Mark Terry

Monday, January 16, 2012

Details

January 16, 2012
I recently read a thriller by a bestselling thriller author. He's not a brand name, per se, but if you read a lot of thrillers you'd probably recognize the name. I've read several of his books in this series and I like his books a lot. We have very similar story-telling sensibilities, by which I mean if you like my books you'd like his and if you like his books you'd like mine. (Which sort of kills me, because he has a lot more readers than I do).

Let me say from the outset that when I finished the book I really enjoyed it. It was full of action, had a reasonably thought-provoking premise and it was, for the most part, an enjoyable read.

Why "for the most part", Mark?

Therein lies a problem. At one point in the book we get a chapter from the POV of a little girl who is Muslim. We are led to believe that she lives in the Detroit area. Her father drives her to school in Detroit. Much is made out of how where she lives has the highest density of Muslims in the U.S.

Then, it is indicated that they lived in Flint, Michigan.

Okay. I'm a life-long resident of the area. So there are some problems here.

First, Flint is not a suburb of Detroit. It's 60 or 70 miles away and although you might get commuters from one to the other, really, nobody who lives in Flint is taking their kids to school in Detroit. (And for god sakes, why would you want to? Detroit's got one of the worst school systems in the country).

No, the writer meant Dearborn, Michigan, which does have the largest Muslim population in the U.S., and in fact, is typically described as having the highest numbers of Arabs outside of the Middle East.

So another problem. Living in Dearborn and going to school in Detroit. Um... why? But that's not really the point, because Dearborn is never mentioned. Flint is.

In other words, I'm fairly convinced the writer remembered some news story about Dearborn and never bothered to double-check or, for that matter, even look at a map. And this mistake isn't an isolated mistake. It's pretty much ongoing for the first third of the book, repeated over and over again.

Okay. So is this writer a sloppy researcher? That's not my impression. The man knows a lot about weapons, bullets, hate groups, Delta Forces, special forces weapons and tactics, presidential security, etc. There may have been some "hand-waving" when it comes to the hacker stuff (there almost always is), but I know he wrote about his research on his blog and how he went to the Special Forces training program and they let him shoot guns and run through the obstacle course and watch them train and allowed him to ask questions.

So no. I don't think he's a particularly sloppy researcher. But man, he screwed up.

I think you can go overboard with the authenticity, or at least, worrying about it. I try to get things right, but there comes a time where I just have to write the damned thing.

I remember someone complaining about The Da Vinci Code because he had the character on the wrong side of the Seine in Paris. And although I think you can fault Dan Brown for a lot of things (like sloppy writing), I'm not sure I'd fault him for sloppy research.

It's just hard to get every single freakin' pesky detail right.

Just days ago Barry Eisler (who did not write the book I'm bitching about here) said he was going to Thailand or someplace to research a short story. Which definitely gives me a WTF moment. Clearly his self-publishing ventures with short stories are making him some money to justify that.

On the other hand, Dean Wesley Smith has said at least once on his blog that you can waste a lot of time on research and maybe you should just make stuff up and get on with writing the story. And Stephen King once made a comment about if you don't know the details of (for instance) Moscow, why don't you set the story in someplace you do know (like Derry, Maine, Stevie?).

I'm somewhere in between. Of course, the novel I'm writing now takes place mostly in Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) and I've never been there and these sorts of locations sort of drive me crazy because I want to get it right but I constantly ask myself if I should have just written a different story.

I will say this. Despite liking this guy's books a lot, I almost quit reading it with his repeated Flint, Michigan screw-up. I kept getting tossed right out of the story and it was pissing me off (and, alas, there may have been some sour grapes, because he sells a LOT more books than I do, mistake or not). So getting it right can make the difference between a satisfied reader and a non-reader.

What do you think? Ever been thrown out of a book by something you know is wrong? Are there levels of mistakes you're willing to forgive and some you're not?

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Terry said...

Sometimes I think the detail gets too much in the way of a good story. No criticism meant but I found your books to have just enough to show the pertinent knowledge but not too much so that it just feels like you are trying too show off your research. A delicate balance. Tom Clancy is an author in my opinion that typifies the extreme of detail overload which loses the reader.

Love your work.

I came across your books by accident when I typed my name in the search bar on Amazon.

My name is also Mark Terry

2:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

Hmm. I guess I have strong feelings about this subject. For my one and only published novel I traveled to the U.S. (I'd never been to Philadelphia, where some scenes take place), England, Spain, and Turkey, and of course I live in Germany. The scenes from England, Spain, and Turkey were cut.

