Monday, January 23, 2012

Ignorance is Bliss

There is a delicate balance between research and what ends up in the page. I want to be as realistic and  accurate as possible, without interrupting the plot or turning the book into some poor excuse for a manual. When I did the practical research for my novel, one of the things I was looking for was to understand the psychology behind those skills, and the nuances involved. What do you focus on when you are a pilot in command? The sobering closeness one experiences in dealing with a knife fight and taking things like arterial spray into consideration. How does it feel to be hooded, cuffed and intimidated? I could go on, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

As an author, my job is to take all of that knowledge and weave it seamlessly into my work. My wife used to ask me why I was so adamant about presenting the elements in my book in such a realistic manner? After all, I was writing a novel and even well known  authors have taken the fictional path successfully. She had a point; most people don’t care about such things and few would have the know-how to be critical. To me, it’s a point of professional pride. I’m writing for the general public, but I’m delighted when I make the initiate say, “The guy did his homework.”

A guy who works as a sound designer for video games once told me: “My job is to create the sounds people expect, not to recreate the actual sound.” I’m paraphrasing, but I found this to be quite a profound concept. The way a gun sounds when shot is irrelevant; what matters is what people think a gun sounds like. I didn’t know this at the time, but there was a lesson to be learned here.

Every now and then, someone brings into question the "lack of realism" in my book and its protagonist. I went through great lengths to understand, craft and explain the character. The possibility—even plausibility—of the situations in the book were carefully  weighed. Granted, we’re talking about fiction, otherwise the story would end up being quite short. For example, on one of my earlier drafts, one of my editors told me I had to simplify the manhunt. "It's too hard to follow," he said. What I had done was make  it closer to reality. There were many more law enforcement agencies involved in different countries, but that meant too many characters and too many acronyms thrown on the page. I reduced them to a handful, so the reader wouldn't get lost.

Even the more incredible aspects of the story are based on real experiments and technology. Same thing  with the fights; they are not realistic just because of the moves, but because of the different type of opponents and psychological factors involved. "He can hack into the world's most secure servers," some critic wrote. I would like to know what book that  person was reading; it wasn't mine. There's no such event in the story. In fact, all the hacking techniques I researched for the book are of the "do it yourself" kind. Any prepubescent kid can pull off these tricks. That's the whole point. To be more clear, no one who is a martial artist, tech-savvy, well-read about the military, understands security issues, or has any real knowledge of the things presented in the book, has ever complained about its veracity. On the contrary, they are pleasantly surprised that  someone took the time to get it right.

Is the character peculiar? You bet! That’s why he’s the protagonist and that’s why he can perform the way he does in the book. Eric Caine started out as a run-of-the-mill guy, but it became clear to me early on that it was going to take a certain type of character  to face the challenges of the story. This is a fiction story, not a biography. Then again, when we read about Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Hues, Ernest Hemingway and T.E. Lawrence (to name a few) we find that there are people in this world who have led amazing  lives. If you want to bring the experience closer to "Sleeper's Run," then read the bios of former special operators and spies. You'll find that Eric Caine is more the rule than the exception of it.

It strikes me as odd that I never took into consideration that sometimes truth is harder to stomach than fiction. For example, if I tell you that John Smith is a capable and daring astronaut, you may suspend disbelief and enjoy a tale of him commanding a mission to Mars. If I start getting into the details of what kind of a person becomes an astronaut (the background, the training, etc.), and then start to use those attributes in a story, you may begin to question Commander Smith’s believability. “Yeah right! The space shuttle is about to enter Mars, they have no navigational system and this guy is calmly trying to reprogram the computer before they crash in fifteen minutes.” Well, astronauts are highly educated people, carefully selected and thoroughly trained to perform a very dangerous, unique and detail-oriented job. Their résumés make most of us feel like a bunch of slackers. That’s why they get to go into space in a rocket while we watch it on TV from our couches.

However, virtues are not the only victims of ignorance. Eric suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, a few claim the character is too perfect. Really? I know PTSD, especially on combat veterans, is a seldom-discussed topic. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to feature it in my story. Even if Eric had no other flaws, that one alone would be monumental.

I guess the lesson for me in all of this is just because something is true, it doesn’t make it believable. Or perhaps, it’s the stigma of the indie writer and all the assumptions that accompanies it: self-published authors don’t hire editors, don’t do serious research, they have no idea about what they’re doing and so on. Live and learn I suppose.

Keep on running!

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