Mark Terry

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Just The Facts, Ma'am

September 1, 2010
I'm reading the novel CRASHERS by Dana Haynes. It involves the NTSB investigators (crashers) that are looking into what is likely to be the first of a series of plane crashes caused by a terrorist(s).

To-date, about 160 pages or so in, it's one of the most harrowing novels I've ever read. And to me, Haynes really did his homework. But...

Not all readers think so. Looking at the reviews on the book's Amazon page, there are a number of reviews by pilots or aeronautical engineers taking Haynes to task for inaccuracies.

I gotta tell you--I don't see them.

On the other hand, I've read books by Jeffery Deaver, one of the kings of forensic thrillers, and felt he played fast and loose with some of the science. Having worked for 18 years in labs, I'm familiar with most of the techniques he describes. Still, I think Deaver's great and wouldn't hesitate to recommend his books. And at least so far, that's how I feel about CRASHERS. It's not for somebody with a weak stomach or who already has a deep fear of flying (and for God sakes, don't read it on a plane!), but it's a terrific thriller so far.

Several readers and reviewers have complimented me on my research and technical detail in my Derek Stillwater novels. Uh-huh. Thank you. I recently received an e-mail from a gentleman with a military background who read THE FALLEN and had some issues with military details. A newspaper reviewer a month or so ago liked the book fairly well, but took me to task for a technical detail involving a missile on a certain military airplane.

In many ways I plead guilty to this. If there's an area that I'm particularly weak on, it's military stuff. Science--got it pretty well, although I've had some science people comment somewhat wryly on a bit of science I had in The Devil's Pitchfork, in which Derek performs a particular laboratory test on his own blood. Not that it matters, it was a last minute addition because my editor at the time caught a little plot hole he wanted filled. So I filled it. My wife, who's something of an expert on the technology I used raised an eyebrow, then said, "Well, I guess it's theoretically possible." A fellow writer who is a physician seemed amused by it, saying she liked it. (In general, I find novelists to be fairly forgiving of these sorts of slips, understanding the difficulty of being an expert on all things. Some readers just have a "gotcha" attitude, which is fine, it keeps the writers honest).

That said, I try very hard to get all the facts right. I read books and magazines. I spend a ton of time online. I ask professionals. If possible, I go to the site and take a look.

I am not--alas--one of those writers like Barry Eisler or Daniel Silva who is able to wander around Europe or Asia researching my novels, at least not yet (someday, wouldn't that be great?). Mostly that's fine, because Derek's adventures usually take place in cities I have visited.

I'm reminded: it's fiction. It's always interesting to me that someone can get a little offended that the jet fires the wrong missile (I did look that up, but at least one reader thinks I got it wrong), but they have no problem with the unlikelihood of the entire premise, or the fact that I might just make up a restaurant or resort or locale. Well, that's a writer's life, after all. Enough details to be convincing, otherwise you might as well write nonfiction.



Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I think you can get too accurate and loose the reader. Paul Levine, an experienced attorney recently posted about "mistakes" (actually short cuts), he has used in courtroom scenes and they weren't whole they way they would be in the real world, but if written they way they would be in the real world, the story would have lost even the trial lawyers reading it. I come from a long career in technology and am emploting that in fiction I am writing now, mostly because I think a lot of otherwise good writers really screw up technology. But I have learned that to make it entertaining, you have to "dumb down" the intricacies-no one is going to be entertained by growing crystals to make chips. So, we have to sacrifice the "actual" at the alter of entertainment, flow, and reader interest.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's pretty much my take on it, too. For instance, in one of his books Jeffery Deaver had them slapping a sample on a scanning electron microscope. Well, in my experience, that's now how it works. You have to specially treat the samples and it generally takes well over 24 hours. But that wouldn't work in the timeframe of the book, so he changed it. Do I have a problem with it? No, not really. I think time frames are often cut to hell in books when it comes to these things, particularly if in real life it might take weeks or even months to get lab work back (or in the current case of DNA backlogs, years to never).

I read what Paul wrote, too (and love his books). I think it's safe to say we as fictioneers shouldn't let facts get in the way of a good story.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

It's hard to draw the line. You want to be accurate but, on the other hand, you're writing fiction, not a text book. Mary and I do our best to get our history right but if someone wants to read history they are better off reading history books. And no matter what you do someone is going to spot an error. And why not? There are people who are experts in weaponry or police procedure. Your expertise is writing.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I accidentally deleted this comment by The Wolf in Me (Sorry, my fingers are sometimes too big for the iPhone interface for Blogger).

Sometimes you can't get 100% accurate with regards to some missiles, planes, payload, flight durations, etc.

I was in the Navy and went to school to be a cryptologic technician. During some of my schooling we learned that some tactical information is purposely published incorrectly--after all, you wouldn't all that information available for just everyone to view. We had to actually learn what the real specifications were as well as those that were published to the general public.

I'm with you, its fiction.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

& Wolf--that's ABSOLUTELY fascinating. I bet it allows intelligence agencies etc. to track where we got the information, too, if need be.

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I always think of the science fiction term: "willing suspension of disbelief." The reader agrees to believe what the author says just as long as the author attempts to make it sound plausible.

Last year I read a novel that was set in my home town (Kingston, NY). I found it interesting. Although it did not map one-to-one with my memories, I have not lived in that area in more than forty years and I know that there have been changes. The author had put a boxing gym in a building I used to know well. I have no idea if there actually is any such facility in that building, but I could clearly see it as possible and it fit very well with the way that I know that particular part of town has become very seedy and rundown. If there is no such gym there, there ought to be. Score one for the author; he made me believe.

I have worked in the computer industry for more than three decades now and I frequently hit credibility blocks when authors attempt to fake computer stuff. (By the way, you were probably mostly sort of waving your hands in the air in your Meg Malloy novel, trying to make her computer activities sound real, but it worked, it was very plausible hand waving, nicely done.)

The problem is that something that screams "not so" can derail a book. Actually, the most obvious example that pops into my mind was in a movie. In the War of the Worlds (2005 Spielberg version) they drive upstate on the west side of the Hudson and then try to cross the river on the ferry. There is no such ferry. There are some passenger ferries (the Newburgh-Beacon ferry takes commuters across to catch a MetroNorth commuter train and there is a proposed Kingston-Rhinecliff passenger ferry, etc.) but there haven't been any of those huge automobile and passenger ferries in decades, probably not since the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge was opened in 1957. (There also has not been any passenger train service on the west side of the Hudson in more than half a century despite the train shown striking a car.) I know it made a very striking scene, but it was a spoiler for me.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, I thought the Meg Malloy stuff was handwaving, too, for the most part. I'm a little careful these days because every thriller and mystery seems to have a hacker who can get the main character whatever possible information they could possibly want. Sometimes it feels like a cheat.

The biggest obstacle I felt with Meg Malloy, and I think John Sandford had this problem with his Kidd novels, is that computer tech moves so fast that anything you write today will be outmoded by the time the book sees print.

9:24 AM  

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