“Oh, THAT Bookmarked Site? Uh…I Can Explain That…Really!”

I’ve often heard it said that you’re not a real writer until you’ve landed yourself on a government security watch list, and I’m starting to understand the reasoning behind that statement.

nsakittyRealism is an important aspect of any good novel, even if the subject matter in general is not particularly realistic. For example, I’m currently editing and revising my zombie apocalypse novel. To enjoy the subject matter you have to be able to suspend disbelief and have a bit of an open mind, but for specific details – things that you would actually see in real life – realism is key to keep your readers from pitching unholy fits. Imagine, for example, if I wrote a scene involving a character taking shots at zombies with a rifle and I completely screw up the way a rifle works. Any of my readers who have ever actually handled a rifle in real life are going to find themselves drawn away from the story, eyebrows twitching in annoyance, because it’s obvious that I wrote that scene awash in a sea of ignorance. It might not seem like much to anyone who (like me) knows nothing about guns, but if you screw up enough of those little details you’re going to have quite the angry reader mob beating down your door, ready, willing, and able to tell you exactly why your writing stinks.

Knowing that, we writers have an excellent tool on hand to ensure that these unrealistic scenes are kept to a minimum: the Internet. We live in a golden age where the information we need is never more than a few clicks away. There are webpages devoted to everything, and even if we can’t find the specific subject we require, there are forums, chat-rooms, Twitter, Facebook, and any number of other social sites where we can ask for help. The Internet is a writer’s goldmine.

So what does all this have to do with the first sentence of this post? Well, occasionally, when writers are researching details for their novel via the Internet, things get a little…unsettling.

As mentioned, I’m currently editing and revising my zombie apocalypse novel, and for that task I’ve taken to the World Wide Web to nail down a few important details. Imagine if you will, for a moment, if someone were to take a look at my browser history right now and came across the following searches:

“techniques used to tell how long a body has been dead”
“how much blood would there be if someone’s arm was ripped off”
“how to splint a broken leg with no medical gear”
“how to make a Molotov cocktail”
“how to butcher a cow”
“how long until a body begins to decompose”

Starting to see the problem?

There’s a certain level of insanity involved in being a writer, and I think that this is where half of it comes from. In order to make our novels realistic we have to research things that are otherwise creepy and/or upsetting. On the “Reference Desk” forums of the NaNoWriMo website (where writers help each other track down the info they need) I have seen some of the weirdest questions you can imagine, ranging from “what the hell do you need to know that for?” weird to “okay, give me your address because I’m calling the cops” weird.

So remember this the next time you’re reading one of your favorite books: we writers willingly make ourselves look like justifiable psychos in order to make that story the best that it can be.

You’re welcome.

As a reader, have you ever come across any small, incorrect details that ruined a book for you? As a writer, have you ever been accused of ruining a story with small, incorrect details? Have you ever found yourself searching ridiculous, scary, or downright disturbing things in order to make a story better? Please share!

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4 thoughts on ““Oh, THAT Bookmarked Site? Uh…I Can Explain That…Really!”

  1. This reminds me of the governmental system here in the United States. Ask anyone who is currently employed in Fire/Law Enforcement/EMS. As of a few years ago we all had to go through anti-terrorism training which included a brief overview of firearms and explosive devices. If you recall, I have 15 years in the fire service as an EMT/ Firefighter.

    The instructor even went so far as to bring cut-away miniature models of homemade explosive devices so we could all learn exactly how they were made and how they worked. Talk about unnecessary detail that goes a little too far by giving folks all the knowledge on how to create destructive devices.

    As for guns, I have been around them my whole life and have been shooting live ammo since age 12. I know about body decay from my experience taking medical classes in college. I also have seen first hand how much wounds of all sizes and types will bleed and for how long.

    I don’t publish this information on the Internet because for sure I would be added to a watch list despite the fact that I am perhaps the most open-minded, most accepting, and most non-judgemental person I know. I do know, however that there are books for writers that describe factual information so that fiction writers can get the details just right.

    I’m sure that ordering or possessing a book about poisons or explosive chemicals would likely get you added to a watch list. I used to have a copy of some very notorious books, all of which I used for legitimate study, not for nefarious reasons, mind you.

    So if it’s ever a question about bleeding, decay of human flesh, or the reduction (splinting) of broken limbs without ideal equipment, I might be the person to ask.

    • Thanks for the offer, Tom! I will definitely be contacting you about a couple of things. Personally I know nothing about guns other than a general inkling of the difference between rifles, handguns, and revolvers. I try to keep my writing vague when dealing with guns so that I don’t say anything stupid, but it would be nice to be able to put a LITTLE bit of detail into what I’m writing, you know?

      I can definitely understand why you don’t share too much of this stuff online…it’s so easy to look like a lunatic online and end up having the hammer dropped on you. I’m reminded of a story – I can’t quite recall the details – where a teenager made a sarcastic joke on Twitter and ended up being detained under claims of terrorist activity or something. Scary stuff!

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