A couple of days ago, I posted a taste of the first chapter to Deja Vu’s sequel. In it I described intruders making entry to the flat of Detective Saskia Brandt. The snippet ended with Saskia reaching for her revolver, spinning the barrel, and snapping it shut. The entry elicited a comment from dscarpenter.
Just a nitpick: The barrel on a revolver doesn’t spin, the cylinder does. Also, outside of a movie, nobody actually spins the cylinder of a revolver before action. You can’t fire a revolver with the cylinder open. All you can do is accidentally spill your bullets on the floor.
This brought home to me the fact that I’ve never used a gun, and it’s somewhat cheeky of me to write novels that involve their use so heavily. Many thanks to D. S. Carpenter, who appears to write naval fiction and has a very interesting website. I’ll try not to repeat my mistake!
There is a broader issue here. A writer is charged with creating a believable world, but this is not as straightforward as it might appear. In the first pages of a book — and perhaps even on the cover — the writer and reader form an unspoken contract. Explicitly, the contract is something like this: “I, the writer, promise to set up a world where X is true; from there, everything I write will flow from this premise”. This translates into the idea that, as a writer, you’re free to create a world in which young boys named Harry Potter are revealed to be wizards, but you have to do it quickly, not half way through. Genre must be set immediately. Books where genres switch part way through (such as one of my favourite books this year, Cloud Atlas) seem to evince howls of betrayal from many readers. To summarize: once you’ve left the ground, you can’t change the ground rules.
When I write my next technothriller, I can confidently state that Saskia Brandt has a chip in her brain that imposes a donor personality on her mind, but I must not mix up the barrel and the cylinder in her revolver. The contract between the reader and the writer is open to interpretation, of course. One reviewer thought that my novel suffered from an incorrect description of airport procedure. Because I had set the story in the near future, it needed to be accurate on these details; a book set further in the future could not as easily be held to the same charge. The reviewer was correct; I should have got it right. I would argue, of course, that I did indeed get the procedure right, but that’s all water under bridges now 🙂
It’s true to say, I think, that it is the responsibility of a writer to get the facts right, but it’s a difficult balance to strike between the reader who thinks, “Wait a minute, a dragon couldn’t fly because its wings could never overcome its mass!” and the one who thinks, “Ahhhh…flying dragons. Look at them go.”