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.

Sorry, wrong.

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.


  1. I’ve always been amused by earthquake disaster movies which show everyone running around like crazed lemmings, screaming pointlessly. I went through a couple of bad earthquakes, growing up and then in Japan as a service member. No, from my experience, people tended to freeze in place or retain enough presence of mind to duck under something sheltering, and if they were calling or shouting, it was to other people with them – “Are you OK?” or “Get away!” or “Get the children!”
    People tend to be a bit more level-headed than the movie-makers give them credit for.

    1. Celia, I’m so glad you mentioned the earthquake movies. My aunt lived most of her life in California literally on the edge of the San Andreas Fault. When I called her one day after a particularly bad quake — according to the news reports — she laughed and said not to believe the media unless there were pictures to go along with it and then reminded me that anyone who had lived in that area for any length of time knew what to do — and running around like chickens with their heads cut off wasn’t how to act. So yeah, folks do tend to either freeze or be level-headed about what’s going on – at least until a whole lot of folks start running and screaming and then you get the lemming effect.

      1. The thing is that almost all of the people who write, direct, and star in these movies live there as well. Yet what they put in their productions contradicts what they actually see. I’m not sure if they do this because it makes better cinema, if they have so much contempt for their audience they assume everybody outside of the people they know are running around like idiots, or a combination of the two.

      2. We get the same effect with tornadoes out here. Most people head to a window to check and see if any of the warning signs are showing, check everything then watch the weather to figure out when they need to hit the storm shelter. Since our sirens go off by county they aren’t incredibly useful.

        1. Well, I have been known to run around when a tornado coming, but only if I’m in an area with lots of people out in the open, the news saying there’s a warning, every weather sign present of them being right — and all the people out in the open either being totally unaware, or totally unconcerned. So yeah, I’ll run around yelling at people to go to shelter, or to stop staring at the pretty weather and take cover.

          I thank God that in my own area, this doesn’t need to be done very often, because people pay attention to storms. But man, it’s a problem when people who don’t know about tornadoes in their guts.

          What’s annoying is that some people don’t have a healthy sense of weather fear, and then other people have about ten doses more than they need, and they are often standing about ten feet from each other. So you can end up trying to be prophet of doom and soothing comforter, in series.

  2. One of the reasons I like historically based fantasy is that since I am using an actual historical society for my background, it is almost always more interesting/complicated/twisty than anything I could come up with on my own, or that people would accept from a made-up society. Like you said, our stories have to make sense. Real life, not so much.

  3. The old newspaper proverb “Blood Sells” and the ability to create fantastic special effects combine to make disaster stories great sales. Emotion is what all newscasters seek otherwise, it is business as usual and the birdcage gets a new lining. Books on the other hand have to balance both common sense and emotion to make a believable but stimulating read. That’s why I prefer to read than watch.

  4. All passengers leaving African airports are screened for fever, I suspect with some sort of IR device. Patient zero did not present, so was allowed to board. The thing is, while he may have been aware of being exposed he did not know he was sick until much later.
    The biggest oops in this scenario is the failure on the part of the hospital to follow established procedures and catch the carrier on his first visit. It’s my hunch that like most hospital ERs these days, particularly in border states, they were swamped with far too many people forced to use the ER as their free clinic. Sure, everyone is expected to follow protocol, but the staff was also certainly under pressure from the administration to push all those non revenue producing patients through the system and out the door as quickly as possible. And Ebola does present in its early stages very much like a bad case of flu.
    So, I guess I can see how a writer could deal with this laughably improbable series of events, but you’d have to spend a great deal of time digging into the root causes of each and every mistake. And there you likely find yourself well into a book unlike what your original intentions called for.
    Side note: in Africa with their tribal customs and primitive health service infrastructure Ebola is around 90% fatal. So far in the US, based on limited data of course, but with the full support of our best health systems, Ebola seems to be more likely 90% survivable. Vicious ugly disease, I’d certainly hate to get it, but not the stone killer being portrayed by our 24/7 infodump media.

    1. Now we’ll get to see how ER overreact to bad cases of the ‘flu. I got my first ever flu shot this year, figuring to outguess Murphy and _not_ get my once a decade flu _this_ year.

  5. Unfortunately for writers, fiction has to make sense or no one will want to read it. Real life isn’t hampered by such quaint notions of logical progressions, wrapping up subplots, and bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion.

    I suspect that’s a major reason escapist fiction is so popular. The adventure, narrow escapes, and happy endings (I’m speaking of superversive books, here) are a lot of fun, but I think many readers are simply desperate for that internal consistency missing from real life.

  6. Well, I wouldn’t want to go to Dallas right now, but that wasn’t changed at all by this news item. Most of the places I regularly want to visit are closer to home.

    I don’t enjoy traveling much, I don’t often get that far away, and I’ve driven through the Dallas-Forth Worth area more often then I’ve driven to it. Okay, I’ve stopped for gas.

    If Texans were so inclined to panic that this would do it, the state would have been blown over by the first really stiff breeze.

