Write What Somebody Knows

I ‘ve touched on this before: to supplement my own experience, I make shameless use of relatives, friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. By now most of them are used to this and do not get (too) weirded out by questions such as:

“If you were going to (non-fatally) shoot the pilot of a plane to encourage his cooperation, what body part would you choose so as not to interfere with his ability to fly the plane? Or would it be better just to kill the co-pilot?” 

“Can any of the students in the German department read Gothic script?”

“If a young woman in her late twenties (present day) slept with her (defunct) father’s gun under her pillow, what make and model would it be?”

“That time you suffered from altitude sickness on that Silk Road trek, exactly what did it feel like?”

“Have you ever feared that you might be attacked by someone to whom you’re showing an empty house?”

And then there was the time I asked an entire literary forum for certain details regarding fuel use in very high altitudes, which made me temporarily infamous as That Woman Who Started the Yak Dung Thread.

Part of the joy of exploiting friends is the collection of details that make the whole story more plausible. And I usually get a lot more detail than just an answer to the initial question. A realtor’s description of the strangest clients she’s ever dealt with, a German professor’s explosion about the ignorance and worthlessness of his current crop of students, a gun collector’s debate on the merits of .38 vs 9mm, a pilot’s memory of emergency-landing a small plane on a highway… these details can add richness and depth to your story.

Granted, it’s easy to go to far in substituting details for actual knowledge. Dick Francis, so knowledgeable about steeplechasing, once wrote a book whose plot depended on an understanding of computers at the time of writing (mid-eighties, IIRC). It was so bad that it formed the basis for dramatic readings in the break room where I was working at the time.

Then again, I strongly suspect he didn’t ask the right questions of the right people. That’s always a risk you have to keep in mind.

Also… it’s the questions you forget to ask that trip you up. I forgot to ask a music theory expert, “Was the system of major and minor keys in use during the early Jacobean period?” (bangs head on wall. You knew that equal temperament didn’t catch on until later.) Fortunately for me, that goof was caught by a sharp-eyed and knowledgeable editor.

When Ken Follett wrote Pillars of the Earth, he forgot to ask, “Was the Bible divided by chapter and verse in this time?” He has my deepest sympathy; I wouldn’t have thought to ask that either.

When a very successful romance writer set a novel in the reign of Elizabeth, she didn’t ask, “Was the printing press in use at this time?” (which, I agree, is something you’d think anybody writing a historical novel shouldn’t need to ask.) So, to emphasize a main character’s literacy, she had him say, “I have paid monks to copy manuscripts for me!” (Walled that book without even asking where he found the monks after Elizabeth’s father did a number on the monasteries.)

When a beginning writer asked me, “When your book is published, what kind of party does the publisher throw for you?” I don’t think I even managed a coherent answer; I just fell over laughing.

Same thing when the would-be writer of an early medieval story asked, “In a motte-and-bailey castle, would the heroine be hurt if she fell into the motte?”

Pro tip: if the response to question involves sputters, screams or hysterical laughter, consider that maybe you don’t understand the subject well enough to ask the right questions.

But if you do have at least a layman’s understanding of the subject, the details you get from experts will ‘lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.’ And verisimilitude is what we all strive for, isn’t it? Verisimilitude is why I’m currently reading a 400-page book called “Social and Economic Change in the Pamirs”: because several hours of Internet searching failed to provide an answer to the question, “What do poor villagers in the High Pamirs use to get around when everything is covered with snow?” (Hint: not the ones in the picture.)

But boy, do I ever know a lot now about what brands of snowshoes are favored by crazy trekkers who attempt the Pamirs in winter. Just apply to me if you want an answer to that question.

Meanwhile: go out and exploit your friends and neighbors.








  1. Firearms. Dear God, firearms. Martial arts of various sorts can qualify as well, but most portrayals of firearms handling, deadliness (or lack thereof), and other qualities (LIKE THE NOISE! WHAT?! SORRY, MY EARS ARE STILL RINGING SINCE THE PROTAGONIST DISCHARGED HER GUN INSIDE THE CAR!) reflect a multiply-reinforced view of weapons as portrayed on TV. Which has its own conventions more about “get it in the camera’s field of view” than good weapon handling. Or horribly lazy use of sound effects, the “how many times are you going to pull the hammer back on that hammerless Glock” phenomenon.

