Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How Real Should It Be?

What I'm reading: Contest Entry 3/5

What I'm writing: Chapter 25

I hit a snag in my plot a few days ago. My heroine and her savvy hero had escaped their captors, and were on the run. Now, too many of us get our information from watching television, or maybe from reading novels written by authors who get their information watching television. We've grown to believe that DNA and fingerprint records come back in minutes, complete with pictures of the suspects, their entire life history, and what they ate for breakfast. In reality, that doesn't happen.

Can you be found by using your credit card or ATM? Calling someone on your cell phone? Maybe--but be honest. Do YOU know how to do that? In reality, most of this information goes only to law enforcement, and only with a lot of paperwork. John Q. Public can't simply call up the AmEx office and ask where Joe Hero last used his credit card.

But -- if a reader thinks something is real, then is writing it right going to make them stop reading because they think it's wrong? One RWA speaker, Julia Hunter with the FBI said that even she writes things wrong if it's reader perception.

I've tried to have my savvy hero explain to my heroine why he feels safe using his credit card--because he knows the system, and he's sure the guys who found them earlier are penny-ante thugs who could never get the requisite warrants, since they're not law enforcement by any means. However I also created a special perk for his account which would alert him if anyone tried to trace his charges. Is that real? Maybe. I know you can get alerts if someone tries to access your credit rating. And I know that AmEx called me once when someone was trying to charge a plane ticket from Japan to Ireland. And, I created a fictional company that my hero works for, which allows some more of the fudge factor.

So--my hero and heroine managed to elude the bad guys, and are on the road again. I followed all the normal precautions for them, and was convinced they could get away clean. Only problem--I need the bad guys to find them for another action-high tension scene. I decided that the heroine will send a couple of emails to someone she's unaware is working with the bad guys, and he'd use the header information in the emails to trace where the messages came from.

But--I wasn't 100% sure it would work. I tried plugging my own ISP into WHOIS and it took me to my Internet Provider's corporate office. I questioned my crimescenewriters Yahoo group and my fears were confirmed. Without a subpoena, the ISPs won't reveal exactly where the emails come from. So... do I fudge here and hope readers think that every time they log onto their computers, anyone can find them? Or do I try to keep it real.

I've always opted for real. So...back to the plotting board for another way to get that hero/heroine confrontation with the bad guy.

Does it bother you when an author bases an important plot point on something you know can't really happen?


Ray said...

With the Patriot Act I'm not so sure a warrant is necessary to hack into the information required to find someone. Law enforcement or spooks could be working for the bad guys.

Whenever I see something like that I have to think it is highly unlikely, but I never judge a book that critically when something doesn't seem procedurally correct.

I do tend to look at the copyright date and compare it to the date the author tells me the story takes place to see if there are any anachronisms. I don't fault the author if there are. I am just having fun.

I look closely at anything medical as I worked in medicine for over forty years. For instance when someone pops two Ibuprofen I wonder to myself, is this the 200mg OTC version designed for people who believe two is better than one or the 800mg that would put a horse to sleep if two were taken. When you gave your hero two cyclobenzaprine HCl tablets I was glad to see it put him to sleep. It would have put me under the bed.


Terry Odell said...

Ray, thanks for being a 'regular' here. For me, accuracy is VERY important. If I don't know something, I will definitely research it before putting it on the page. The problem arises when I have no clue I don't know something. I spent a lot of time making sure I knew what constellations would be visible at the time of year and the location of a scene (which ended up cut-but that's another matter). However, I had no clue whatsover that a manual transmission wasn't an option on any car. So when I decided to insert a little 'inside joke' and have Sarah unable to drive away because she didn't know how to drive a stick, I had no inkling the Highlander I wrote into the story only came in automatic. Thank goodness an early crit parter questioned it. I now keep the Consumer Report Auto edition handy any time I need to give a character a car. And I've gotten a lot better with Google, too.

Katie Reus said...

Okay, blogger is driving me crazy!! It ate my last comment! Trying this again...stretching the truth in books doesn't bother me if it's obvious the author has done research. I'm there to be entertained. Period. As long as it's not completely bogus and the author is telling a great story, I don't care if there are a few things that might be technologically improbable.

However, if an author screws up weapon terminology or accuracy of weapon capability, etc. I get really annoyed b/c that's lazy writing IMHO. :)

Terry Odell said...

Shame on Blogger for dissing you, Katie. Glad you stuck it out.

With some of the gun stuff, I've just started doing the "Ha! I know more than famous big-time author." Because, even though doing the homework is vital, I've made mistakes because I didn't realize I didn't know something--like the no stick shift on a Highlander thing. I did talk to an author friend about the most common firearm error in books, which is thumbing the safety off a Glock, and she said she assumed that all semi-automatics had safeties like that, just like I thought all cars came with the option of stick or automatic.

Calling a magazine a 'clip' is another technicality. I even got to one-up my gun-loving SIL when I pointed out the correct terminology. He looked it up and with much chagrin, admitted he was wrong and his old MIL was right!

Katie Reus said...

Yeah, the magazine/clip thing annoys my husband....(former Marine sniper). I'll admit, I'm spoiled when it comes to writing about weapons. I do a lot of research, but I use the man and his friends for about half of it :)