Fictional Realism

So I was watching AMC’s latest shot at an award-winning drama, Hell on Wheels the other night, and I had an annoyed nerd moment.  One of the characters, Lily Bell, was doing a bit of surveying (I haven’t really been following the show, so I’m a bit vague on the reasons, but I gather she took over for her slaughtered husband).

Lily Bell Using a Transit

There were two slightly annoying things about the scene.  First of all, she appears to doing stadia, which is a way of measuring distance through measuring angles, basically.  You look at a graduated rod through a scope, and note where on the rod several hairs on the scope fall.  You know how far apart the upper and lower hairs are on your scope, and because of the graduated nature of the rod you know how far apart they appear on it.  Thanks to the miracle of similar right triangles, you can therefore calculate how far you are from the rod.

The problem, of course, is that when we switched to a “through the scope” view we saw a regular old cross-hairs (which, by the way was far too thick, even for the 1800’s-they are called “hairs” for a reason, that reason being that they were originally hairs).  No stadia lines, no stadia measurement.  I guess she could be doing vertical leveling, but that ain’t a level she’s using.

Secondly, Mrs. Bell told her assistant to “hold the rod steady and level”, which is a nice idea in principal, but of course pretty much impossible to do really well, which is why surveyors tend to “wave the rod”, or tip it slowly forward and back.  The instrument operator can tell when it is level because that will be the lowest reading they see.

So, is this just an example of geospatial geek curmudgeonry?  Probably so, on the second point.  The narrative point of the scene was to show that Lily knew something about surveying and was engaged in it – a digression about surveying jargon and minutia would have been sort of beside the point, and just gotten in the way.  That first thing, though – why not make the scope view realistic?  That’s what they’d do on Mad Men – on Mad Men, they make sure that the train schedules they mention in the show are historically accurate – and they can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one of their Emmys.  There’s a valuable lesson there, Hell on Wheels people.

For what it’s worth, that’s sort of my take on realism in fiction.   I’ve encountered readers whose enjoyment of a book pretty much starts and ends with “realism”, but sacrificing a bit of it for the sake of a story is okay by me.  On the other hand, why not throw in a bit of fidelity when you can without slowing things down?  Most people might not notice, but you’ll make about eight people really happy, and if you’re lucky they’ll tell everyone about your attention to detail and you’ll look like one of those obsessive geniuses.

~ by smwilliams on January 10, 2012.