Vision: A Resource for Writers

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How to Be Wrong

By Robert Billing
Copyright 2008 by Robert Billing, All Rights Reserved

This is an article about a different kind of research. All writers know how important it is to get the details of backstory right. Painstaking hours are spent checking the street maps of the towns where our stories are set, or the same information is made up with equal care. The names of restaurants and the locations of bus stops are verified because the reader will notice if a tiny point is in error.

So what do we do in the opposite case, when something has to be absolutely, definitively, wrong?

One of the first manifestations of the problem came with the automatic telephone system installed in London. If a play was transmitted on BBC radio which included a telephone number, dozens of listeners would call it just to see what would happen. If the number, by chance, belonged to a real subscriber the hapless individual would be pestered for days by lunatic listeners trying to get through to a fictional character.

This problem was solved in a very neat way, which depended on the way in which the letters and numbers were arranged on British telephone dials. This scheme is not the same as the one used in America, and was dropped in the early 1970s when international direct dialling was being introduced.

The old British scheme was like this: 

2-ABC 3-DEF 4-GHI 5-JKL 6-MN 7-PRS 8-TUV 9-WXY 0-OQ

Note that dialling a single zero in Britain does not reach the operator, operator service is accessed by the code 100. Examples of telephones arranged this way can be seen at:

In London it was normal to dial three letters to select an area then a four digit phone number within the area. The area names were often written in full so, for example (and this shows how easy the numbers were to remember, this springs instantly to mind after four decades), HUNter 1234 was the pink paraffin (kerosene) sales office. Some of the names, such as ABBey and GROsvenor were geographical, some were more to do with function: SKYport was Heathrow Airport. However a few names were reserved for other services, and this was the salvation of the playwrights. Dialling TIMe gave the speaking clock, regardless of what was dialled after the 846 that represented the letters.

In a moment the fictitious district of VINcent was born. Now the villain of a murder mystery could have the telephone number VINcent 3426, and the unfortunate individuals who tried to call him at the end of the show simply found that they were met by the emotionless accuracy of "Twelve thirty-one, precisely. Pip, pip, pip."

Later renumbering has done away with VINcent but the regulatory authority has now dedicated some  blocks of numbers for dramatic purposes. A full list is on the web at:

In the USA the block 555-0100 to 555-0199, combined with any area code, is reserved for fictitious use. More information is available at:

These numbers are effectively reserved forever; a writer can use them for a fictional character, safe in the knowledge that they will never be assigned to a real phone. Now that you know this, you will keep recognising this block of numbers when watching TV, but that's the price the gods demand of us for our power as writers.

Vehicle licence plates have the same problem. In the USA the tag 2GAT123 is reserved for dramatic use, see:

In the UK there does not seem to be a corresponding plate. However, if a UK registration becomes extinct when a vehicle is scrapped it cannot normally be resurrected. For this reason using (with the permission of the last owner) the registration of a vehicle that has gone through the crusher is possibly the safest approach.

Internet protocol addresses - needed for websites and e-mail - can be faked in several distinct ways. Internet protocol (IP) addresses are the numbers that identify all the computers connected to the internet. Domain names, which are often seen as the part of an e-mail address after the "@" symbol, or the part of a URL after the "http://" and before the next slash, are translated into numeric IP addresses by domain name servers, specialised computers that are part of the Internet itself. This is the Internet equivalent of looking up a number in a phone book.

An IP address is written as four numbers like this: However for technical reasons all four numbers have to be in the range 0 to 255, and the values 0, 1 and 255 are often unusable. The numbers entered by Sandra Bullock in "The Net" (1995) are completely impossible.

Several valid ranges of numbers are effectively safe for dramatic use. These are described in:

Particularly, to are reserved for examples in documentation and cannot be allocated to real computers. The block to is reserved for private networks, so an address in this range can exist, but will never be available over the public internet. In the same way, the domain names, and are permanently reserved and will never be allocated. At the next level, any domain ending in .test, .example, .invalid, or .localhost is reserved for testing and documentation, and therefore should be safe for use in fiction. 

The "Landranger" maps published by ordnance survey in the UK use a letter and figure code for specifying grid references. For example my house is at SU844634. For the full scheme see the leaflet that you can download at:

From the writer's point of view the convenient feature of the system is that it doesn't use the letter I. The join between squares SH and SJ goes through the middle of Rhyl in Wales, NH/NJ is near Findhorn in Scotland. Any map reference beginning SI or NI is guaranteed not to exist. Prefix letters other than N or S would be so obviously outside the country that they might not be convincing. 

This is only a quick introduction to the art of being decisively inaccurate. It is now up to you to find even more methods of being resoundingly unsound.