Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sweating the Particulars

By Steve Weddle

First, HAPPY RELEASE DAY to our own Jay Stringer, whose RUNAWAY TOWN hits the stores today. As Amazon won't allow me to review books if I've read them, allow me to say here what a great book this one is. Jay's take on the Midlands region of the UK is fantastic and his treatment of characters -- those who have professional or familial relationships with the protagonist -- could be used as textbook chapters on how to write. This one is one of the rare books I've run across in the past few years that carries as much weight for writers as it does for readers -- and that's saying something. Because RUNAWAY TOWN is a remarkable story about characters you'll carry with you forever. This Eoin Miller series is one of those that ups the stakes with each outing. Each book seems both larger and more personal than the last. Just amazing, honestly.

Now, on to the show:

So, there you are, writing your story, when you're faced with the dilemma.

As they sat in the restaurant, enjoying their fast-food tacos, they saw the killer.

Hmm, that sounds too phony, right?

As they enjoyed their tacos at Burrito Bell, they saw the killer.

Sure, it has (ahem) a sort of ring to it, but will that do?

I mean, we all know we can't NAME THE REAL THING in our fiction, right?

Think of the lawsuits. Or the people reading the story in 2816. Will they know what a Taco Bell is? We have to avoid the particulars.

I was working on a project this weekend, when I had to say that something was mentioned "on Twitter." I'd recently, in the same work, gotten by with saying that a video had been uploaded "to the web." I didn't say "YouTube."

And here all the murky confusion starts.

If you've read a thriller, you know that it is fairly standard procedure to spend pages describing the bits and pieces of your protagonist's watch. Or computer. Or showing that you are able to Google the inner-workings of a jet airplane. Sorry. I meant "web search" the inner workings.

We can't use the names of real things while we're being descriptive, right?

Hollywood has to use the "555" numbers for American telephones.

We have to say that someone is being paid "twice his normal rate" to kill someone instead of being paid $500,000. What if a kill rate is higher in 2187? You need to prepare to be read forever!

In an early draft of an unpublished novel, I had the characters spend quite a good deal of time at a restaurant in Shreveport. The restaurant was called Michone's and was home to my idiot self from midnight to three many days during college. The restaurant no longer exists. Had I kept the name in the story, then that anchors the story to a certain time. The story could not have happened yesterday, as the restaurant has been closed for years.

So, of course, I never should have named the particular restaurant.

Street names? Of course. Name them. But make sure that they are correct. Don't have someone driving down Line Avenue in Shreveport and then hang a left onto Youree, because everyone in northwest Louisiana will know what an idiot you are. I mean, of course you want to use street names, right?

But what about website? Are they too fleeting to mention? If you say that someone was being stalked on Facebook, would you have just MySpaced your novel?

If you have someone murdered at Taco Bell, will you be sued?

If you start a phone number with 739, will Ma Bell shoot you? (Kids, ask your grandparents.)

Be specific.

Use details.

Except when you shouldn't.

I mean, imagine if Jane Austen had mentioned specific card games --Loo or Speculation-- that no one plays anymore. Everyone would laugh at the poor novelist and shun her books as expired tripe.

Historicals and westerns and sci-fi and other genres are governed by their own rules, of course.

You'd want to detail the streets and buildings and names of restaurants if you were writing a book that takes place in 1920, for example. Look at what a good boy I am. I have surfed the web and found a map! You can totally trust me because I know all about 1920s buttons!

Sci-Fi certainly requires that you beep your A09-X Confabulator properly, though "fictional particulars" are something else entirely.

I'll probably just go back and have the people being attacked Taft's ghost at a Taco Bell. I mean, an ex-president's ghost.


Dana King said...

You worry too much. So Michone's is gone. It's fiction, right? Either Michone's never closed, or people who never heard of it will think you made it up.

Jane Austen has plenty of other things in her books to set the period. I doubt the card games mattered.

I re-read Chandler and Hammett every year. The Packards and 25 cent lunches don't bother me. What does bug me are writers who refer to "late model sedans," especially in dialog where we know the speaker knows what kind of car it is.(Such as after having run the plates.)

Will this attitude take people out of my stories in 50 years? Maybe, but I think they help hold people in as they read in relatively the same time period, so long as we're not too specific. The reader 50 years hence is on his own. It's not like he's going to be able to write me to complain.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Dana's right, you worry too much.

A little while ago I reread "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," and I love that part about the Bruins game. That's a hockey team, by the way.

Jack Badelaire said...

Barry Eisler specifically features restaurants, hotels, bars, nightclubs, and other locales he has personal knowledge of in his books. Didn't seem to stop him from making the bestseller lists.

Anonymous said...

I unapologetically make references to the technology of the day, news events, whatever. I find fictional years annoying.

David Cranmer said...

I haven't stopped chuckling over Loo and I'm not sure why. I like the dated particulars in novels by Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. As for lawsuits, yeah, I bow out myself. Careful, careful.