    1. “That went south quick,” observed Alice by radio, leaving the alien to Cook while she maintained watch on the battlespace. “I’ve got a couple of targets in a car aiming rifles over our way. Take them out, Robert?”
      “Sleepy darts,” said Cook calmly, sitting undisturbed while Siska shrieked curses and beat the alien’s head on the paving stones. “Keep it cool, Haddison.”
      “Acknowledged. Keeping it cool,” she replied, detailing two combat spiders to dart the gang members pointing their rifles out a car window across the canal. She shifted position to squat down next to a parked Vespa scooter, her dart pistol held easily in one hand. “I’m a real humanitarian, you know that? I just saved those imbeciles from permanent hearing damage. AK-47 inside a car? Bad idea.”

      I love writing unfair gunfights. ~:D And yes, I know there’s no such thing as a real sleepy-dart. These are special nanotech sleepy darts, made of the purest refined Handwavium. They’re not the most impossible thing in that snippet.

        1. Its concealment, not cover. ~:D They’re in Amsterdam at a cafe on the Keizersgracht canal. Alice has a HUD that is fed from multiple sensors, a bulletproof body suit made of carbon nanotubes and graphene, she’s got the mother of all Mobile Infantry jump suits standing behind her, friends with jump suits, combat spiders the size of a Harley all over the place, and a werewolf. She’s not really hiding. >:D

          So massively unfair to the poor idiot gang bangers…

    2. Yup. I try to run anything firearms-related past the relevant son-in-law before publishing. He hasn’t begged for mercy yet…

    3. Getting military commands, ranks, uniform, weapons wrong. Getting the UCMJ wrong. No, a colonel won’t get busted back to lieutenant.

      Most of the time I just put the book down and never read the author again but one time I literally walled a book.

      Giving credit where due, the folks here know their firearms.

      1. Or have the wit to consult with experts. I’ve got a review or two which have complimented me on getting ‘historical guns’ just right. Yes, I have friends with guns. And my daughter the Marine.

        1. Experts are handy. Its easy to look up the specifics of a model or type of gun. It is not easy to know how that gun would behave under a pillow, or exactly why putting it under the pillow like they do in the movies is a fantastically bad idea. For that type of detail, you either have to have fiddled with the thing yourself, or pester someone who did.

          I, for example, know nothing at all about horses. I can tell which is the front, and I rode one a couple times.

          1. Most important thing to know about horses is that they are painful. Even after a saddler starts eyeing your inner thighs for raw material, a long day will leave you in pain. (Even a short day if you happen to have one like the idiot gelding my mother had – that horse had an unerring ability to know where each and every significant depression in the ground was, even those invisible to the human eye – so he could step into it. Two hours of having her spine compressed repeatedly was pretty much her limit.)

            1. I did horse camp, and a lot of teens ended up in pain. It’s not necessarily chafing, either; modern Americans aren’t used to the side stretch at the hips.

      2. Oh! I’m in the middle of reading a fantasy, where in the beginning a colonel is threatened with getting busted down to lieutenant. I had wondered if that was plausible, or just an empty threat to demonstrate how annoyed the CO was with him.

        1. In a fantasy, I could accept that. Particularly if the military culture is somewhat similar to periods and places in our own history where the military hierarchy was rather more fluid.

      3. I know almost nothing of the military, but I know enough to metaphorically wall that thing that took the Starship Troopers name for a movie. (And I’ve had to watch it more than once; I know someone who loves it despite its flaws.) It’s nothing specific, more like a general sense of “this military would collapse under its own weight before the first battle.”

        1. I suppose that in sufficiently brutal societies they may “expire of natural causes after lives devoted to public service”. I.e., get quietly killed?

          1. To some extent, if you have a society where such is routine, it may be sufficiently alien that you wouldn’t want to call the rank Colonel.

            A society with a secret police that has enough pull that even such high ranking officers live in fear may not bother concealing such issues.

            A society with capital punishment, evenhandedly and relentlessly applied, is going to leave some official record.

            US Military Officers of that seniority have developed a lot of political skill. Which means a lot of ability to interfere with a punishment process if it is bureaucratic routine. The one being punished has a lot of incentive to avoid that. Which means that someone even more skilled would need to be strongly motivated to see them punished for it to go through. So said Colonel would have to have screwed up to an abnormal degree. Since in the American Military, officers of that rank get that way by making it appear that they’ve done nothing wrong, mismanaging a screw up to that degree is very unusual. Look at Karpinski, for example. Massive leadership failure, major political talking point nation wide, and look how little of it stuck to Lieutenant Colonel Karpinski.

