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Writing – Getting the Details Right

Jefferson picked up the intact motorcycle and examined it in the moonlight.  “This is great!  I wonder where that dirtball got a hold of this beauty.  Check this out, Catherine, it’s a 1957 Harley 74 Panhead with a Fat Bob gas tank.  What a great crotch rocket.”

TNT’s show “Leverage” features some great characters and plots so implausible they border on goofy.  I watch it for the characters, but it’s annoying me more and more.  In every recent episode they make obvious mistakes any competent writer should have caught before the script’s second draft.

In one episode they were trying to get into a room protected by a security lock.  They used a thumbprint they’d stolen from someone who had access.  When that didn’t work Alex, the security expert, said something about capacitance checking, and used a Gummy Frog to fool the system.  I have no idea if that would work in the real world, but it worked for them.  But then the system asked for an iris scan.  They left, kidnapped the guy they were impersonating in the silliest way possible, brought him to the lock, got their iris scan and got in.

I’ve worked in secure facilities.  If your access fails the security guys will be there very quickly.  In one case a colleague tried his pass on a server room he wasn’t authorized to access.  He swiped his card once.  Security was there within minutes, and warned him if he tried it again he’d be fired immediately.

The plot of this episode involved a food company who was knowingly selling tainted food.  (A rather dumb premise to begin with.  No large company would do that – it would destroy their business.) The good guys were trying to steal incriminating files at the same time the bad guys were deleting them.  The good guys failed, which is realistic; deleting files takes much less time than finding and downloading them.  But the trick ending was stupid.

Nathan Ford, the head good guy, announced that although they failed to get the incriminating files, they had stolen all the company’s patents, and would release them to the public unless the company came clean.

No! Patents are already public.  Anyone can get all the details of any patent for a small fee.  Food companies don’t patent unique recipes or processes because their competitors would have easy access to them.  The recipes for Coke and KFC, for instance, are protected by keeping them secret.  If Ford had said “I’ve stolen your secret recipes” it would have worked.  For anyone with even the most cursory familiarity with patents, the ending was downright stupid.

I could write another thousand words about the stupid, obvious errors in just the past few episodes, but you get the idea.

Just because you’re writing fiction doesn’t mean you can just make stuff up.  If you don’t get your facts straight you’re going to alienate any readers who spot the error.

Getting It Right

Getting the details right has the opposite effect.  It gives your story credibility among the readers who know the subject and makes it more interesting for those who don’t.

A while back I was reading all the John MacDonald novels I could get my hands on.  In one of them the main character, Travis McGee, visits Utica.  The descriptions of various parts of the city were accurate to the smallest detail.  People who had never been in Utica wouldn’t know that, but I’ve been there and it made the story real.  It not only made that scene more enjoyable, it also made me trust the author.  When he described a place I wasn’t familiar with it rang true.

Even tiny details matter.  In show “Sons of Anarchy” Clay, the leader of the motorcycle gang, smokes cigars.  In the last episode a character hands him a box of cigars and says, “I heard you like Camachos.”  Perfect.  Comanchos are very strong cigars that would appeal to someone like Clay.  If the line had been “I heard you like Macanudos,” it would have been stupid.  Macanudos, America’s best selling brand, are smooth and mild.  A lazy writer who just Googled “popular cigars” could have easily made that mistake and most viewers wouldn’t have noticed it, but it would have ruined the scene for cigar smokers. Instead of being drawn into the intense, dramatic scene they would have been snickering at the mistake.

When I wrote Blood Witness the internet wasn’t available.  I was in a writers group in the online service GEnie.  In one scene two vampires, Catherine and Jefferson, kill three bikers they’d bated into harassing them.  Jefferson was a motorcycle aficionado.  I wasn’t.  I needed a description of a bike that would both excite a collector and be something a gang member would ride.  I asked for help, and the advice resulted in the opening sentence of this article.   If you know motorcycles, it rings true.  If you don’t it still adds to the scene and gives you some insight to Jefferson’s character.

I’m working on my next novel, a detective story.  Some scenes involve gun battles.  I used online references for the first draft, but for the second one I’ll send those scenes to someone who really knows firearms and ask for their input.  On the other hand I won’t need any help describing the cigars one of the characters smokes, or the experience he has in a tobacconist’s lounge.

Getting the facts wrong is easy and lazy.  While most of your readers might not catch the mistake, those who do will be snapped out of the reality you’ve created and will lose respect for your writing ability.  Getting the facts right can take considerably more work, but it makes your fiction sparkle with authenticity.

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4 Comment(s)

  1. I hate leverage for the exact same reason. I still like Dark Blue though.

    If you need to run some gun stuff by someone, let me know. I have a buddy who is career SF.

    johnnyvirgil | Sep 11, 2009 | Reply

  2. I tried watching one episode of Leverage, I couldn’t even finish the episode. It was just so internally inconsistent. I can’t watch Fringe for the same reason.

    John | Sep 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. Dave,
    Another GEnie-ite! I used to be an assistant sysop on the Unix Round table. I still remember the night we were in the middle of a Real Time Conference when a guy we didn’t know came on and told us how he wrecked his car and then it got flooded by a hurricane that passed by New Jersey and he was “going to let his friends on the Internet help him pay to fix it.” The RTC emptied very fast. As for inaccuracies in TV and Movies, I say “Tell me about it!” I have lamented the lack of accuracy with regards to computers and to a lesser extent Electronics since I first learned to solder. The most inaccurate recently was a movie called “Eagle Eye” which, in the first 5 minutes, played a news report in the back ground that stated that criminals could connect and listen to a cell phone “even when it’s turned off” … After that it got weird! :)

    Brian Riley | Sep 14, 2009 | Reply

  4. I was a sysop for the Enable RoundTable on GEnie. Amazing, isn’t it, that people paid $6/hour to hang out there at 1200 baud, and $18/hour for the blazing speed of 2400 baud. The best part of being a sysop was we got to hang out there for free.

    You mean when someone hacks an Apache server they don’t do it via 3d Autocad graphics? Shocking!

    A few weeks ago I saw Swordfish for the first time. Wow. Just, Wow.

    @John – the only reason I keep watching Leverage is I love the characters, especially Sophie and Parker. But their errors keep getting more abundant with each episode, so I don’t know how much longer I can handle the pain.

    Dave Hitt | Sep 14, 2009 | Reply

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