One of the big changes I noticed in writing crime is that I have to do more research. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t able to finish any projects when I tried writing sf/f: I wasn’t serious enough about it to do the research I should have. When you write speculative fiction you have to do so much world-building that it isn’t even funny. You end up knowing a lot more than you ever tell the readers.
Of course, every writer does this to one extent or another. You’ve always got to know more about the world you’re writing in than will ever end up in the book. It can be a fine balance sometimes, too, between giving just enough info for the reader to understand what’s going on and crossing the line into some weird hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, where the novel becomes the lesson plan.
Let’s face it: if you’re writing about it, chances are you’re interested in it, and everybody is guilty at one point in their life of lecturing on, I don’t know, the mating habits of lemurs, or something equally exotic, that leaves everyone else hiding their yawns. The temptation to do it as a writer can be stronger because you just spent six months (or whatever) doing so much research that the local librarians call you by your first name. And you’ve got all this knowledge that you’ve spent so many man-hours accumulating. Why not regurgitate it on the reader? (I picked that word on purpose.)
I just watched a mini-documentary that told of Louis L’Amour researching a novel he was setting in Utah. He wanted to look at a particular patch of land he’d seen years before from a plane or something like that, so he left LA and chartered a helicopter and, along with his son Beau and some others, they found the place and walked the land he wanted to use.
That’s dedication. And I have places I’d like to research that way. For instance, my novel Spree is set largely along the I-10 corridor from Los Angeles to roughly Mobile, Alabama. The protagonist and his partner-in-crime originally intended to follow it all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, but things didn’t quite go as planned (when do they ever?). I’ve only ever been on a comparatively short stretch of I-10, from somewhere in western Louisiana to Houston, and that was way back in the 80s (1984, I think). I’m not an expert on the highway.
So, I made things up about the terrain. I can’t go to Google Earth (God, what a luxury that is for a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, or not enough to charter helicopters as Mr. L’Amour did) because I don’t have Internet at home and you can’t use it on the library computers. I do know somebody in Phoenix who’s gonna get me pictures of downtown, and maybe some east of Tucson if he gets out that way, but I can’t ask him to make special trips (thankfully, he drives a truck, so he might make it to those locations). I could use Google Maps and get some of what I want, I’m sure. I’ve played around with it before and, while it’s not the 3-D Google Earth, it can be handy.
When I brought this up in an after-meeting discussion at writers group, Dusty Richards said something to the effect of, “Why worry about it? How many people know what it looks like?”
Well, that’s true. A good point. But…I guess I’m just anal enough to want some accuracy in my descriptions, especially since I actually want them to be a little distorted through the lens of my character.
Likewise, I’d like to get most of my law enforcement details right, as far as how various cops act and the procedures they use. I don’t have to be as meticulous about it as, say, Joseph Wambaugh, because I’m not writing police procedurals like he is. Of course, he has the advantage of being a former police officer, with connections inside the department. I don’t have either one (yet).
But see, what Mr. Wambaugh does is the equivalent, in the sf world, of hard science fiction. That’s the stuff that tends to be written by people like Isaac Asimov, Robert Forward and Larry Niven. These guys are working scientists, or were at one time, and they’re very familiar with the concepts they’re putting forward. Mr. Forward was, if I remember correctly, an astrophysicist. Mr. Asimov, while I don’t think he had much in the way of formal training, held several honorary degrees simply because he taught himself all of it. And I can’t remember exactly what Mr. Niven did, but he was in astronomy or something like that himself.
I can’t compete with that and, quite honestly, don’t want to. I think that’s one of the reasons I always like the space opera: it’s heavy on the fiction and much lighter on the science. The tech is there as a backdrop. I mean, look at shows like Star Trek and Star Wars. Trek was a little heavier on the science, if only to make Mr. Spock sound like he knew what he was talking about. But Star Wars? Not so much. We’re talking about the franchise in which Han Solo bragged about making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. Parsecs are units of measure, not units of speed (they’re approximately 3 light years, the space-going equivalent of a league).
(As an aside, author AC Crispin explains this in the Han Solo trilogy by saying that this is actually a dispute between Han and Chewbacca. It seems the Kessel Run, um, ran close to a cluster of black holes, and Han took the Millennium Falcon extremely close to the event horizon in a successful effort to evade Imperial ships. He claims that actually shortened the run to 12 parsecs thanks to the bending of space, while Chewie disagrees.)
Now, my novel Spree is something like a space opera in that I don’t want to get too technical on law enforcement techniques. Heck, if I do, it’s likely the book won’t work. Surveillance techniques—especially as regards the kind of technology LE can bring to bear these days—would put an end to the trip probably before they got out of LA. I think I do a good explanation of how they manage to evade the cops across the entire nation, but I doubt it would stand up to any kind of detailed scrutiny.
So what? It’s a fun story, for the most part, and that’s all it’s intended to be.
But what about my Rural Empires stories? They involve undercover work and, with the first two or three especially, Lyle working closely with the cops. How accurate do I need to be? To be honest, I’m not sure.
Authors regularly tweak details for the sake of story. I know there are cops, for instance, who won’t watch cop shows because they’re not accurate. Well, what if they were? I mean, how interesting is most police work? As a storyteller, you have to gloss over all the boring meetings, roll calls, stakeouts, traffic stops, paperwork, and all the other mundane details and emphasize the thirty seconds of sheer terror (to borrow a phrase from the military) that comes in a shoot-out with the bad guys (or good guys, depending on the cop).
What do you think? Do we owe it to the readers to get the facts as accurate as possible? Or can we tweak (or even ignore) them for the sake of story? For that matter, do we have to cling religiously to either scenario? I mean, my daughter has written a novel about teenagers robbing banks, and doing it quite successfully, using their natural inclination to role-play and get into costumes. At first glance, it seems awfully far-fetched. But is it? Or is it just something that hasn’t been done yet? I tend to think the latter.
What are your thoughts?