We’ve all heard the saying “write what you know.” That may be good advice in some respects but it’s not practical. There are always moments in a story when things come up which are just beyond our knowledge.
One thing that can really affect your work negatively is poor research. We all know someone (or are that person) who nitpicks a story when plausibility falls apart. It destroys the fourth wall, tears down the suspension of disbelief, and may even cause some readers to give up on the story all together. This is especially true of things which are easily researched.
Another thing poor research can cause, perhaps unintentionally, is spreading misinformation. It’s true that you shouldn’t use fiction books, television, and film as a fact source. The problem is, people do it all the time. When you’re reading a book by an author you trust, you’re more likely to believe what you read in their work, especially if it sounds plausible.
I’m going to use a television show as an example here. Before I go any further I’m giving a spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the episode of The Walking Dead on November 15th, 2015.
*Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler*
In the November 15 episode, Daryl finds himself a prisoner of three people with a duffle bag, which contains his precious crossbow. After his escape we see the only other thing in that bag is a cooler clearly marked “INSULIN,” which he decides to return.
The information we learn about these people is limited:
- They’ve been walking through the woods for at least a day trying to escape something and find someone.
- They are not carrying any food or supplies in that big bag and have no other bags.
- One young woman named Tina passes out, labeling her as the person with diabetes.
The problem is, when Daryl returns the cooler Tina’s friend gives her a shot of insulin. This is a major problem because that young woman was most likely suffering from a hypoglycemic episode and giving her insulin is dangerous. She doesn’t need insulin, she needs sugar.
- Insulin, when properly refrigerated, will last a couple of years if unopened. After being opened it lasts one month. (So it’s plausible the insulin was still usable.)
- If insulin becomes too warm it goes bad.
- Insulin lowers your blood glucose.
- The three people didn’t have any supplies and they probably weren’t eating enough carbohydrate to raise Tina’s blood glucose to dangerous levels.
- Physical activity lowers blood glucose, and walking in the woods while fighting off zombies is strenuous activity.
- If a person passes out from low blood glucose they are in danger of never waking up if their glucose drops farther.
You could argue that maybe they had Glucagon in that cooler as well. I would say it was plausible if the cooler didn’t say insulin in big red letters on the front. That prop was clearly set up for people to think “someone has diabetes and needs their insulin.” If one of her companions had said something about giving her glucose, then maybe I would believe they had glucagon.
Some people will think: why does this matter? It’s a show about zombies which are not real. It matters because diabetes is real and it’s extremely like everyone watching the show will encounter diabetes in their life, either for themselves or someone they know. Also, people don’t understand how insulin works, but that doesn’t mean it is okay to use it incorrectly. People are afraid of insulin to begin with, and spreading misinformation doesn’t help.
What’s even more ironic is this episode aired the day after World Diabetes Awareness Day. Actually, it would be worse to learn it aired as an attempt to be part of teaching people about diabetes.
A show like The Walking Dead is being completely irresponsible in not doing simple, proper research. As I said, people shouldn’t use entertainment as a source of knowledge, but they do it all the time. It only takes one Google search to find out why people with diabetes might pass out. It only takes a second search to learn about insulin.
I know this isn’t the only place where poorly researched storytelling affects a story. If you’ve ever had a story ruined by poor research on a subject you understood, let me know in the comments!