We often talk about getting our facts right when discussing things like police procedures, emergency room situations, or other highly specialized professional areas. But I’ve noticed a tendency among writers to take less care when dealing with what would be considered blue collar or “working class” jobs.
Now perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive to it because I’ve worked in a warehouse environment, and I have many friends who work in blue collar jobs. But it bothers me to see these jobs either presented stereotypically or completely misrepresented. And when I see it, it makes it hard for me to enjoy the story.
Presenting blue collar characters accurately is just as important as how you present any other character in your story. Because readers who know better are going to notice. I recently rejected a story in which the premise involved an accountant for a cosmetics company doing a tour of the factory, without an escort, and “accidentally” activating a machine on the production floor by stepping into it and closing the door.
Some OSHA Safety Coordinator somewhere just had a heart attack reading that.
The story premise was interesting, but the problem is that scenario it was built upon; a person activating a machine on the production floor, couldn’t happen the way it happened in the real world in which the story was supposed to take place.
Problem One: Cosmetics are regulated by the FDA, and there are strict guidelines domestic companies have to follow to protect the integrity of the product. Random people wandering the production floor with no training or supervision is a huge no-no. A company that doesn’t want a huge citation isn’t going to allow someone from accounting to wander the production floor poking buttons and playing with product.
Problem Two: Confined space laws. The booth in question would have qualified as what OSHA would call a “confined space.” It would be locked out when not in use to prevent accidental activity because someone could get hurt. The woman should not have even been able to open the machine, let alone step into it, close the door, and activate it.
Problem Three: Poor housekeeping. At one point, the character notices a wrench on the floor in a walkway and picks it up. Later, we see fluorescent bulbs just lying around on tables in the production area. When a worker drops one, everyone runs away from the area. Granted, they thought the area was haunted, but nobody ever comes back to investigate or clean up and it is apparent in the story the broken bulb just gets left on the floor…near where the product is produced. Yes, warehouses and factories are notoriously messy, but this is a cosmetic facility that has certain federally mandated rules regarding housekeeping. Wrenches on the floor and broken bulbs left to emit mercury near the product would be major citations.
Now I know what some people are thinking. “But it’s speculative fiction! It’s OK to make stuff up! Duh!” But as I’ve mentioned previously, readers will swallow a whale but choke on a minnow. Readers with even a moderate amount of knowledge of a warehouse environment are going to see this scenario as highly contrived and ignoring some basic information about what goes on. Just like computer geeks will call you out over bad computer jargon or people in the medical profession will roll their eyes at bad medicine in your story, not showing a basic understanding of the environment your story is set in makes it difficult for the reader to suspend belief.
That’s not to say these various things could not happen, of course. But as a writer, you have to “set up” the story to explain it. Maybe the factory is actually in a third-world country where safety rules are never followed. Maybe the factory has been cited by OSHA and routinely takes short-cuts. Perhaps the character started the tour with an escort, but something happened that forced the escort to leave the character alone “just for a minute” and the character gets into trouble on her own. There are ways to fix the story to make it work, but that requires the writer to recognize the problem in the first place to develop a corrective plan. Address the conflict in story with a plausible explanation, and then the reader can continue to suspend belief for the rest of the tale. But just hand-waving it and saying “Oh, it’s fiction” doesn’t work because that is being lazy. Yes, you can do anything in your fiction. But you need to be able to make it believable while doing it.
Unfortunately, unlike more technical professions, you won’t find a lot of writer reference material on what goes on in a factory or construction work or other blue collar jobs. But that just means you need to ask questions as a writer. Ask friends and family in those fields about what they do. Reach out to fellow writers who may be able to provide some background information. Don’t assume what goes on with a blue collar job any more than you would assume what goes on with a doctor or lawyer or detective. Because your readers may well be very well versed in that job, and they will take you to task if you present it in a way that isn’t believable.