Get Your Fiction-Facts Right – or Not
By Larry Kahaner
A friend of mine emailed me the other day about what kind of firearm one of his characters should be firing. He asked me because I know about weapons having once authored a non-fiction book about the AK-47 rifle. He described in detail how far the gun had to shoot, the shooter’s prowess (of lack of it) whether the round it fired would kill the intended victim or simply maim him. He went on to tell me about the weather conditions under which the shooting would occur. He mentioned nothing about the ironic comment the sniper undoubtedly would say once he pulled the trigger.
He needed this gun information quickly because it was holding up his progress. His writing momentum was locked but not loaded.
“TK,” I wrote back, “and move on.”
TK comes from my newspaper background. (My friend was a newsie, too, and knows the term.) It stands in for a word or phrase when you don’t know a certain fact, like the correct spelling or occupation of a person, and you will check it later. It means ‘to come’ and how the ‘c’ became a ‘k’ is a matter of some lore and conjecture, but it doesn’t really matter. See, I’m taking my own advice and moving on, too.
My buddy also cc’ed one of our other author pals and asked him, too. He, being nicer than me, actually offered some possible weapons and why each would be the one to use.
Although I am a stickler for presenting readers with the most accurate and realistic material, we’re writing fiction. Not an army manual. Unless you’re writing a military thriller where weapons are the star of the show (think some early works by Tom Clancy), the type of firearm, bomb, mace or other killing device isn’t that important. What’s more important is the feeling and emotion that the action proffers along with its contribution to the forward movement of the story. (Caveat: If you do specify a make and model of a gun make sure you get it right. There’s an entire world of gun enthusiasts who read novels just to find these kinds of errors.)
I know that many mystery authors in particular will gasp at this pronouncement. And I don’t blame them. Sometimes the exact type of poison is crucial to the story. (Seriously, are we still writing these kind of books?) Did the cops rule out a certain gun model because it didn’t fit the perp’s MO? (Please. We’re better than that.)
I also know that mystery writers attend lectures and webinars on the proper way to handcuff a suspect so they can add this detail to their novel. I have even seen half-day seminars for authors about electrocution. (I hope it’s for authors.) I’m okay with all that – and it can make a story more realistic – but sometimes a quick read on Wikipedia or a viewing of a YouTube titled “How to use a Taser” is enough. It certainly isn’t worth holding up your writing until you get the perfect answer.
What if you don’t get it exactly right? One of the biggest bestsellers of the 20th century, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, got a DC subway station name wrong. The author called it Metro Central instead of Metro Center. I live there so the error stood out, but you know something? No biggie. We’ve all seen something like this or worse. It bugs us for a few minutes, and we lament how ‘they’ could’ve looked it up. If the book is engaging enough, we’re okay with looking the other way. (Pro tip: Don’t place the Kremlin in China and you’ll be fine.) Ever watch a movie that takes place in a city that you know well? How many times have you shouted at the screen ‘they could never get between those places so fast?’
And don’t get me started on the scientific mistakes in The Martian by Andy Weir. There are scores of websites devoted to events in the book that could never happen because they break the rules of physics and/or the universe… but do most people care? That’s a nope.
One last piece of advice: It’s just as easy to get something right as it is to get it wrong. It’s far easier, though, to write around a detail and get on with the story than either of these choices.
Getting back to my friend who asked the original weapon question… I think he just wanted a respite. Writing is hard work, and distractions that seem like you’re really working on your book provide excellent cover.