You just can’t make it up

“Cern’s in France,” one of the cast of Martini Bond was telling me. “No, Switzerland,” I said. “France. My sister used to live there.” I quickly looked it up: “It’s on the Franco-Swiss border… Besides, it’s fiction, and I thought you could just make it up.” But one thing I’m learning is that you can’t.

As a journalist, one mantra that is drummed into us when we train (and throughout our careers) is: Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy. It turns out that this applies to fiction too. Whatever you’re writing, be it a play, book or film or TV script, it has to be based on fact, so your audience believes your story.

This even applies to fiction set in the future. Take Prometheus. (This is not a review, so I’m not about to go into: What did that first scene mean? How come they can breathe on that planet in a galaxy far, far away? Why were there so many holes in the script? For those questions and not many answers, see this very funny YouTube Prometheus spoiler.)

The “Engineers” in Prometheus speak an ancient tongue, which is based on Proto-Indo-European, a prehistoric language of Eurasia. Linguist expert Anil Biltoo of the SOAS Language Centre in London helped with the research into constructing this “first” language of earth, thus basing the one used in the film to some extent on reality. This shows the amount of research that goes into producing an entertaining, but on some level accurate, story.

Not only do you have to be accurate, accurate, accurate but you also have to do your research, research, research.

And what about the reference to Cern in my play? It turns out Cern is about six miles from Geneva in Switzerland. Not that it matters. I was told: “Look, no one, I mean, NO ONE will have heard of Cern. Change the gag.”

June 25, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Blogging, Comedy, Comedy writing, Fiction, Humour, Publishing.


  1. fashionfretter replied:

    But why should you pander to the petty pedantics? Make up what you like then just shout in their faces “IT’S NOT REAL – I MADE IT UP, THE WHOLE THING”. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that.

  2. Pauline Guerin replied:

    whilst I agree with fashionfretter’s sentiments I find the same thing as WomanBitesDog. It’s the one reason why my own novel has thus far, taken so long. I have done masses of research on my subject to unravel the story and I’m not really anywhere nearer some of the answers. Some things I will have no choice but make up, hopefully I can also make these things believable. I do know though, that someone somewhere will pick me up on some points and criticise me heavily for ‘lack of research’. I can only answer that, after four years of researching, joining the Scottish Library, taking time out to travel to Edinburgh, Seton and Haddington in the name or research that if that is not enough, then what the hell is?

    Keep Cern, I know where it is, so I’m sure others will have.

    • WomanBitesDog replied:

      Sounds like you’ve had a lot of holidays in Scotland…Cern – do others know where it is?

      • mskatykins replied:

        I had to go back and reread that comment about Scotland as I was thinking, I’m Scottish and I don’t know where ‘Cern’ is. Lol. But when you think about with colonialism and settlers etc there are so many places out there with the same name. So it could be anywhere. 🙂

  3. jmmcdowell replied:

    When I see “Cern,” I think “CERN” as in the accelerator. 🙂

    The risk of making stuff up that doesn’t come across as realistic or not checking facts is that savvy readers will catch it — and lose their “suspension of disbelief” for the story. That can lose us readers.

    Even fantasy worlds need to feel “realistic” in some way so that the reader is grounded in something s/he understands.

    When I catch things that are obviously wrong, I start wondering what else might be wrong and how sloppy or lazy is the writer?

    • WomanBitesDog replied:

      Exactly. Well said! And the world is full of pedants – nice ones, of course!

  4. Gina replied:

    jmmcdowell is right – readers/viewers feel let down and cheated when a writer has been lazy. I work in a creative industry and more often than not find that a little research will yield a wealth of fascinating information which a writer can use or manipulate. So often audiences/readers are patronised. Artistic licence is fine but artistic taking the piss – no!

    As an eg, I cannot describe my frustration after losing 20 hours of my life to the over rated original Danish version of The Killing with its 83 plus plot holes, more red herrings than a Baltic wholesale fishmonger and the worst detective ever let loose in Scandanavia. Forget her frigging jumper Sarah Lund needed to remember her phone, her car keys, her gun, her torch and not make make so many appointments at deserted warehouses at night with anonymous callers on her own and without telling anyone where’s she’s going. I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking of it.

    WBD – your training will stand you in good stead. Details matter!

    • WomanBitesDog replied:

      That really gets me too – the amount of times women go to deserted places on their own. I mean, don’t they watch films? You know never, NEVER, go into a wood in the dark on your own, without a torch. Oh, and your mobile won’t get a signal. GUARANTEED. Just drive on to the next deserted motel instead. You’ll be safe from psychos there.

      • Gina replied:

        Ha! And where are all these lock ups and warehouses which psychopaths seem to favour as their meeting place of choice? Are we talking the Big Yellow self storage sites? As a journalist, WBD, have you ever arranged to meet an anonymous person who will tell you WHO DID IT at a storage facility on your own at a very unsociable hour? And why don’t the police film all these places and do a nightly round up of pyschos? Tch. Answers please.

  5. 4amWriter replied:

    I think you can still make things up as long as you can support it with a credible explanation. Because Cern is an actual place, you do need to be factual about it. But for made-up places, you just need to be able to support your world with information that will help your readers believe it. If you’re writing about flying alligators in an otherwise normal world, then there needs to be an explanation to support that anomoly.

    • WomanBitesDog replied:

      Flying alligators? I would read that! You’re right – your audience has to believe in your story/world.

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