Monday 4 April 2011

Writing Below Your Pay Grade

Now you can criticise Bonekickers for many things and indeed it's actually quite hard to see where one would stop criticising Bonekickers but most of those things arose out of positive decisions on the part of the production team. In other words they did it to themselves. Like many TV professionals before them they chose to ignore real history, politics or archaeology so in order to tell a better story. That the series proved a turgid disappointing muddle is down to their, surprising given their track record, short comings as writers and is beyond the scope of this blog.

What was most disappointing was the fact that the scripts were so slackly written and nothing illustrates this point better than the scene in Episode 2 when a document from the late 18th Century is discovered which refers to a group of black revolutionary war soldiers as 'political prisoners'.

Now I'm not an expert in the historical use of language but that stood out like a bum note. I'm pretty certain that any writer with a historical sense that stretched back beyond their old copies of the Beano would hear that bum note too. The trouble was that it used to be very hard to know for sure.

Until now and this is where the blog really starts....

Because those nice people at Google have provided lazy writers with the Ngram Viewer which allows you to check the frequency of the use of a word or phrase against book contents going back all the way back to the dawn-ish of publishing. So let us enter the phrase 'political prisoner' into the magic engine so...

As you can see the phrase doesn't really occur with any frequency before the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Even so there is one occurrence of the term listed in a book dated 1798 so I think I'm going to give Ashley Pharoah the benefit of the doubt in this case(1). Which proves how useful this thing is for the jobbing writer.

Bonekickers, wretched waste of budget that it may have been, is not the reason for this blog which was actually prompted when a script for the TV pilot of "Poe" fell into my hands(3).

The premise for this series is strong - Edgar Allen Poe a fine mystery writer pursues a crime fighting career in Boston in the early 1840s complete with spunky female sidekick and traditional antagonistic relationship with the Boston P.D.(4). Jumping out of page 4 comes the term "boogie man" not used for the supernatural killer before the 20th century or was "out of the box" in anything but it's literal meaning.

Now it can be fun to throw in anachronisms, to have our hero be 'ahead of the curve' and invent idioms a century or so early - but this approach only works well if everybody else routinely speaks in the appropriate historical idiom - which they don't. For example the police commissioner[sic] refers to "crime scenes" not in use before the 20th Century. And spunky female side kick refuses - to reinforce some "fairer sex" stereotype... Until the 1920s stereotype was strictly a printing term.

But the point where my willing suspension of disbelief, a quite sturdy edifice I assure you, collapsed was when Poe suggested that a particularly dim police officer should return to the academy[sic] for a refresher course (not in widespread use until the 20th century again). Anachronism piled on anachronism.

Can I point out that it took me all of a minute and a half to look up these words and check when the Boston P.D. was established. So the argument that writers don't have time to do this basic research is total bollocks. These leads us onto...

Like Who Cares Dude?
Good question. Does it matter that some piece of fluff TV show has any historical accuracy, or even a close approximation? I would forgive Poe if I thought that the producers had taken a decision to be interestingly anachronistic in the manner of 'A Knights Tale' but the truth is I believe it's down to either basic incompetence or because they just don't care enough to do the work properly. I think it matters on a purely professional level as a writer that if you're going to be paid to do work you should at least do it to a certain minimum standard.

I think this represents a failure of historical imagination so that all periods of history collapse down to a sort of dog's dinner that's essentially indistinguishable from how the present is represented. When this happens the past becomes mute, it teaches us nothing through allegory or contrast it exists only as another flavour of processed mechanically recovered meat. Fit only for dogs.

So yeah - I think it matters. I think as writers we should strive to work above our pay grade(5) not below it.

(1) I still think it's really unlikely that the British authorities would refer to freed slaves that had fought for the Continental Army(2) as 'political prisoners' in an official document.
(2) In exact reversal of what actually happened but given that none of the rest of the script made any sense I suppose that's a moot point.

(3) I really will do just about anything rather than work
(4) Founded 1854!

(5) 'Above your pay grade' comes into use in the 1960s and "pay grade" itself after 1900.


Adaddinsane said...

I think it's important - I'm just working on a 1911 Steampunk feature script.

I use my handy historical reference for the difficult cultural questions - my wife, she knows these things.


Ben Aaronovitch said...

Knowledgeable Spouse(tm)- ever present and you don't even have to pay them.

Anonymous said...


Leslie said...

Having recently been influenced by all six series of "Foyle's War", I must say that striving for period accuracy adds immeasurably to a story, and any writer who doesn't take advantage of that free plot enrichment is foolish.

Anonymous said...

*whispers* Successful screenwriting is not about historical accuracy. Surely you know that?

Ben Aaronovitch said...

*whispers back* the important word in that sentence is 'successful'.

jmidd said...

Both books and film/TV rely on the suspension of disbelief to really work at a deep level and engage with you.

Without that, you are jarred out of the zone and once you start questioning things, often you can't stop.

All of which is a long way of saying that historical anachronism is one thing that can bring a book or TV series to a fast close - with film the investment is less, at 2 hours, and sunk at the beginning in any event.

Like anything I suppose: put in the effort to get it right, and it looks and feels a lot better.