Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog just had a first class post from Harrison Demchick on writing what you know. First class advice.
One thing mentioned was homework. If you’ve never done something, then you better know what you’re talking about. A classic example is Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. Tom was so good at his research that the FBI showed up on his door step wanting to know how he found out certain things. In his case, he was able to show his sources, all of which had been declassified.
Without a doubt, Clancy’s homework is one of the big things that made Red October such a great book.
Now, here’s one for those of use who have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. Just because we know what we’re talking about doesn’t excuse us from doing our homework.
An example is in my second novel in a chapter titled UFO. In it Will and RJ investigate an auto accident caused by the fly over of a UFO. This event happens within a few hundred meters of something the locals called “The Devil’s Biscuit,” which is a pile of rocky debris.
Of course as a child, the name was enough to frighten me. It was easy to imagine (especially since we traveled that road a lot at night), that demons lurked in the rocks, and eyed us with malicious intent as we drove past.
So, it wasn’t a big surprise that such a structure would show up in my story, and Will had to explain it. And being a bit of a teacher and fascinated by science and history, he’d talk about how such a structure came to pass.
Putting it into the story made me go searching for how such a structure could come to be. Millions of years ago, the San Luis Valley was geologically very active. There were dozens of volcanoes in the area, all powered by the Rio Grand Rift zone. The zone is still active, but nowhere like it was. Today the only reminder of those long past events are some hot springs.
Well, since I was going to mention the Devil’s Biscuit in the story, why not know how it came about? What we have here is an outcropping of magma. Sometime in the distance past, magma boiled up and went no further. The event that powered this lost its power, leaving the magma to cool and harden.
The rock was harder than the surrounding stone and over the years, wind, rain, snow, and possibly some light glaciation removed the surrounding earth, leaving this frozen bubble of rock.
The eons haven’t been kind to it either, and now it’s just so much stone.
But it’s a very identifiable pile of stone, and hence the fly over of what Will believes was an airplane flying in drugs. It’s a marker a pilot might have been looking for (especially if he missed his turn the first time around).
The other thing I had to research was the de Havilland Twin Otter. I’ve flown countless times on the plane, but I know very little about beyond they should hand out Bibles with each ticket.
I spoke with a man who’d flown them and he was able to give me some handling characteristics, especially at low altitudes. In this case, the airplane was doing something we call Nap of the Earth. It would be flying at tens of feet from the ground, and following the contours to the earth. A scary thing to do, and best suited for fighters, but not impossible with the Otter. I echo that chat with one of my other characters who is a pilot. It brings a little more realism to the event, and knocks the idea of a flying saucer out of the story.
Processing the scene is as realistic as I can make it, and is based on standard evidence collection techniques. I show them gathering measurements, pictures, and the remains of chem lights, etc.
Also, I had to look at maps, and while I knew an airplane could be landed there, I needed to make sure I was correct. Were there obstacles there that might be a problem (try road markers)? There was a distinct chance, in the case of a road marker or mile marker, that the props (the Otter is a twin engine aircraft) could hit one.
I fixed that by having whoever was meeting the plane jacking the markers out, and then just putting them back in.
So even if you know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t hurt to confirm it. And it just might make the story a little better.