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Between the Pages, Past
A Mystery Column
By Dennis Collins

"Writing What You Know"

     Write what you know; an axiom repeated by every creative writing instructor. If you're a chef writing a cookbook it's no problem but it seems like it narrows the field quite a bit for a novelist. Most of us fiction writers want to tell stories about our fantasies.

     Just how much do we need to know about any subject before we include it in our work? The answer is; a lot. It seems like critics simply love to pounce on technical errors.
Perhaps I should explain the difference between an error and bending reality. When writing a Police Procedural, supposing the author has his protagonist, a cop, load a fresh clip of ammo into his 38. special and hold the gun against the temple of a suspect while demanding a confession.

     The writer has made a technical blunder but it's not the behavior of the policeman that constitutes the mistake. While coercing a confession is a taboo in police work, it's something that could happen when you consider that cops are just human beings and make mistakes like everyone else. The gaffe occurred when the cop loaded his weapon. A "clip" of ammo can only be loaded into a semi-automatic pistol. There are no commercially produced semi-autos that are chambered for 38. special ammunition. This may sound a bit like nitpicking but it's the kind of error that will jump out at any gun enthusiast.

     I once read a book about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. The account said that underwater search cameras had revealed that the wooden lifeboats were crushed and still lashed to the deck of the sunken ship. The fact is that the lifeboats weren't wooden at all but were actually made of steel. I've seen the lifeboats with my own eyes and even have photographs of them. That one simple mistake ruined the author's credibility in my eyes.

     Knowing the important details of objects and places is critical but you don't need to be a marksman to know about guns or a sailor to know about ships. What you need is a commitment to accuracy and the willingness to do research. Every firearms manufacturer has a website full of data and specifications and the internet or your local library can provide information on almost everything. Sometimes, if it's a geographical location, you may just have to go and look.

     If you're serious about writing, you'd better be serious about accuracy.

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