Saturday, February 27, 2010

Accuracy in the little things

Video of a reading of Motherless Soul.

An article in a writers' magazine made a point that stuck with me over many years of putting words on paper. The author had started reading a short story in which the protagonist, who was driving through Manhattan, turned onto Fifth Ave and drove uptown. That author tossed the story down and never bothered to finish it, because people who know New York know that Fifth Ave is one way downtown. In truth, a story can be about a man being chased by space aliens and giant fish people, but if that same man drives uptown on Fifth Ave. readers will think the writer is not writing realistically.

I just finished The Good Guy by Dean Koontz and I had a similar problem with that book. It is the story of man who, while sitting alone in a bar, gets caught in the middle of a contract between a hit man and an envoy from a group paying for that killer's services. This type of book almost demands that it be unrealistic. There are shoot outs and escape scenes and times when both the hit man and the people running from him take wild guesses that always turn out to keep the conflict going. I can live with all that. Characters that are almost super heroes (or super villains) are part of what makes that genre interesting.

But one scene in the book bothered me too much. A character was home alone with his dog, Zoe. The dog reacted as if something was wrong. She was pacing around and sniffing at both the front and back doors, but she wouldn't go out into the yard. She was clearly scared. So the man took his dog to his car, drove down the block, and watched his own house. After some time, about ten or fifteen minutes, a car of suspicious men arrived and broke into his home.

Dogs can hear things that we don't hear and through their sense of smell they are aware of an entire world of information that we can't know. They pick up signs from our actions that allow them to determine if we're planning to leave a house soon or if when we go up a set of stairs we plan to come right back down or stay up there for awhile. They can tell if there is a stray dog or deer running around in back of their homes. And some can even tell if a person has cancer, when that person doesn't know it. But, unless they have some odd form of animal ESP, they cannot know the future. They cannot tell their owners, "Watch out! Someone is going to be here within the next half hour and you don't want to be here when that happens."

A good story can be ruined if the writer isn't careful about the little details.

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