Damn you, Network Rail!

There's a point in my current WIP where the rather useless protagonist finally manages to escape the clutches of the evil baddies. He can't turn to the cops, so he goes on the run - as you do. I came up with a great idea as to how he throws everyone off the scent. At the railway station he buys a ticket for one destination using his credit card, then gets on the train going in the other direction and buys a new ticket using cash. Brilliant.

Except I then went and looked up a map of the UK rail network. For all the destinations I might possibly have him go from the station he was closest to when he escaped, you can only go north, to Leicester. Then you change to go east to Cambridge or west to Birmingham. Bah!

The question is, does it matter? In the wildly unlikely situation that this book might get itself published one day, only readers in Kettering and Leicester will spot the mistake. Them and the die-hard anorak and notebook brigade. And it's the idea that's important - understanding that credit card transactions will be monitored and tracked and using that to your advantage. The specific details of station and line are incidental.

I should probably be more worried that our coalition government is disbanding SOCA, the Serious Organised Crime Agency - Britain's answer to the FBI. I started this book before the general election back in May, and two of the main supporting characters are SOCA detectives.  How much sense will it make in a year to eighteen months time if DS Campbell and DI Jonas are working for an organisation that no longer exists?

Which dovetails neatly into a rumination on the nature of research in novels. I've gone on record before as saying that I'm not good at it. I find it very hard to approach a complete stranger and ask them for help. The thought of phoning up the police and wasting their time with my inane questions leaves me quite literally in a cold sweat. I gave up going to comics conventions because I physically couldn't approach editors with my manuscripts. It's not something as complicated as a fear of rejection, simply an unbearable terror of the unknown that severely limits my ability to push out of my comfort zone. I'm hopeless at social interaction of any kind, which is probably why I live in the middle of nowhere.

All of which also explains why I like writing fantasy so much. There you can make up your own rules and all you have to worry about is being consistent.

My novels set in the 'real' world are meticulously researched as far as I can from Wikepedia and reading other people's books. I don't obsessively pore over details of handguns or go and hang out with homeless people in my quest for verisimilitude. I don't agonise over whether it would actually be possible to get the ingredients for a proper Gung Dong from a corner store in Aberystwyth. I do look at maps to see what's physically possible, but I'll happily invent pubs, shops and other meeting places if they're useful to the narrative. In my last book I created an entire village.

Should it matter? Ian Rankin apparently got into trouble when Edinburgh CID moved from St Leonard's to Gayfield Square and Rebus took a book to catch up with them. As far as I'm concerned, it would have made no difference to the entire series if, in Rebus' world, the move had never happened. It's not particularly important, although it can be used to explore the characters further through their individual reactions to the change.

And that, to me, is what the research should be about. It should be about exploring possibilities, coming up with new ideas. It shouldn't be about slavishly detailing every inch of the cells at Bishop's Stortford Police Station, or making sure you've got the right manufacturer's name on the coffee machine in the cafe your hero stops at before heading off to fight more evil. Personally I don't even care that much whether or not it's possible to slide off the safety on a Glock 9mm (if such a thing in fact exists). That level of detail - even being able to name the gun, which 99.99% of your readers won't be able to do - is not important. The intent of the action - removing the safety, being prepared to unleash lethal force - is what is key here. All else is window dressing.

So my protagonist will still get the Birmingham train from Kettering, having paid for a ticket to Cambridge. And he'll be spotted going to the wrong platform, too, so his cunning plan will fail. That it's not physically possible for him to do these things in the real world does not bother me at all, the intention is made clear. It's enough that, after a hundred odd pages of being beaten up, chased, tortured and generally mistreated, he's finally starting to show a bit of backbone. That's what the scene is about, and hang the pesky details.

I'm still going to have to do something about SOCA though.


baldur said…
I'm going to come across as a bit of an anal-retentive arsehole here but, if the shoe fits I'm not gonna defend myself :-) So apologies all around beforehand.

On the research subject my opinion (and response) can be boiled down to "yes … and no".

The problem with deemphasising research too much is that you can easily slide into "Die Hard 2" territory. Bad example, really, because the problems with Die Hard 2 are so magnificent in their plurality and depth, that the rampant factual errors probably didn't make any difference.

Anyway, Die Hard 2 also mentions the Glock 9, as a porcelain gun that can't be detected by metal detectors.

The problem is that it isn't. On a mass basis it probably has more metal in it than equivalent pistols of other makes.

It also, if my memory isn't failing me, doesn't have a safety, relying instead on a rather clever trigger design.

The problem with both your and Die Hard 2's use of Glocks isn't about a lack of research but that of false detail. If the Die Hard 2 screenwriters had just said porcelain gun (which is technically possible and would have fit, easily, within the narrative logic of the film, such as it was) with no mention of them being Glocks, then that detail would have added to the story much in the way you argue in your above example.

The addition of a specific, unresearched detail, was just noise, masquerading as fact.

Short version: I agree with you that research isn't nearly as necessary as many thing, but disagree on the addition of false detail.

If you need false detail, a brand name or something, to make a scenario *feel* more plausible, then just do what you do when writing fantasy: make shit up. Make up a gun brand name. Make up a train station. Make up a government agency (a classic trope in itself, used in anything from 24, to the Professionals, to Danger Man). By using a fictional construct within a fiction your readers will accept it as what it is: a narrative device. And they won't be jarred or annoyed or thrown when you include a blatantly wrong fact that they happen to be the few people on the planet to spot. Or just leave it out.

Aside: This is something that I personally encounter a lot, mainly because I'm from Iceland, a place that is almost never used in films or novels without blatant, jarring errors, and I'm cursed with the very unfortunate tendency to remember shit most people don't care about.

Readers forgive fictional solutions more easily than they do lazy solutions.

Besides, anybody who has the level of access to credit card usage that would enable them to track the protagonist like you describe would also have access to the stations CCTVs and would be able to follow him there. By using the card he would limit their scope of search, give them an exact time to find him in the camera logs and allow them to follow him exactly from there on. He'd be better off not giving them anything to go on. IMHO, of course :-D

In any case, and IMHO again, the best research isn't what you do to support and build detail in your work, but knowledge and understanding that you internalise which then informs your actions and your writing.

At least, that's what I tell myself when I'm making a hash of my writing ;-)
JamesO said…
I quite agree with you, Baldur. If you're going to use a Glock 9 in your work, you'd better make damn sure you know what one is and how it works. And there ought to be a very good reason why you're referring to a specific kind of gun - for instance if your protagonist is ex-Special Forces or some kind of gun freak. But all too often a little bit of poor research is dropped in because the writer thinks it will add colour or authenticity, when in fact it does neither.

The best research, as Iain Banks said, is the research you don't realise you're doing

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