Misadventures in Research

I have issues when people mess up the research for their stories. Not just in books, but in movies and television shows. Sometimes I can shake my head at the silliness (Human beings Diving From Space into Atmosphere in their BARE Skins, with no consideration of re-entry heat or turbulence, as in the Star Trek reboot) and enjoy the story anyway. But sometimes, it can really mess up my enjoyment of the story. Especially when people mess up stuff about Texas.

This has not been a recent issue. My annoyance dates back at least as far as the series premiere of the old television series Dallas. When they had the main characters cowering in WACO for fear of a hurricane, you KNOW the writers do not have a CLUE about much of anything having to do with Texas. FYI, Waco–where I was living at the time with my brand new spouse–is more than 300 miles from the coast. When evacuating for a hurricane, Waco is where people go to be safe. (My son went to Waco to visit his girlfriend when Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008. I didn’t go that far…) When we lived in Waco, we liked hurricanes, because they usually meant rain, and most of the time, we needed rain.

I’m feeling particularly grouchy today, because I have bumped into more than one instance of gross Texas ignorance in the past couple of days. This ignorance has nothing to do with the way outsiders see Texas as one giant monolithic mass of redneck Republicanism–which it most definitely is not, but that’s beside my point today. I’m talking about the kind of ignorance that is easily solved by Picking up a map. Or Asking somebody. Or checking out a government website, or a high school text book. Simple research.

For instance, I have already mentioned the book in which the Texas State Football Championship (A, AA, 3A, all the way up to 5A) is played in the school’s home football stadium rather than in the capital city of Austin. All that author had to do was to ask on any e-mail author loop she belonged to: “Hey–where’s the state football championship played?” and there would have been an author from Texas who could tell her. There are always authors from Texas on any writing loop, because it’s a big state, there are lots of people here, and lots of us write books. Ignorance has no excuse.

The book I read today–isn’t actually wrong. It’s just Vague. Which isn’t a sin. I blame the vagueness on New Yorkers. Because I know this author personally, and I know darn well that she knows that the city of Galveston is on an island. An island that is over a mile from the coast of mainland Texas. You can’t really swim your horse across, even if large parts of it are no more than 4 feet deep.

But she has her Texas Rangers riding a day south of the city to a little ranch without ever showing them crossing water. Now, in 1859, the city of Galveston was confined to a small section of the east end of the island, which stretches 30 miles to the west (southwest), and it takes about a day to ride that far, so they could have ridden to the other end of the island and confronted outlaws there. Outlaws that somehow got over to the island themselves… On the other hand, she referred to riding South out of the city. Here’s another thing. If you go south from the port of Galveston, you cross the island the short way and wind up in the Gulf of Mexico.

After much confusion (since, after all, I live in Galveston), I finally decided they must have crossed over somehow, and ridden south toward Matagorda or Freeport or somewhere inland. Those places are south, but they are also west. I also got confused when her people rode past Galveston on their way to somewhere else. If you’re inland, and you’re going somewhere else further inland, there is no way Galveston is on the way. It’s pretty much not on the way to anywhere. I blame that on the copy editors as well.

I think a large part of my confusion with this story was due to the fact that I couldn’t place the heroine’s home ranch or the outlaw’s hideout anywhere specific, so I couldn’t visualize where these people were riding around. And that was my issue. Someone who hasn’t traversed that same territory every couple of weeks wouldn’t have had a problem at all. And the author did once mention leaving Galveston on barges. Late in the story. Still, it was annoying when I kept wondering how these people got off the island, and the fact that it IS an island was never, ever mentioned. Is it general knowledge? That Galveston is an island???

And then there was the Criminal Minds episode this week. Besides the fact that the Texas border with Mexico is a RIVER along its whole entire length, which makes the digging of tunnels under the border a little problematic, seems to me, and the fact that Terlingua, Texas isn’t actually a town, anymore–I’ll let them get away with that. People make up towns all the time, and Terlingua used to be a town. That’s okay. The tunnels were silly–did nobody think that there was a river in the way? But, that wasn’t the big issue.

See, a large part of the motivation of the villain was that the sheriff just moved down from New York City and got hired as the sheriff. She came in as an outsider and took over, and the villain, who grew up in the town, was jellus. Problem is, that would never happen. Because every sheriff in every one of the 254 counties in the state of Texas is ELECTED. And no outsider could get elected. Now maybe, if the previous sheriff died in the saddle, so to speak, the Commissioner’s Court, or the county judge (who usually isn’t the judge of a court, but the administrator of the county) could appoint somebody as sheriff, but that appointment would only hold until the next election, and since just about every office in the state of Texas is elected, there are elections every five minutes–or so it seems. Which made the major conflict in the story, or one of them, well–silly. And impossible.

So, those of you who are not Texans or ex-Texans who might be considering setting a book in Texas– just remember. If there is a public office or government position that might be elected, it probably is. We even elect the county treasurer (if there is one) and the tax assessor/collector. We elect county clerks and constables and justices of the peace. I’m really surprised we don’t elect the county janitors. Oh, and it’s not the sheriff’s station or sheriff’s department. It’s the sheriff’s office, for both the location and the organization.

Really, people–just do your homework. Don’t assume that all states work the same. ‘Cause they don’t. Oh, and when you get your map of Texas to use in plotting your story (I do recommend using maps–it makes things so much easier), do pay attention to scale. It’s farther than you think it is.

3 Responses to Misadventures in Research

  1. See, I don’t think the problem is outsiders screwing up Texas. I think the problem is New Yorkers. Ten-to-One somebody from Chicago wouldn’t have screwed up that bad. But New Yorkers assume that everywhere is like New York.

    I mean for crying out loud. They set a whole TV show (Three Rivers) in Pittsburgh, and the very first episode centered around someone getting shot in a rent control fight. Rent control more or less doesn’t exist outside of New York. Plus, housing in Pittsburgh is dirt cheap.

    But you’re right about one thing, there’s nothing that excuses a lack of basic research.

  2. Gail, I’d like to mention people who come to Texas for the first time and are puzzled because they can’t find any vehicles with “longhorns” mounted above the radiators. The last time a visitor from New Yawk queried me about this, I told him we sent them all out to chase the Comanches back up into the mountains on the west end of Galveston. I’m not sure he bought it.

  3. So, can you tell me in what state/county the sheriff is not an elected position? Since it is that way in every place I have lived (granted only 2 states), I would probably make the error the other way, saying that every Sheriff is elected.

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