Granted that's above and beyond, but there was no way I'd be happy with a real-place setting unless I'd nailed it. And the only way to nail it is to go there. You miss too much local color by just making stuff up.

For the novel I'm about to release I needed a retreat in France, and someone suggested the abbey St. Odile, in the Alsace. I spent a weekend there (it was perfect). Later, after the scenes were written, I returned for another weekend and filled gaps. The protagonist returns to Germany on a train. I rode the train.

It's the only way I can work. Not that it necessarily pays off: one major NY publisher turned my first book down, suggesting that if I wanted to write about Europe, I should visit the place.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I once screwed up a gardening detail--one little line--in a book. My mom caught it. We all mess up here or there. I also once read a blogger's review of one of my books in which she creamed me about some details regarding football--only she clearly knows nothing of the subject because I had actually explained some of it in the book--so there are always readers who are going to think they can one-up you and who almost LOOK for this stuff.

That said . . . something like that (the Flint thing) would make me not read . . . I can't give a writer a pass on, say, screwing up some basic elements of a story set in Manhattan. I will give you that yes, setting stories in Manhattan or South Beach or Miami or L.A. have more cache than, say, Iowa, but if you can't get the vibe right, then don't bother trying. So I guess for me it's does it feel real . . . and in this case (the one you are citing), it is SO far off that . . . it would pop me out of story.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I can't recall being put off by errors in a book but then I read a lot of older books and the current style of authors trying to make everything absolutely realistic by piling up real details and facts is fairly new I think. I am more likely to be put off by too much manufactured realism. Endless driving routes with every twist and turn, like a Google Maps route, or lovingly detailed descriptions of firearms. I am almost at the point where if I read the term "muzzle velocity" I will close the book. My attitude is that the author needs to get right what needs to be right for his or her story, but if someone wants a geography lesson buy a travel book. But as for the book you read -- I will bet the author would get a lot more complaints if he erred about a gun's muzzle velocity than he'd get from misplacing Flint, Michigan.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Mark - hello! Glad you like the books. I know another Mark Terry, he's a realtor in Denver. A lot of people email him thinking he's me by mistake.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Steve,
You make me feel like a research Philistine. But I'm definitely more comfortable writing about places I've been to.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Erica,
I think you can go crazy on it. Loren Estleman told me a story once about an editor or reader castigating him about there never being a tree on the hill he wrote about in a western.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric,
It's funny, because the book in question has this really intense description of a specific type of gun and the ammunition it used. And it was very central to the plot and he handled it so well, and he brought it to an ending with some line like, "It was a hell of a bullet," that you just understood this weapon and the problem it presented.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Travis Erwin said...

I have hit this problem and struggled with it so whenever possible ti try to write about places I have actually been or simply make up a fictional town as I did in writing Plundered Booty. That way i can make it what i want and need it to be.

3:46 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I vote for Derry. I usually use fictional towns so I can make it look the way it is in my mind.
The Flint/Dearborn thing would have floated right by me because I'm not familiar with the area. However if it referred to a place I knew it would definitely kick me out and annoy the hell out of me.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Yeah, I don't know. I've been bitten by writing about the Amish and by writing about music. The first I've researched a TON and I practically lived in Amish country; the second, I've lived all my life.

BUT... readers believe the weirdest things, including stereotypes. I'm always drawn to the real details, particularly when they're different from the superficial stereotype.

And that's when I get burned, LOL.

So I've come to the conclusion that it just doesn't matter. If you get the details correct, then people will say you're wrong because the stereotype is X. If you get them wrong, then a few people in the know will be annoyed.

It's lose-lose, LOL.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

'tasha,
I think we can worry too much about it. I interviewed Gale Lynds once and asked her about research and she sort of snorted and said, "National Geographic." So who the hell knows?

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

The same thing can happen in movies. In the remake of War of the Worlds that was out a few years ago, Tom Cruise and his kids fled up the Hudson Valley... on the west side of the river. They wanted to get to Boston, so they needed to cross the Hudson. Instead of taking one of the bridges (say at Bear Mountain or Newburgh or Poughkeepsie or Kingston, he tries to take a ferry across the Hudson. But that kind of huge ferry has not existed on the Hudson for many decades. That took me right out of the movie.

I grew up in Kingston and when I was a kid my friends and I would sometimes ride the Kingston-Rhinecliff Ferry back and forth across the river. It was a 15 cent fare (when a comic book cost a dime) so we wouldn't do it too often, but if we didn't get off on the other side of the river, we didn't have to buy a new ticket. We'd just ride back and forth like millionaires on our yacht.

6:44 AM  

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