Monday, May 23, 2011

A Psychologist's Thoughts on The Writer's Guide To Psychology

For me to really convey how much I appreciate the mere existence of a book like Dr. Carolyn Kaufman's The Writer's Guide to Psychology, I have to briefly tell a seemingly unrelated story.

I've just finished a project in which some of the main characters work as paramedics in a very chaotic and violent place. After doing the very best job I could, including  some online research, I sent it to my sister for critique; she's been a medevac helicopter pilot in the army for the last six years and just got home from Afghanistan. She knows some stuff about emergency medical procedures in chaotic and violent places.

And wow, was I glad I did, because she identified inaccuracies I'd never have noticed or thought of. She said stuff like, "a medic would NEVER [blahblahblah]" or "this is how we really do [XYZ]." To her, some of the stuff I'd put in was laughable, and worse, annoying. I felt sort of silly, like I should have known better, but there's no way I really could have. I had to ask. I had to go deeper than my shallow knowledge and assumptions.

It was a great lesson in perspective, because I've been on the other side of that equation a lot. The reason is simple--people love writing about psychological issues and portraying them on television, and they often get it WRONG. Sometimes it's simple stuff, like hearing Dr. Lance Sweets on a recent episode of Bones describe someone's symptoms as "disassociative" as opposed to "dissociative." Or seeing someone on the AW forums casually referring to a character with schizophrenia as "schizoid." Sometimes it's BIG stuff, like mixing up schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder as a major plot element.

Let me tell you--there are enough inaccuracies about psychology in books and movies to tell me it's possible to sneak stuff by. I blogged about this recently. However, I will also say this--agents and editors are getting increasingly savvy (as is the general population), and many of them can quickly recognize an ignorant, insensitive, or flamingly inaccurate depiction of mental illness, therapy, or other psychological stuff. And they will hit the REJECT button fast. Further, having an agent myself, I can tell you that she vets and researches even the most random stuff EVERYTHING in my projects to make sure things are accurate. People take this stuff seriously, and if you're writing about psychological issues, you should, too.

So! As many of you have seen if you read this blog regularly, it's hard to get this stuff exactly right. There are a lot of oft-repeated misconceptions. The solution? Research! And what will make this research a trillion times easier?

The Writer's Guide to Psychology.

Yes. I am telling you now. If you are writing about any mental health issue, including diagnosis, therapy, psychiatric medications, psychiatric hospitalizations, psychopaths and serial killers, personality disorders ... I beg you, get this book. It's going to increase the likelihood that you're going about it the right way. It's going to make it more likely that you won't shackle yourself to an indefensible, implausible plot device. It's going to help you succeed.

The book itself is thoroughly engaging. As I was reading it, I was kind of boggled by the number of movie and book references--this isn't a dry, boring text. It's connected to the things a writer is interested in. [For you Twilight fans and haters, Dr. Kaufman even calls out a little psychological terminology inaccuracy in one of the books in that series.]

As a psychologist myself, I can tell you this is good stuff. Well-informed, accurate, and at the same time, pretty entertaining. Dr. Kaufman can tell you what a real therapy session would look like--depending on the theoretical orientation of the therapist. She'll even give you examples of what a therapist from a particular orientation might say or ask. Her sections on psychopathology (different diagnoses) are excellent, particularly because she doesn't just tell you a few facts about each disorder; she discusses the overlap with other disorders and how to tell the difference.

There are sections on childhood and adolescent disorders, but I would say most of the focus is on adult psychology (that usually includes older adolescents). I noticed that because I'm a child psychologist, and I think Dr. Kaufman would probably agree with me that The Writer's Guide to Psychology is an excellent start to your book research (and will often be sufficient)--but you might have to do additional research if you're writing in depth about a particular disorder. Fortunately, Dr. Kaufman provides a complete bibliography of her own resources. She also offers her website: http://www.archetypewriting.com/, which is just. Wow.

Clinical psychology, and human psychology in general, is a vastly complicated, ever-evolving field. A simple Google search might give a researching writer very contradictory results (try this with "attachment disorder" and you might see what I mean). Having a book like The Writer's Guide can take a lot of the risk and confusion out of the research process (and while you're researching, you can indulge in a collegial little snicker at mistakes made by some very famous writers).

And with that, I am EXTREMELY excited to announce that Dr. Carolyn Kaufman will be guest blogging here on Wednesday. She'll be discussing some cutting edge treatments for depression. On top of offering some pretty rich plot fodder, it's just fascinating, wild stuff. She'll check in on Wednesday to answer your questions, and we'll be giving away a signed copy of The Writer's Guide to Psychology to one of the Wednesday commenters--so please come back and see what Dr. Kaufman has to say!

Remember to drop by Lydia's blog for her Medical Monday post and Laura's blog for her Mental Health Monday post!

So--do you have The Writer's Guide to Psychology? Have you heard about it? Do you write about psychological issues? Mental illness? Therapy? How do you research the issues you write about? And--how do you know if you're accurate or not?