            The alternative scenario is an extremely desperate situation where all sorts of improbable things are happening. Even then, if a Colonel is incompetent to the point that they can’t serve in any capacity higher than Lieutenant, they are probably too dangerous to even leave with a Lieutenant’s authority. Dropped down to Lieutenant Colonel? Sure. Maybe even Major. But if you can’t even trust the Colonel to do a Captain’s job, your best choices are probably shooting them or arresting them and beginning the procedure to remove them from service.

  2. Which is why I have a monograph on the medieval Russian fur trade, a dissertation on amber, and a dissertation on the chemistry of ores from the Rammelsburg mine perched on the corner of my desk. Because I didn’t know enough to start looking for people to answer questions I didn’t know to ask…

    1. I rarely know people I can ask for topics like that, so I make heavy use of alumni privileges at the university library. The closest I can get to asking a person are message boards where someone has already asked the question I was going to, or answered the question I never thought of.

  3. Been there, done that! One of the most surreal visits my daughter and I ever did was to a big bank branch downtown … because one of the managers was a historic weapons buff, and owned a pair of replica Colt Paterson revolvers. Through a mutual acquaintance, the collector offered to give me a short lesson on loading and breaking down a Paterson (which process I needed because plot) and so we met at his place of work. In a locked, windowless conference room. There was no actual ammunition involved, but that there were a couple of old revolvers spread out on the table … in a bank, that would have excited comment. He also brought along a replica Walker Colt dragoon – and good lord,was that thing a monster.

  4. “If you were going to (non-fatally) shoot the pilot of a plane to encourage his cooperation, what body part would you choose so as not to interfere with his ability to fly the plane? Or would it be better just to kill the co-pilot?”

    Fly by wire, or manual? Fly by wire, left hand. Manual, shoot the co-pilot, the pilot may have to pull hard on the controls.

    “Can any of the students in the German department read Gothic script?”

    These days, probably not. They probably can’t read German either.

    “If a young woman in her late twenties (present day) slept with her (defunct) father’s gun under her pillow, what make and model would it be?”

    Glock. Unless Dad was a Redneck. Then 1911, the only REAL gun in the world according to many. S&W .38 snubbie as third choice. S&W is best for under-the-pillow in my estimation: long, hard trigger pull and it can’t go off accidentally. Also you keep pulling the trigger until it goes bang, semi-autos can jam and miss-fire.

    Keeping the gun under the pillow is not a great idea though, accidents can be fatal. Keep it between the mattress and the box-spring, where you can reach it in the dark.

    “That time you suffered from altitude sickness on that Silk Road trek, exactly what did it feel like?”

    No idea. Uninformed guess, like a bad fever.

    “Have you ever feared that you might be attacked by someone to whom you’re showing an empty house?”

    This apparently is a thing in Phoenix AZ, agents require driver’s license for surety and they will -not- get in your car. It does not seem to be a thing in Canada, at least not right now.

    And now a question from me, should I be worried that I know all that crazy stuff? ~:D

    1. Oh, definitely worry. Now I know somebody else I can harass with crazy questions!

    2. Fatigue, mild nausea, headaches – that was with mild altitude sickness. I spent most of the week just wanting to lie down, until around 2/3 of the week through, somebody told me what the problem was.
      What can I say? I’m from Cleveland, OH – a VERY flat part of the country.

  5. Quite a bit of writing might be explained by the author only having friends with the same and quite narrow interests.

    Btw, if you are that M. Ball, I really liked Mathemagics, both when it was new and on a recent re-read.

      1. It’s been a while since I read that. Ought to pick it up again. (I was acquainted with your writing through No Earthly Sunne—which is a real kick to read again after a couple of decades of computer development.)

  6. *chuckle* I’ve had the interesting thing of having random strangers suddenly talking to me, which is fine; I get a lot of interesting old people who chat with me about very random things. I get a lot that way. Rhys says that one of his friends/coworkers has said that for some reason, should anyone spend five minutes in Rhys’ company, ‘they’ll suddenly start telling you their life story.’

    1. LOL. I did that at the NH League of Craftsmen Faire this past weekend. Thought it was some guy I knew from the local scout council. Must have talked to him for a minute before I realized he hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was talking about and wasn’t the guy I thought I was. Damn but he could have been his clone.