  7. I think my biggest concern about having Ebola in this country now (other than the known cases that were deliberately brought in, in isolation) is that people may start panicking over flu symptoms when they really do just have the flu. This could seriously overwhelm the medical system.

  8. This is why writing non-fiction is easier than writing fiction…fiction has to be plausible while non-fiction only has to be true. 🙂

  9. News is leaking out that the apartment where the man, and family live has/had not been cleaned up, either by the residents or ‘the state’.

    Also not being accurately report is the survival rate when adequate care is available. NYTimes had/has an article about a nurse in Monrovia who saved her family using trash bags and proper treatment and cleanup.

    Also, apparently Nigeria has contained their outbreak with no new cases since the end of August. So there is good news, and the bad news is there are still morons out there, mis information, charlatans, frauds, and all those other human characters.

    A corollary to Murphy’s Law says that when things go bad, they go bad in the worst way at the worst time and I tend to plan for the worst which annoys some people who think I’m crazy.

    1. And thus in the day to day flow of life you will regularly be pleasantly surprised, while they will quite often be sadly disappointed.
      Funny isn’t it how those same folks who think you crazy are the same ones who come a begging when things go south.

    2. I live in Plano. I am sitting here in Plano, a Dallas suburb, watching the local news Channel 8 showing film taken from a chopper of the cleanup of the sidewalk where the Ebola patient vomited as he was being hauled to the ambulance this Sunday. You would expect to see a crew of hazmat suited professionals using the very latest in cleaning gear.

      Instead, there are three people, one of whom appears to be a bystander, in NO TRACE of protective gear, using a bleeding pressure washer to hose down the sidewalk and sluice the result into the gutter. No clue if they are using anything besides plain water. The news report says that the CDC already did the primary cleanup and this is something the complex ordered to reassure the residents…. Right.

      These people couldn’t organize an orgy in a whorehouse.

  10. If “Patient Zero” were a terrorist trying to spread the disease, the LAST place he’d go would be a hospital. He’d go to where he could infect the most people, like a shopping mall or a theater. Which wouldn’t work anyway because Ebola isn’t airborne, so he’s have to make a mess of a lot of people to spread it.

    So, Not a terrorist with a nuclear bug.

    1. Yeah. really, he’d want to go to a crowded space and make himself into a bomb that goes boom, to spread bits of himself all over. Clearly, he wanted to survive instead.

      Now, if this were a proper conspiracy thriller, he’d have to outwit his handlers who want to get him back in control, as well as the government who wants to quarantine him (from whence his handlers would pluck him – are they inside the government, and used him to import the disease on our shores?), and deal with the symptoms…

      1. This is too un-PC to be published, but if you just have one guy, and don’t have aerial transmission, go to SF and either have lots of gay sex, or hope to spread enough by skin contact at concentrations of naked people. If you get enough secondary vectors, you may be able to get it to hop to other cities by airplane before people are willing to admit what is happening.

        Don’t give your villains a shoddy plan and let them rely on authorial fiat to fill in the blanks. Have them make the effort to find the people who have their own independent reasons for doing things that help the evil plan.

  11. I already know the conspiracy– if this goes as bad as it could, it’ll be Rick Perry trying to wipe out The Brown People. (hand-wave how he got the guy to come here while infected)

    If it goes really well, and the poor SOB in the hospital now is the only sick guy, then it was a plot to make him look good for the next Presidential election.

    Option 1 already has that Farah-whatzit loon behind it, although he says it was cooked up by the CIA…..

    1. Yeah, because the CIA are full of soooooper secret biotech wizzes who want to depopulate Africa because, um, *goes to look at list* oil. Yeah, for oil and because brown people. And it’s on the internet, so it must be true.

      /sarc, not that it should really be needed, but you never know.

      1. So either someone in the US government is
        A) Independently making decisions about releasing killer superplagues, which plagues spend decades killing a fairly trivial number of people (compared to all the other killings by third world diseases) before maybe hitting it big?
        B) The current administration chose to release the current variant, and what? *mumblemumblemumble* It would be beggared by real life, and I can only see the crime coming out, and those responsible tarred and feathered.


        I could tell a more compelling story about Lizardwindsors, and I’m still pretty early on the learning curve.

  12. I caught this in a report yesterday…

    “A CDC spokesman told NBC News the agency could neither confirm nor deny Weeks’ account.” http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ebola-virus-outbreak/ebola-patient-thomas-eric-duncans-nephew-i-had-call-cdc-n216326

    You are kidding, right? A spokeman for the Center for Disease Control is spouting the intel community mantra? Why? Are they keeping secrets, now? I have to admit, when I read this, I thought that someone had been reading too many spy thrillers, or watching too many movies.

    1. Might just be the practical advice for anyone who subject to a investigation tied to federal matters. Shut up and get a lawyer. I’ve heard tell of some sort of unrelated criminal scandal at the CDC. Might have everyone in a CYA mood.

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