23 comments:

  1. We have to do our research. How great you could use your sister to check inaccuracies. For my latest manuscript, I interviewed a police officer in the hopes of getting my story accurate. Now I have to find someone who has a prosthetic eye to read it. If I wind up with a character with psychological issues, I'll be sure to read this book. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This sounds like a great resource and something I would definitely spend the money on if I was working on a project in this area. However, as it stands, the resources I've made the most use of in my recent WIPs are "Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poison" and several sites devoted to the VooDoo uses of different kinds of herbs. I also recently acquired Culpepper's Color Herbal which compares modern and ancient uses of plants as medicine.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've heard of this book, several times, and it sounds fascinating as well as useful. When I write about something I don't know first hand, I most likely research it more than necessary, because I enjoy research. But, as you've pointed out, you never really know if you've gotten it right. Not unless you have an awesome sister-expert to consult.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Research is so important. It's interesting you mention Bones, because my degree is in bioarchaeology (study of human remains from archaeological sites). And that show often doesn't do very good research. Sometimes they even lay out the bones incorrectly!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Researching physical places and even the history of a place, legend, or whatever takes time. But for the innards of the human psyche, a tool like this book does seem essential. Just a thought: suggestions like these would be great as a sidebar widget. I always write these type of references down but lose them so often. #mybad

    ReplyDelete
  6. Kudos to you for doing such thorough research! I find research the fun part to writing. And that book sounds like an excellent resource.

    ReplyDelete
  7. OH my god, that's so awesome you're going to have the author on as a guest blogger! This book sounds so interesting! And how lucky you are to have a sister who's an expert in the field to give you feedback on inaccuracies! It really is important to do your research now a days.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a great idea for a book. I look forward to the interview. Research is really important to me. I'd be so worried about pissing off someone by being inaccurate!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have heard of this book--I believe Dr. kaufman is one of the bloggers on the Query Tracker blog--and have it on my "to buy" (or, hopefully, to win) list. It sounds excellent.

    I haven't written stories with characters with psychological issues, but perhaps this book will give me the confidence to try.

    I'll be back on Wednesday for what promises to be a great interview.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Ha ha! It's like you wrote this for ME. LOL. I'll definitely be back on Wednesday.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I own and love that book, Sarah. It's great! I'm so excited to see your Weds. interview with Dr. Kaufman. I've followed her blog for quite a while. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  12. OHMYGOODNESS!!! this sounds SO helpful! i'll have to buy it when my birthday comes around! jiminey christmas!
    i sometimes worry about my characters, because i write characters, you know, and have never thought of them having a mental malady of any sort- although i'm sure many of them would be diagnosable, especially my mc's... i don't know. their personalities make sense to me, but not one of them would have neccessarily healthy personalities or mental views or... you get the point! :)
    looking forward to wednesday!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Our writer's group decided to invite a psychologist/professor from the local college out to dinner one evening to pump him for information on disorders and illnesses that cropped up in our writing. It was an enlightening evening, and, as mentioned in your article, many misconceptions were brought to light. As a psychologist and previous police officer, he finds TV and movies rank with these misconceptions. As a writer, I hope never to extrapolate on them.
    I have already purchased my copy of The Writer's Guide to Psychology, and have a stack of books on the particular topic I'm hoping to portray accurately, as well as the guidance of an expert in the field. Hopefully, I will pull off the story as true to life as possible.

    ReplyDelete
  14. That is awesome! I need to get this book ASAP. My WIP talks a bit about schizoaffective disorder and Psychotic depression. I've been reading and researching, but the references I get are mostly about schizophrenia itself. And I know that Schizoaffective is a bit different from Schizophrenia.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Super cool review! (I like the book too. ;))

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh, looking forward to the guest post! I know several folks who have this book and all of them rave about it!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    ReplyDelete
  17. I do not have this book yet, but it is on the TBR wish list. Lots of great non-fiction on that list these days! I'll be back on Wednesday. :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. It's always so helpful when you have someone who can lend some real life experience to your characterization/situations. Looking forward to the guest blog!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Adding this to my reading pile. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hey, that is very cool! I had not heard of that book, but I will keep it on my resource list. Isn't it great to have someone like your sister getting your back like that? I had a good friend fill me in on some NOLA history for my last book...

    Can't wait for your guest tomorrow, and I'm headed to Lydia's right now~ :o)

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thank you so much for the recommendation! Excited about the guest blog tomorrow!

    ReplyDelete
  22. I bought the book when it first came out, and I'm so glad I did. It was worth it. :D

    ReplyDelete
  23. I'm sad I didn't know about this book before, but I will definitely give it a read. My newest book "The King of the Sun" depicts a character with paranoid schizophrenia and, though I did the best research I could, I know I got some things wrong. To compensate, I tried to put less emphasis on a specific diagnosis and more on making a relate-able character. A lot of people may not suffer from a psychotic illness, but a lot of people recognize feeling like an outsider and I think that connection might be helpful. I know I'm going to get some haranguing about psychological inaccuracies eventually, although I hope people recognize the soul of the book and pass up that harsh Reject button! I will definitely put this book on my to-read list as I'm working on the sequel! You've got a wealth of knowledge on pscyh-interest books and I would absolutely love your insights on "The King of the Sun"! If you get a chance please check it out (proceeds benefit a good cause!) http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HIVEE7Y
    And thanks for the great book recommendation.

    ReplyDelete