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.