Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting the Details Right

I'm currently reading a mystery/thriller by very well known and popular author. It's not the best written book I've ever encountered, but I'm enjoying the novel enough that its problems have not overwhelmed its entertainment value.

One issue that tempted me to quit, though, has to do with research about technical issues. The book includes a pivotal plot element related to websites and computer security issues such as viruses and worms. There are also sections involving computer forensics. These sections are so wrong that I came close to throwing the book across the room. (It's a real paperback, not an ebook!)

I make my living as a software engineer. I know something about computers, web development and computer security. The computer-related material in this novel is--to put it nicely--total nonsense. Gobbledygook. Anyone with a background in computers would recognize this.

When I hit the first of these sections, my awareness of the errors pulled me completely out of the story. I was, frankly, insulted. I don't expect that the author should be a computer expert. However, if she wants to talk about technical issues, she should do the research necessary in order to get them right! It's not as though this is an obscure topic. An hour or so checking her facts would have done the trick. If she doesn't want to spend this time, she should cut this stuff out of the plot.

Now I find that I have lost my respect for this author and her fiction. As it happens, the heroine of this novel is a forensic pathologist. I find myself wondering whether all the gruesome corroborating details that the heroine notes about the corpse, all her clever deductions and inferences, are hogwash as well. I don't know much about forensics, certainly not enough to spot mistakes. But if the author was that lazy in the area of computer technology--well, who knows?

When I write, I try very hard to get the details right. In preparation for Incognito, which has a story thread set in Victorian Boston, I did research on such disparate topics as names for items of women's clothing and whether you could go by train from Boston to Lowell in the 1880's. When I wrote my historical short Shortest Night, I spent hours poring over a map of Shakespearean London. Raw Silk features a heroine who works with computers and who invents a new method for producing three-dimensional graphics. I don't know if Kate's invention is actually feasible, but as a computer professional, I can tell you that it is as least plausible.

We all make mistakes. Some readers mind more than others. (I remember a comment on one of my writers lists from an author who happens to be a textile expert. She came across a spinning wheel in a historical novel by a famous author, a novel set two centuries before the spinning wheel was invented. She claimed she could never read this author again!) I do believe, though, that the author owes it to her readers to be as accurate as she can when it comes to details--especially if those details are central to the story. In this case, I'm trying to ignore the silliness as I really would like to know "who done it". Since I already bought the book, it wouldn't penalize the author if I stopped reading it now.

I'll probably think again, though, before I buy another of her novels.

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