Reality check…

      8 Comments on Reality check…

You know what really, really annoys me?

OK, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Actually, no, this is not going to be a list of things that really annoy me – maybe I’ll do that later. This is going to be about bloody careless authoring.

Any book set in the real world has potential pitfalls for the unwary author. Pure fantasy/sci-fi is easier because you can set things up how you want. But reality has been already set up by a different author, and you are not allowed to change it.

Take the book I am currently reading, Alchemystic, by Anton Strout.

The protagonist, Alexandra (Lexi) Belarus, is a twenty-two year-old woman. In one of the first chapters, she’s attacked by a guy with a knife. According to the book, he is behind her, holding a knife to her throat, and she kicks up backwards with her Doc-Martened foot, and gets him in the ‘nads. Upon which, he lets go of her, and she legs it.

OK. I challenge you to do this.

Not with a real knife-wielding maniac, of course; get yourself a nice friendly man who’s willing to risk being kicked in the bollocks. I used my ever-so-devoted husband when I tried this.

And guess what? Exactly what I expected to happen, happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. OK, so I’m short – only 5’3″ – but my devoted husband is not exactly Mr Tall. He’s only 5’8″. And, no matter how hard I tried, my legs were not long enough to reach his testicles when kicking up backwards. It’s a matter of geometry: my knees are low enough that the distance from knee to foot is less than the distance from my knee to his balls. So my husband’s assets were perfectly safe. If I had been a few inches taller (i.e., with longer legs), I might have been able to do it, but only with a short man. And it wouldn’t have been a very powerful kick. Also, as my husband pointed out, the minute he felt me going for the backwards kick, he’d drag me backwards by my neck. Or knife me.

So, to continue. Ms Lexi Belarus is from a swimming-in-it rich real estate family, and she’s going to inspect some renovation work being done on one of their properties. She discovers that the bad guys have killed the contractors and left their broken, bloody bodies on the premises. The other protagonist of the story (an animated stone gargoyle) crashes through the roof to save her when the bad guys attack her. He suggests disposing of the bodies of the contractors, and she tells him no, just leave them there and make it look like the roof collapsed on them.

OK, I’m British. Maybe we do things differently over here, but the Health and Safety Executive are pretty hot on work-related deaths. In Britain, the sensible thing to have done would have been to have rung the police and reported the deaths as murder (which, of course, they were) and disclaim all knowledge of why someone would want to kill a bunch of building contractors (other than the usual not showing up and taking twice as much time and four times as much money as they quoted when they do put in an appearance, obviously). Making it look like work-related deaths would mean the HSE crawling all over your entire organisation for weeks, looking at your safety procedures, checking that you are complying with legislation, trying to work out how the roof collapsed and why the guys were standing under it when it did… you get the picture. When you add this to an entire building collapsing on Lexi’s brother in practically the first chapter, this has the potential to be a health and safety disaster that will have serious adverse consequences for the family business.

Or is it different in the USA? Is it viewed as perfectly acceptable for people to work in an unsafe environment? Does death in the workplace count as natural causes?

I’m not even a third of the way through the book yet, and already the author has shown a lack of basic research. Surely he knows other human beings who would be willing to act out the knife attack scene and thus prove that testicles at the usual elevation are generally out of reach of a backwards-kicking foot? Or does he have abnormally low-hanging ‘nads?

But, to get back to my main point, as an author you have to know a little bit about everything. You don’t need to be an expert in building regulations – you just need to know what the likely results of an alleged workplace death are likely to be, and is it likely to be more, or less, trouble than a murder investigation? You don’t need to be a great martial artist – you just need to know how far a man’s testicles are off the ground (this is useful information in any case, even if you’re not writing a book).

