Don’t Insult Readers by Being Lazy

Guest post
by Jim McCulloch

I’ve been a reader far longer than I’ve been a writer, and I’ve never enjoyed being insulted by authors who have written patently inaccurate detail into their otherwise excellent novels. I never know for sure if they were being lazy or just plain arrogant. Some have managed to become national and international best-selling authors but it doesn’t necessarily make what they wrote worth reading, at least for me.

I’m a fan of realistic action, adventure, mystery, spies, and tough guys so I’ll stick to those for purposes of discussion and because examples are easy to find. Apply the same concept to your own favorite genre and subject matter.

What do my favorite novels often have in common? They contain violence by way of firearms, explosives, edged-weapons, or personal combat. What else? Many characters have military or police training and experience. More? They often must surreptitiously communicate with other characters while being chased around the country or the world.

So what are my pet peeves when reading about these subjects in the genres I most enjoy?

1. The use and description of firearms when it is obvious that the author hasn’t a clue. Some use incorrect firearm types, wrong models, calibers or cartridges that don’t exist, the wrong decade or century for the weapon being used, or incorrect firearm nomenclature/ terminology. Many authors quickly betray the fact that they don’t know the difference between a revolver and semi-automatic pistol; the difference between a shotgun and rifle; how each works; and what would be applied by professionals or knowledgeable people in the circumstances.

2. Descriptions of military experience by those who have never served. I can tell within a couple of sentences if an author has been in the military, and so can millions of other veterans. Convincingly describing military life and experience is pretty well impossible unless you’ve been there, or collaborated with a knowledgeable veteran. The same falls true when creating police officers and big city detectives.

3. The use of radio communication that is inconsistent with reality and the laws of physics. For example, the use of police radio systems for talking to military people, the use of short-range systems (VHF and UHF) to directly communicate around the world without internet or satellite assistance, and the use of radios without antennas. Other examples include the use of standard cell phones in areas that logically would have no coverage. Folks living in crowded metro-areas seem to be unaware that many parts of the world have poor or no cell coverage. Even in the US, once you are just a few miles off major highways or away from a town or city, there is often no continuous or complete coverage.

4. Fight scenes so unrealistic that they can only elicit a deep belly laugh from anyone who has even been involved in a childhood pushing match. Many authors have never been in a fistfight, let alone personal combat with someone skilled in a martial art or with edged-weapons. Writing about the damage done with fists, feet, and impact or edged weapons without some exposure to the physiology, threat, or emotion that accompanies the action is difficult to pull off without some guidance from experienced fighters and medical personnel. Screen writers get away with it as scenes explode in seconds, but an author cannot expect intelligent readers to stretch their imagination quite so far when they have time to consider and evaluate your words.

Authors who write about subjects they don’t really understand while assuming their readers will not see through it are just kidding themselves and insulting their readers’ intelligence. Political correctness or your own social conscience is no excuse for writing nonsensical scenes if you elect to write violence or science into your story. There are always millions of people with specific knowledge of every subject that is written into a novel, and it is the height of arrogance for any author to pretend or think otherwise.

Don’t insult your readers. Do the work to make your story realistic. It’s never been easier to research any topic, and many experienced people are happy and honored to help you through the subject areas in which you are not familiar.

The only person you fool by taking the easy way is yourself.

Jim McCulloch is the author of Fracture Gradient, an action novel set in the international energy industry. Jim is originally from Duluth, Minnesota but has lived in many parts of the U.S. and now calls the rural Coast Range foothills of northwest Oregon home. He is a former U.S. Army Officer, amateur radio operator, and veteran of the international energy industry . . . all of which provided rich fodder for his book. Learn more about Jim and his writing from his website: http://www.JimMcCulloch.com and his Amazon author page.

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20 thoughts on “Don’t Insult Readers by Being Lazy”

  1. Agree with you, Jim. A book having the faults you indicate gets into the waste bin in. Writing a book, no matter the genre (unless maybe fantasy, but even there…), requires doing research or asking experts.

    The “write what you know” is often mistaken for writing about things that happened to you. Not so, it is literally writing things that you come to know, researched, or discussed with experts before attempting to bring them into the story.

  2. I’m with you 100%.

    As a reader, I’m often infuriated by descriptions of places I know well that are completely OFF. I recently read a novel set on the West Coast. I was enjoying the sense of place until the New York backstory of two characters revealed that the author was writing about my city based on old movies. The devil is in the details and when an elevated subway car rattled overhead during the 1980s on the Lower East Side, I knew I could no longer trust her descriptions of the West Coast either.

    Research helps create the sense of reality that brings fiction to life. Double checking things I know and seeking out experts in areas where I’m naive, helps me make sure that I’m giving the reader the entire package.

    I’m putting the finishing touches on a story set in Argentina and those finishing touches mean checking in with friends living there now for the current entry price at Tango dances and other details that might jump out at a reader and spoil the fun.

    After all, how can you expect them to believe your fantastic, magical, paranormal, adventure, romance, etc. stories, if you don’t get the real life descriptions right?

  3. I agree with Candy and Massimo, those small, sometimes incidental details can often make or break a work of fiction. Those small details are the glue that makes the fiction feel real. Take away the glue and all you’re left with is a fairytale.

    I write science fiction and I spend as much time researching low tech things like knots and snares as I do on high tech. because some things should not be fudged.

  4. That’s a pet peeve of mine too, Jim. With the information available today, if you don’t get it right (you called it) it’s just plain lazy!

  5. Greetings fellow vet! I did my 20 in the Air Force. Yes, I fully agree with you about doing the research. With just about any of my books (my military thrillers especially) I spend hundred of hours researching, talking to folks who have been there and done that (because I didn’t), and coming up with plausible story lines that my characters could be involved in. It ain’t easy, but I think giving readers a realistic story to get wrapped up in is my goal. Oh, and getting the firearms right is a breeze- I’m married to a walking armament encyclopedia, and we have many toys as well.

