On not getting it wrong

Research is useful, enjoyable and can get one out of tricky plot holes, but, past a certain point, I believe it’s vital to jettison any compulsion to know “everything”.

The temptation to jam in every piece of research constipates a narrative, while drawing a line at ‘not getting it wrong’ liberates the imagination.

When I was a kid, my Dad, a surgeon, loved to watch the irreverent series M*A*S*H, about an American surgical unit in the Korean war. Not only did he never spot a mistake, but he also said that once he actually learnt something (a new way to hold an instrument). If the surgery had been clumsily wrong, I doubt he would have enjoyed the show quite as much, so, when I came to write TV drama, M*A*S*H became my template for accuracy.

In crime drama, it’s important (but not vital) to get forensic detail correct: not only can the right detail supply an ingenious plot twist but on television we see it, so it has to look and feel right.

Yet I believe that not getting it wrong is far more important than getting it right. Even an expert in the field will accept a fudge (DNA results coming back the same day, for example); get it wrong, and it’s jarring and inauthentic – the suspension of disbelief is lost.

So, when a screenwriting student was beginning work on a story that requires an awareness of the Romans’ attitude to rats, I volunteered to ask Mary Beard, my generous and brilliant contemporary at Newnham. She replied that the Romans did not differentiate between rats and mice, and recommended Pliny’s Natural History. I hope that the assurance that this amount of knowledge seems sufficient for a University of Cambridge Professor of Classics will leave the writer happily free to make the rest up.


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