These points may seem small, but they do add up. You read book reviews, and you’ll see lots of it. I know someone who was reading Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom. It’s a good book – I’ve read it myself – but it was pointed out to me that Sansom refers to the Portuguese shipping slaves to the Americas; unfortunately, the book is set some thirty years before the Portuguese started doing this. Duh…

There are more subtle mistakes to be avoided, too. Your characters need to act in a way that is believable. Again, in Alchemystic, Lexi and her friends discover a corpse in the private park to which Lexi (being rich) has access to. Some cops show up, and, to cut a long story short, right from the beginning the cops are unpleasant and aggressive, with much waving around of guns. OK, I’m British, and our police don’t routinely carry firearms. But I do know that drawing any kind of weapon immediately ups the ante. You’re always going to get the odd idiot who puts on a uniform and thinks he’s boss of the universe, but mostly the police response is to try to keep things calm and not let the situation, whatever it is, get out of hand. You do not go out of your way to offend people, or to put them on the defensive, and you don’t start waving your handgun around unless there is a need for it. Not only is that kind of attitude likely to bring in a complaint against you, but it makes your job harder. So why did the author write the cops the way he did? Their attitude seemed to me to be totally out of keeping with the way most police officers would act. Their attitude didn’t add anything to the story, so it wasn’t even narratively useful, although that would still be a pretty poor excuse.

You don’t have to be a psychologist, but you do have to avoid making a character act in an unrealistic way to satisfy some plot point (or just out of pure carelessness, which is worse). It may seem like a good way to achieve your objective, but in the long-term you fail, because by taking this short cut – by not thinking about a more realistic way to achieve your ends, even if it’s more difficult to write – you undermine the credibility of your storytelling as a whole.

Myself, I can forgive one or two little mistakes, as long as they’re not important to the plot, and they’re not too obvious. But big, obvious mistakes, or a lot of them, makes it clear that the author hasn’t even tried to do any research. And that, to me, not only says that he (or she) is a sloppy writer, but also that they have no respect for me as a reader. If they think they don’t need to bother to get simple stuff like testicle-foot geometry right, then obviously they have a very low opinion of my intelligence. And I don’t see why I should put up with being treated like that; I wouldn’t put up with that kind of lack of respect from somebody I knew – why should I put up with it from a stranger? I’m certainly not going to pay money for it.

OK, rant over. One day I’ll write something, and you guys can all come and rip it to bits in return!

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8 thoughts on “Reality check…

  1. lowestofthekeys

    Reminds me of the last two books in the Strain Trilogy. You have the protagonist wielding a katana like a pro and slicing through a vampires neck with a clean sweep. One of my old supervisors was an Asian warfare fanatic and kindly explained to me that katanas lack the capability of cleanly cutting through bone or in other words, he would have spent five minutes hacking through the vertebrae.

    1. Theophania Elliott

      Doesn’t surprise me; the katana is a lovely sword, but, when all’s said and done, there’s nothing mystical about it.

      Interestingly, I was talking katanas with a blacksmith friend of mine. He mentioned that there was a theory that the reason why the Japanese developed the metal-folding technique that makes the blade so strong was actually because they couldn’t make good steel in large enough quantities. The folding was the only way they could make a half-decent sword, and, serendipitously, it turned out to be a brilliant way of combining strength and flexibility.

      And the curve? Well, that’s what happens if you heat a wedge-shaped bit of metal. The thin edge expands more than the thick edge, and so it tends to curve…

      They used to say that authors should write only what they know about; obviously this is not to be taken too literally or the whole fantasy genre would disappear, but there does need to be an appreciation that even writing fantasy doesn’t get you out of doing research!

      1. lowestofthekeys

        Darn tootin!

        also, another strange factoid regarding katana steel. My brother informed me that the Japanese used Spanish steel for a lot of their weaponry because of it’s strength.

        1. Theophania Elliott

          I didn’t know that… now I do. Another fact to add to the collection.

          Did you know that the swordsmiths could make deliberate patterns in the steel, depending on how they did the folding? There’s one pattern that’s like waves in the sea, and another that’s like chrysanthemums.

          1. Theophania Elliott

            I saw a video of the highlights of Japanese swordmaking at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

            I’m not sure what are the similarities and differences between the Japanese technique and the eastern technique brought west from Damascus by the Crusaders.

            To damascene steel, it’s folded and then etched with nitric acid to bring out the pattern. If you’re interested, I’ll upload a picture of my damascened steel knife.

          2. lowestofthekeys

            Certainly. Being male, I tend to fantasize about having lots of swords :P, but in a more serious tone, I’ve always been fascinated by how they “embroider” the steel.

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