched an episode of a show set in Philadelphia. The series, now cancelled, was actually filmed in Rhode Island, and maybe that’s the problem because except for some of the establishing shots in the opening credits and some scenes that take place in the suburbs, there’s nothing remotely similar to Philadelphia in the show’s exterior scenes.
In the last episode of the show, they gave a location where a witness could be found. The two streets they mentioned don’t intersect; they’re actually the same street, the name changing after the street crosses over into another county. On top of that, the area is quite urban, and the show portrayed the home as a quaint cape cod on a bucolic street. I went to college a block from that supposed location. Trust me, there’s nothing bucolic about it!
In that same episode, the camera zooms in on a piece of paper with the protagonist’s address. The writers have her living on 14th Street. The problem, though, is that there is no 14th Street in Philadelphia. What should be 14th Street is called Broad Street. It’s the main intersection that runs the length of the city. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the City of Brotherly Love would be aware of this. Apparently, the show’s writers never took a field trip to the city where they were setting their show.
Someone pointed out to me that perhaps the writers did this deliberately so as not to show an actual address. If that were the case, they could have simply given the building a number that didn’t exist. Few people would be aware of that, but many people know there’s no 14th Street in Philadelphia.
Little things like this bother me. They pull me from the story. So I completely understand why that reader years ago was annoyed that I’d placed the Mississippi on the wrong end of his state. I learned my lesson and work hard not to make mistakes in my books. Maybe scriptwriters don’t have the luxury of time to research carefully, or maybe they figure viewers won’t notice or care. Probably most TV viewers don’t unless they happen to live in the city or state where the story takes place.
Do errors like this in books, movies, and television shows bother you, or am I being too picky? Do they pull you from the story? Do you continue to read authors or watch shows that make mistakes because the story or characters are so intriguing, or do you give up and move on to other authors and shows?
Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Lois is also published in women’s fiction, romance, romantic suspense, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. In addition, she’s an award-winning crafts and needlework designer and an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com, visit Emma at http://www.emmacarlyle.com, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers character blog, www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.