Writing What You Don't Know
Have you noticed? There’s a new breed of techno-thriller writer. More and more explosive page-turners are being churned out by ex-Delta operators, SEAL Team Sixers, Recon Marines, you name it. These guys have actually been there, done that and lived to tell about it—in gritty and convincing techno-detail.
I’m not one of them, alas. I’m a bookish, sedentary guy who conjures up macho heroes for fun and profit. Which means I have to research almost everything I write about.
That’s okay. I like to research. And I relish the challenge of making cumbersome research vanish in sheer narrative excitement. The way Mario Puzo did:
“I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all. After the book became famous, I was introduced to a few gentlemen related to the material. They were flattering. They refused to believe that I had never been in the rackets. They refused to believe that I had never had the confidence of a Don. But all of them loved the book.”—Mario Puzo, The Godfather Papers, p. 36
My first published thriller was set in exotic locales I’d never laid eyes on (and still haven’t)—Istanbul and the Eastern Mediterranean. 'Lair of theFox' was published in 1989, before the era of online, on-the-fly research, so my desk was piled high with National Geographics, maps ordered from around the world, travel books and magazines.
I sent an advanced reading copy to Eric Ambler (d. 1998), whose 1939 masterpiece, A Coffin for Demetrios (also set in Istanbul) was my inspiration for Lair. Ambler promised to read my fledgling novel, then added that he, too, had not had a chance to visit Istanbul before writing about it. Eventually, he said, he came to know the city quite well and applied this knowledge in several works, especially The Light of Day (filmed as Topkapi).
Interestingly, Ambler confessed, some “old Stamboul hands” later told him that the “atmospherics” of the magical city were far more convincing in Demetrios than his subsequent works.
Those convincing atmospherics were compounded of equal parts free-flowing imagination and painstaking research.
“I try to research whatever I write about. I think writers who don’t are lazy. I just stop reading when, especially if it’s a book about cops or crime, it’s written by someone who does no research and just wings it. Especially Hollywoodish writers. I close the book. It shuts me down, and I can’t suspend my disbelief any longer. It’s just all cartoons.”— Joe Wambaugh, interview, San Diego Reader, 11/4/93
If you read a swashbuckler by C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian (as I hope you will), you’ll find yourself awash in authentic, briny detail. Both were masters of nautical and historical research. As was that master craftsman Rudyard Kipling:
“I embarked on a little book which was called Captains Courageous… I reveled in profligate abundance of detail—not necessarily for publication but for the joy of it.”— Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, p. 139)
Kipling’s zeal for authenticity contrasts starkly with the following example of lazy non-research. The perpetrator is John Grisham. In his breakout blockbuster, the otherwise gifted storyteller simply copies a list of sailing terms to explain how his characters learned to sail:
“They listened to and memorized words like spinnaker, mast, bow, stern, aft, tiller, halyard winches, masthead fittings, shrouds, lifelines, stanchions, sheet winch, bow pulpit, coamings, transom, clew outhaul, genoa sheets, mainsail, jib, jibstays, jib sheets, cam cleats and boom vangs. [They were] lectured on heeling, luffing, running, blanketing, backwinding, heading up, trimming and pointing.” —John Grisham, The Firm
Another brand-name bard, Stephen King, admits to a similar sin in one of his pseudonymous Richard Bachman novels:
“There are some places where they’re talking in Romany, the gypsy language. What I did was I yanked some old Czechoslovakian editions of my works off the shelves and just took stuff out at random. And I got caught. I got nailed for it [by the readers], and I deserved to be, because it was lazy.” (Writer’s Digest, 3/92, p. 26)
Today, thanks to the instant omniscience of Google, an opposite temptation confronts the fiction writer—larding up the narrative with too much impressive-sounding research. The trick is to select the telling detail and to discard the dross tonnage.
“With each new draft, I throw out my research, taking out anything that hinders the story.” —Sidney Sheldon, Los Angeles Magazine, 10/79
In the techno-thriller, a genre more or less created by Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (with a nod to Ian Fleming), the temptation to indulge in information overload is almost irresistible. High-tech is king, after all, and readers fully expect to be bombarded with military acronyms, barracks jargon and the latest in operational paraphernalia.
But in the wrong hands “high-tech” is a virtue that can quickly turn vicious. Here’s a sample from the blood-and-guts oeuvre of ex-Navy SEAL Richard Marcinko:
“My black, knee-length Pakistani ‘pasha’ tunic covering the carbon-colored, custom-suppressed Heckler & Koch USP 9mm in its ballistic nylon thigh holster, a titanium-framed Emerson CQC6 combat folder clipped to my waistband next to the Motorola beeper…”—Richard Marcinko (Rogue Warrior: Green Team, co-authored by John Weisman, p. 3)
The passage rambles on in this indigestible vein, inviting comparison to Grisham’s nautical cataloguing.
“The novelist is ill-advised to be too technical. The practice of using a multitude of cant terms is tiresome. It should be possible to give verisimilitude without that, and atmosphere is dearly bought at the price of tediousness.”—W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, p. 69
“There’s such a thing as too authentic,” writes David Poyer, an ex-Navy officer who has penned dozens of nautical thrillers. “The problem with doing a Navy book is that the average reader can’t understand what you’re talking about.” Poyer’s solution is to introduce technical language gradually and in context. “By the last third of the book,” he says, “the non-naval reader is in tune with what’s going on.” (Publishers Weekly interview, 7/5/93)
As a final note, Clancy, the master of technical verisimilitude, enjoyed occasionally taking liberties with facts and indulging his fancy. An example occurred in his 1989 thriller, Clear and Present Danger. Clancy wanted a bomb that exploded silently. When the latest in weaponry wasn’t up to his standards, he simply invented his own hardware. He called it the “Hushaboom.”
“I got the idea from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” Clancy told an interviewer.
(Philip Morris Magazine, summer, 1991)
Dan Pollock was born in New York City to a family of writers and grew up in Laguna Beach, California. A former syndicate editor with the Los Angeles Times, Pollock is the author of six thriller novels— Countdown to Casablanca, Lair of the Fox, Duel of Assassins, Orinoco (originally published as Pursuit Into Darkness), The Running Boy and Ringland —and a specially commissioned “logistics” thriller, Precipice. With his wife, Constance, Pollock edited and published three literary, inspirational volumes: The Book of Uncommon Prayer; Gospel: The Life of Jesus as Told by the World's Great Writers; and Visions of the Afterlife: Heaven, Hell and Revelation as Viewed by the World's Great Writers. The Pollocks live in Southern California with their two children.
When not writing nail-biting thrillers, Dan can be located here:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/danielpollockWebsite: http://www.danpollockthrillers.com
Thank you, Dan, for the superb advice and a fascinating analysis that breaks with one of writing's most often-repeated adages... a superb breath of fresh air!
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com