Monday Motivation: This is a Walther PK380 and it’s aimed at you
Authenticity matters a great deal to some writers. Take Gregg Hurwitz, for instance, author of the Orphan X sequence of thrillers. He’s really good on lethal hardware. Here’s a paragraph on the protagonist’s favourite weapon:
“The Wilson Combat 1911 high-end variant had been custom-built to Evan’s specs. Semiauto, eight rounds in a stainless-steel mag with number nine slotted in the chamber. Extended barrel, tuned with ramp-throat work for flawless feeding and threaded to receive a suppressor. The straight-eight sights were high-profile so that the suppressor, when screwed in, wouldn’t block them. Ambidextrous thumb safety, since he was a lefty. Grip safety on the back to ensure it couldn’t fire if not in hand. Aggressive front-frame checkering, eighteen lines per inch, and Specialized Simonich gunner grips so the gun grabbed him back when he fired. High-ride beavertail grip safety to prevent hammer bite on the thumb webbing. Matte black so it disappeared in shadow, giving no glint.”
Now, you could argue that this is an example of techno-babble overkill. Wouldn’t the first sentence have sufficed? In so far as the handgun is itself concerned, probably. But the elaboration tells us a great deal about its owner.
Or take any number of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch police procedurals. His latest (Dark Sacred Night) begins like this:
“The patrol officer had left the front door open. They thought they were doing her a favour, airing the place out. But that was a violation of crime scene protocol regarding evidence containment. Touch DNA could be disturbed by a breeze through the house. Odors were particulate. Airing out a crime scene meant losing part of the crime scene.”
There’s a reason this genre is called “police procedurals”: it rests on a bedrock of routines and protocols specific to a given police authority. It’s essential that readers sense that what they’re reading is the real McCoy.
So if your protagonist is deeply familiar with guns, or police procedure, then you can’t busk it; you have to research it. If you invent stuff, somebody’ll catch you out. A weapons buff will point out that A Walther PK380 holds eight rounds, with an additional one in the chamber – and not six. (Just for instance.)
So when you’re writing about a seasoned assassin, you need to give him (or her, if it’s Villanelle, for instance) complete familiarity with a range of weapons. Sure, very few people will know that a Walther PK380 can shoot eight bullets (plus one). But there will be some, and your sloppiness will eventually be exposed.
The same holds true for stories drawing on medical expertise. A forensic pathologist will not be vague when she describes the poison administered to a murder victim, or its effects. Nor will a maxillofacial surgeon refer airily to muscles in the cheek of a patient: he’ll name them.
In the old hospital drama series, ER, each episode characteristically featured at least one hectic scene in which doctors and nurses gathered round a patient on the verge of death and performed a variety of procedures on him to save his life. The scriptwriters on the show didn’t worry about accuracy, they didn’t worry about authenticity. They just wrote: “Medical shit here” – and left it up to the medical advisors on set to supply the actors with the right words.
But when you’re writing something for the page, you don’t have a team of experts on hand to supply you with the right words. You have to dig them out yourself. You need to become a stickler for accurancy, a tiresome pedant dedicated to getting the least detail right.
P.S. I came across a good blog the other day about one of the great Mad Magazine artists. If you’re old enough, you might remember his name: Mort Drucker. He was famous for his photo-realistic drawings. This blog describes the attention he paid to a very specific detail – a knob on a lamp in a very complex drawing. No one would ever have noticed it. It was very far from being the focus of the composition. His pernicketiness is a lesson to us all.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: A life full of troubles? Great, use them‘
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