Monday, October 6, 2008

The Devil's In the Details


by Pat Cunningham

So I’ve got my opening scene. The hero arrives at Philadelphia Airport. He spots the heroine burning something in an ashtray. Turns out she’s a witch, and she’s casting a protection spell on her boyfriend’s plane to ensure him a safe flight. And the plot’s off and running.

But –
Plausibility time. Is this scene believable? Not the witchcraft. The other stuff. In these paranoid times, is it possible to start a fire, even a tiny one, in an airport ashtray without security swooping down on you? Do they even have ashtrays any more, given Pennsylvania’s recent ban on tobacco use in public places? (Our Heroine’s first words to Our Hero: “I wasn’t smoking.”)
Not to mention the story’s set in a real city, populated by real people, including real readers just waiting to pounce on any little fallacy. Worse yet, the hero’s British, and his speech will have to reflect that. On top of everything else I now have to bone up on current British slang so I get all the idioms right.
And that’s roughly the first two pages.
Not so long ago I came across a fantasy story with an opening set in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. The protag stopped at a strip mall at the Route 222/322 interchange. I forget what happened next, because I live in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and when I drove up 322 the other day there was no strip mall at the 222 exit. There’s a Wal-Mart and an Arby’s, and a truck stop across the street. Before that it was farmland. If you want to go to a strip mall in Ephrata, you have to drive down the old road, Route 272, on the other side of town. The writer should have called me first and asked.
Did I have a good laugh at that writer’s expense? You betcha. Would I buy a book by that author? Not likely.
Okay, mistakes of that nature aren’t exactly earth-shattering, not like if he’d put tigers in Africa or had carnivorous cows. The world didn’t end just because he got Ephrata’s geography wrong. It may actually have been a good story. I’ll never know because I didn’t finish it. That opening threw me right off.
This is why I sweat the small stuff. If enough people get thrown off too many times they may never trust me again.
Suppose I put South Street in Germantown. You think Philadelphia would ever forgive me? I don’t want a major US city mad at me. One stupid mistake, like having a poodle shed on the rug (poodles don’t shed), and they’re all over you, and your credibility is toast.
No wonder writers make up towns to set their stories in. Or why Stephen King sets most of his books in his Maine backyard. Write what you know, and if you don’t know, you’d damn well better find out.
Luckily for me, I live within a two-hour drive of Philly, and can hop in the car for a day trip to check out whatever I can’t dig up on the Net. Such as whether or not there are any deer in Fairmount Park so my werewolf hero can hunt them. Otherwise the heroine’s going to have to drive him out to Valley Forge, and the poor guy’ll be clutching the door handle in a panic because she’s speeding down – to him – the wrong side of the road. The devil’s in the details, but so is the fun. Happy researching!

Pat’s short story the ‘SNAKE IN THE GLASS’ will be featured in the #7 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, NEW YEAR’S DAY edition.

How wintery cool is that for all those hibernating serpents? And kewl for all the humans who want to curl up with a great story this winter.

Personal Note: Nope, poodles don't shed. They're just horrendous to brush out when their owners let their coats get matted. I know! I could write a book about it!


Evonne Wareham said...

I always have trouble with this one - the difference between making it up and getting it wrong. I've just invented a new island off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Geography was never my strong point :)

Savanna Kougar said...

Evonne, good plan. I do that at times. After all, it's becoming an urban fantasy reading world more and more.