When fiction turns to reality and vice versa
(I’m filling in for Kate, who is under the weather this morning.)
Most of you who are regular readers of MGC know that I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. So you know that, for the last few days, we’ve been in the news a great deal due to the first confirmed Ebola case in the US. I’ve seen all sorts of comments online and in the media. They’ve ranged from comparing what’s happening now with John Ringo’s Last Centuarian or his Black Tide Rising books to political conspiracy theories. The worst, to be honest, have been the reports from the national media that are playing for headlines. The latest came this morning when the lead-in to the story had the reporter telling the world that Dallas is a city in panic.
Let me repeat that. WRONG!
Sure, there are folks around town who are running around, looking for gas masks and surgical masks and planning to bug out as soon as they can. But you get that with the first sign of any sort of trouble or potential trouble. These are the ones the media tries to hunt out and interview because they help ratings. Folks don’t want to see their fellow man reacting to a potential problem in a calm and calculating way — at least that’s what the media thinks. So, instead of being told what we should be doing (at least not until they’ve gotten out their sensational headlines and interviews), we are given more reason to panic and to hell with the consequences.
It makes me wonder if these folks grew up on a steady diet of truly bad made-for-TV disaster movies. You know the ones I mean. Those movies where something horrible is about to happen to either wreck the economy or destroy the country or the world and the government is in a panic, the world is in a panic but there is one poor schmoe the government did wrong to at some point who will step up and save everyone — and get the girl in the end.
If I were to write a book following that scenario, I’d be crucified in the reviews. Every scientific error, every forensic mistake and every common sense mistake would be taken apart and dissected.
Let’s take some of the so-called facts folks are spouting about the situation in Dallas and see if we can spin them into a story someone might actually buy:
Patient Zero grows up in a country being hit hard with Ebola or some other horrible and feared disease. He is a hardworking man who has just quit his job and is renting a room from a family with an infected family member. When the family member becomes seriously ill, he helps her brother take her, via taxi, to the local hospital. Because of the epidemic of the disease, there is no room at the hospital and they are turned away. So they take another taxi home and Patient Zero helps carry her inside the house where she dies a few hours later.
With me so far?
As a story, it isn’t too bad. At least not so far. You have a good friend or maybe just a good man who is trying to help. Whether he understands the danger he is in is anyone’s guess based on the information you’ve been given. But, it is easy to assume that he has to have some idea because his country is being hit hard by the disease. Still, he tried to help, potentially putting himself in danger. Readers could buy that — but will they buy the next part?
Several days later, Patient Zero goes to the airport to board a plane on a trip that will eventually land in the US. When he arrives at the airport, screening is being done to make sure no one who has been infected gets onboard a plane and infects the other passengers. Patient Zero fills out his paperwork, which includes being asked if he has been in close contact with anyone who has contracted Ebola. He has his temperature taken and is cleared to fly because he has no temp. So he isn’t contagious.
Here’s where, as the author, you can start throwing out some “interesting” possibilities. Did Patient Zero tell the screeners that he’d been in contact with someone who had died from Ebola? If he did, why was he allowed board the plane in the first place? But if he didn’t answer the question in the affirmative, why? Was he trying to get here so he could get treatment he wouldn’t be able to get in his homeland or is there another, bigger and more nefarious reason behind his actions?
Now Patient Zero has made his way from his homeland, via Belgium, to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. At the same time, the brother he had helped back home has fallen ill and died from Ebola. Patient Zero is starting to suffer from the symptoms hospitals have been told to be on the lookout for by the CDC. He goes to a local hospital and is “screened” to determine if he might have been in one of the countries where Ebola is active. Supposedly, he answers in the affirmative but the medical staff evaluating him doesn’t admit him and place him in quarantine. Instead, they give him a prescription for antibiotics and send him home.
Here’s where the reader’s suspension of disbelief starts to get strained. CDC issued a directive several months ago about the proper procedures in dealing with patients who have come from certain parts of the world, or who have been in recent contact with people who have been. Upon having a patient present himself at the emergency room who displays symptoms consistent with early stage Ebola and who just came from Liberia, immediate discharge was not only countra-indicated but against the CDC directives. Assuming the screening medical personnel had been briefed on the directives, why in the world would they have discharged Patient Zero? More importantly, after seeing what happens to someone suffering from Ebola, why wouldn’t Patient Zero demand to talk to someone else and refuse to leave, making it clear why he was scared, etc.?
Patient Zero returns to the apartment where he is staying and continues to be in contact with family/friends, including children. His symptoms continue getting worse until an ambulance is called several days later and he is transported to the same hospital where he’d gone before. This time, the screening process and the severity of his symptoms trigger admission and isolation. The EMTs who transported him are isolated and tested. His family/friends are placed on “restricted isolation”, which means they are told to be really good and not leave their home. It’s an honor system. You promise not to leave and we will assume you won’t for the duration of the isolation. In the meantime, CDC flies to Dallas, the county health department gets involved and the media descends.
In real life, national media plays up the fear and panic. Local media reports on what you need to be alert to, why there is no need to panic and how doctors are more worried about influenza than they are about Ebola right now. Add in the internet and the usual theories — incompetence, biological warfare, allegations that Patient Zero is an illegal alien, etc., — and you have all but the final conclusion of your book written.
Now be honest, how many of you would still be reading and wouldn’t have been tempted at least once to toss the book against the wall with the scenario I just set up? Let’s add in the folks who jumped onto the bandwagon with their own take on what happened and why. They become the “experts” the made-for-TV movies always included for the “interviews”. You know, the ones who paint the worst case scenario to raise the tension level but who left you wondering why in the world you are still watching the movie. These are the ones who, with the current situation, usually start off by saying “I’m not trying to cause a panic, just get out the facts” and who then do the exact opposite.
I guess what I’m getting at is that real life does sometimes come across like a bad TV movie, usually when aided by the media. But that doesn’t mean we have to write our books that way — something I’m seeing all too often of late, not only with indies but with traditionally published works as well. Your plots have to make sense and they have to work within the rules of the world you are writing in. When the dust settles down from the real life Ebola scare down here, we will be able to see how the dots connect and what went wrong. I can almost guarantee there will be no huge conspiracy — either by Patient Zero to get here to get treatment (which I could understand) or by some terrorist group to strike at the US or by some pharmaceutical company to raise their stock prices or by the government to take more control of our lives (believe me, if that was the case, they’d have chosen somewhere besides Texas with Rick Perry as governor).
Point A has to get to Point Z and there has to be a logic to it. Yes, you can have twists and turns, red herrings and mistakes by your characters along the way. But you can never break trust with your reader by throwing the rules out the window without thought or care. Imitate real life and not life as painted by the media. Be honest with yourself as you write: if you can’t believe the scenario you are putting down on paper, don’t assume your readers will. They probably won’t. So go back and figure out where you went wrong and correct it.
Be true to your world, your characters and the science in your universe. If you aren’t, be prepared to pull up your big boy pants and take your lumps as the reviewers come at you with their figurative guns ablazing.