Getting Technical

It’s got to be embarrassing: a writer knows only what he can find on the internet about a given subject and some critic who does know calls him out on it in a write-up that half of America reads. Thank God it hasn’t happened to me, yet, because I’m not widely published. I’m very minimally published but I’ve had the sense to not put out there something complicated I don’t understand. Just this morning I read a master at work, covering his ass and doing it brilliantly.

By now you may have gathered I’m a fan of Stephen King. It’s not that I’m a big reader of horror novels. I may watch scary movies more often than I should but I’m more inclined to read crime or mystery books. But King is more than just horror. Everything he writes shows up on the NY Times bestseller list. That’s because he can present characters that are believable, no matter if what they’re doing is not. His descriptions of the environment take us to that movie screen in the head. Good and evil fall with the cruel indifference of fate. And plot.

When I don’t have a new book to take to work I’ll go pull an old favorite off the shelf. My favorite of all King’s works is a short story called The Last Rung On The Ladder. I’d forgotten it was in his Night Shift collection which you might want to go pick up if you’re a fan, too, but don’t own it. If you’re broke, type in the title and it’s a Google doc. You can also find the short film on You Tube. The only horror in it is the careless disregard of a brother for his troubled sister. When I finished it I teared up and thought, Steve! You actually did that! There’s nothing more awful than the things we do to one another that we can’t fix or take back.

Just read it, okay? Now, back to the subject.

In Nightmares & Dreamscapes there’s a story by the name of Sneakers. The MC is a mixing technician for a record company. King, among others like Amy Tan and writer/cartoonist Dave Barry have played for a band named Rock Bottom Remainders but I doubt King is a recording mixer wiz. In Sneakers he solves the problem with a drum track by very simple means. It’s almost this verbatim: the MC says something, the producer says something, and they go back and fix the problem. MC had been about to ask about the dead body in the third floor men’s room but he got sidetracked by the drum snafu. King dances around the issue without revealing any technical information by something and something. He never does get around to asking about the dead guy who was the whole point of that section of the story.

I thought, This man is a genius. If you’ll read the story it will explain better than I have without plagiarizing his work. You don’t have to describe your vet’s weapon in terms of how many shells it holds, the windage and elevation he has to calculate or how many grains it takes to kick out that bullet unless much of your novel is set on the battlefield and is written for guys that have been there in mind. Then you better know some firepower. Stephen Hunter did it very well in his novel Point of Impact but I suspect he has a subscription to Guns & Ammo.

Don’t worry if you’re not well versed on every subject and can glean only the most rudimentary facts from studying. You could write a short story set in a mortuary without being an undertaker. But you might want to take a field trip to one.

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