  7. I asked a shepherdess how to steal a ram. Her description was so complete that I thought I’d better “smudge” the details a bit just in case anyone ever read the book…

  8. “In a motte-and-bailey castle, would the heroine be hurt if she fell into the motte?”

    No. She’d be removing the motte from her eye, before worrying about the beam in her neighbor’s eye.


  9. Yep, got a ‘list’ of folks I go to… And assholes for alpha and beta readers! LOL

  10. My brother, more geek than I am, was an eARC reader for my story in the “Planetary: Earth” anthology released in June. When he (finally!) read it, his first text was (approximately)
    “Interesting ending.”
    “A [reveal]?”
    then he proceded to school me in the orbital physics of satellites (mentioned in passing perhaps twice).

  11. I was once listening to a reading of a story to critique it.

    i was continually being distracted by the way, in a sheltered spot during a snowstorm, one character kept making sure the blankets were on TOP of the injured character.

    UNDERNEATH, folks. UNDERNEATH. The ground is in fact a greater danger than the air for cold. Yes, it was cold enough that on top was also need, but there’s a reason why beds are so pervasive throughout history.

    1. They’ll tell you that in certification for taking kids camping. The general rule is “two below for one above,” though if you have a reflective surface, like mylar rescue blankets, that can be fudged. (Or mylar car window shades, as it happens. My instructors were full of oddball hacks like that.)

      If you ever want to go camping, there are two basic rules: 1. Keep folk warm, and 2. Keep folk fed. (And 3 is No food in the tents, because animals and bugs will ruin your day.) If you’re warm and fed, the rest tends to go well. Hungry and tired because you can’t sleep cold, and NOTHING will go well.

      1. It’s not the bugs, it’s the BEARS.

        Food is stored by slinging a rope over a HIGH branch and lofting the container up there out of reach.

          1. And those tree rats will chew through a pack about anywhere you have it hanging.

            You did remember to bring your duct tape to patch your pack, right?
            You don’t need a full roll, just a few feet wrapped around a pencil.
            You know the pencil you keep in a ziplock back with writing paper, a candle or two, a few square feet of aluminum foil and some match’s inside a third ziplock.

  12. And if you aren’t a layman, and need something really obscure, experts can point you in a right direction, but you may find it has never been done.

  13. I have been very open about my background in building security and general maintenance and my willingness to read over manuscripts and answer general questions because I get so tired of reading otherwise engaging stories that involve blatant impossibilities that jar me out of the book.

    Basic things like how fire sprinklers work, what happens when an elevator fails, how to cut the electricity to an office building, and so on. The short answer is that if you are basing your action on something you saw in a Hollywood heist movie, you are certainly wrong about some things, and most likely laughably wrong about significant details.

    1. I wish I could remember the short story I read that was a parody of the Fredrick Forsyth-type thrillers. They used every bass-akwards Hollywood trope in the thing, and explained it away because the sky-scraper was owned by a movie studio “so things work differently here.” 🙂

  14. Altitude sickness, huh? I’ve had and so has my kid, we got down as fast as we could.
    Me: Like a migraine, but all over the head, eventually feeling like the brain is trying to break out of the skull. And nothing helps.

    Kid: Feeling like you’ve over exerted yourself but resting doesn’t help, like you’ve just gone for a run, you’re really tired, you need to catch your breath and take a drink before going running again, except you can never quite catch it. And as this goes on you realize you’re feeling like you are not getting enough air to function well, no matter how deep your breaths are. People will say part of it is dizziness, that your head is spinning. that is not true. It’s more a gradual wobbliness, when you are standing and moving.

    1. Kind of flu-like?

      Note for those reading along: There is no cure for altitude sickness beyond getting to a lower altitude. I don’t know if interim treatments like oxygen would be useful, but I do know that you need to get the sufferer down the hill as quickly as is feasible. People can die of altitude sickness, though it’s less likely when there’s motorized transportation available.

    2. I felt like I was on the very cusp of an asthma attack – that brink point where it’s begun and you’re digging in your purse for the inhaler, before the bronchia really clamp down hard. But it never was an asthma attack, just… almost. The dragging exhaustion, though, kept me from realizing for a couple days that the brain-no-thinky (I could do preset already-memorized stuff by rote fine, but thinking was hard, the shakiness that kept getting worse (if I wasn’t paying attention to my hands, they set up quite a tremor), the inability to maintain continued focus and attention, was actually something worse than just very broken sleep and nagging not-a-migraine headache.

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