    Great article!

  6. Agree wholeheartedly. I’ve read of few books of late where the action scenes are utter ridiculousness. Ex: A man is handcuffed to a chair, bolts out the door, climbs onto the roof, launches himself onto one of his assailants, all, while still hand-cuffed to the chair. Really? The book only got worse and more silly. Our hero has a broken back, various gun shot wounds, and if flying a P-51 with a burning engine, oil covering the cowling, it’s dark and yet, he’s able to make a pass and fire a perfect burst at the pursuing ME-109.

    Action is one thing. Fairy Tales is a different genre. Moving on.

    Great Article Jim.

  7. Thank you for the post, Jim, you are dead-on! It bugs me when I read errors about things I’ve experienced firsthand or places I’ve lived. So I’m doing all I can now to get it right. For instance, I have a background in graphic arts and printing. I read a book decades ago about counterfeiters, which included a detailed process of all the steps in negative stripping, plating, and printing. About half was wrong! This could have been easily fixed with a few phone calls or a trip to a print shop. Again, lazy!

  8. One best-selling writer I’ve met talked about the inaccuracy in his books. When one of his fans mentioned that the writer had written a character who took the safety off his Glock, the author shook his head.

    “That’s not how I wrote it,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s the editor at work. He’ll play ‘Call of Duty’ and think he knows everything about firearms.”

    1. Yes, they love to “snick” the safety off those Glocks or .45 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolvers 🙂
      Then they slip them into their knit sweater pockets and jog down the street with no one the wiser.

  9. “As I looked out the window of my Park Avenue apartment in the Bronx, my gaze affixed on the tall spire of the Space Needle as it rose gleamingly from the Loop district on the west side of Chinatown…”

    1. LOL…. that’s how I felt about the Lower East Side of the 1980s described like the 1950s (from a Neil Simon or Woody Allen film). The writer was focused on kosher delis and seemed to miss the CBGBs, etc. of the period. Made me NUTS!

  10. I absolutely agree with you. The research for my book took years and double testing for accuracy. I can’t stand it when authors write from their imagination and don’t cross reference their facts. The information highway is fabulous and we are almost spoon-fed with every subject, so there’s really no excuse. It only brings us all down when shabby work is presented.

  11. FIrst, from a fellow vet – Thank you for serving.
    I agree (haven’t heard those words before huh?) with you.
    I think one of my greatest tools as a writer, is remembering what it was like as a reader. There will always be readers who don’t like what you’ve written. But one of the things I think we must remember is that ….if you would like the story you just wrote as a reader, then there are bound to be others who enjoy it too.
    So…
    When you are doing that final revision, or trying to sharpen that plot arc, remember the insight that we gained from Jim and others here:
    If it doesn’t sound right and makes you want to put the book through the woodchipper, or if you make references to real places without knowing anything about them, you may want to rethink your approach.
    The best advice I’ve gotten, “If you want to be seen as a professional, you need to write and act like one.”
    Seems easy, but I’ve read enough 1st time authors to be convinced that while it might be a simple rule of thumb, it is seldom followed.

  12. Wow! I was concerned my comments would irritate authors and bore readers. Thanks to each of you for the kind words and encouragement. Many of you came up with better examples than mine, and I get a kick out of each of them.

    And a special thanks to K. and S.A. (and all the other vets out there) for your military service on this Memorial Day evening.

  13. I agree with everyone here. I edited a book for a novice friend who had a scene where someone was placed in an oxygen tent in the hospital. That would have been fine had the story taken place a few decades ago, but they haven’t used oxygen tanks for some years now. Anyone in the medical field would catch that immediately. Fortunately I had a couple years of medical studies many years ago, or I probably wouldn’t have caught it. Also she had someone seriously injured in a car accident, thrown into the windshield while wearing a seat belt, at a stop sign where no one was driving very fast. First, anyone with a seat belt in place could not hit the windshield. In my own novel, I placed my main character in Lucerne, Switzerland, walking through the covered bridge. I was there in 1971 and saw the bridge, but it has since been taken down. I had to check that it was still there when my character was there. Fortunately it was and my story could proceed. I feel it is very important to get these little details right. Even though we write fiction, it has to be believable to be readable.

  14. Thank you,Jim. I agree completely. In my novel about a scandal concerning various individuals in the Catholic Church, not only did my ‘inside knowledge’ help but the detailed research I did on protocols etc. etc. absolutely made me a better and accurate writer. Good on you – tremendous advice.

  15. Thank you so much Jim for an informative and helpful post. I write pure fantasy, but when it comes to weapons of that period, I do extensive research on exactly what was used and by whom. It is important that I’m correct.
    Now being a military brat, I had another experience. My dad was a hard hat diver, and I remember every time “Sea Hunt” came on, he left his chair, shaking his head. I didn’t understand what was wrong. He said, “They actually expect people to believe that crap? ” Well I guess many did, as it was a hit, but at that early age he left the imprint for me to get it right.

    1. Thank you, Aron. So many good examples of “reality lapses” exist in writing and then you have to bring television into it 🙂
      What next, movies? TV and movie accuracy seems to have deteriorated over the years, or perhaps I just know a little more about more subjects. Not sure which.

      Everyone’s examples highlight just how sensitive (some) readers are to obvious factual errors, and its a good lesson for us all. Whether its geography, tango dancing, military, counterfeiting, religion, medical, or scuba diving there are people who see through nonsense. And it seems that many Indie authors authors are on top of it despite what the “traditionally published” sometimes say. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms 🙂

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