Tuesday, September 27, 2011

End of War

Only those who have seen Blackhawk Down have seen “…the end of war.”

I talked a little last week about the appeal of what I call “the Golden Age of Adventure”—the classic period setting of the original pulp magazines. What I didn’t talk about was the challenge of trying to write stories set in that period.

But maybe “challenge” is the wrong word.

I’m sometimes asked how I go about doing research for my stories, and specifically whether I do all the research ahead of time or as I go along. Somehow, the answers I give just don’t quite seem to tell the whole tale.

I love research…not in the traditional sense of going to a library, checking out volumes on various and sundry esoteric topics, and dutifully building a file of information…but rather in a more basic sense. I like learning things. Little things. Stupid insignificant things that most people probably don’t even care if I get wrong.

When I wrote The Shroud of Heaven, the first book in my contemporary Nick Kismet thriller series, I knew that a lot of the action would take place in Baghdad, Iraq. I combed the available online resources for all the information I could gather, and there wasn’t all that much, but much of what I did find, including a few satellite photos—there was no Google Earth at the time—helped me not only get the details right, but actually gave me a lot of ideas for how to ratchet up the action.

Research is like that for me. Often, I’ll go to Wikipedia or Google Earth, expecting merely to get some detail right, and discover a connection that propels the story into new and unexpected places.

I think my love of research has made it hard for me to enjoy reading. In addition to writing my own novels, I am privileged to be able to help other authors with the editing process, and I find that I am constantly going to the Internet to check some detail to make sure that the author got it right. It’s surprising how many little things we just assume have always been true. Take slang expressions for instance.

This weekend, while editing an excellent young adult adventure novel set in 1961, I came across a passage where one of the characters says: “We’re toast.” Naturally, I had to know whether that slang expression came into our vernacular before 1961 or not. My research revealed that, in fact, the earliest use of “toast” in this fashion was in the movie Ghostbusters. (It seems we actually owe quite a bit of popular slang to the ad libs of Mr. Bill Murray).

But that’s just the kind of thing I love learning about.

In the same book, another passage mentions how a character “sucked it up” and went on with whatever it was that needed to be done. Search for: “What is the origin of the expression ‘Suck it up’?”

That one wasn’t so easy. One popular explanation was that World War II aviators who got sick and vomited into their oxygen masks were advised to “suck it up,” clearing the mask of bile and acid in order to avoid breathing the resulting toxic vapors. Eeewww. As is often the case, that explanation wasn’t verifiable, but still, at least I’ve got something to talk about at parties.

Research can be that way. One area that I’m obsessive about is quotes. I remember writing a college essay where I wanted to include the famous quote: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” I remembered the words, but not the source, so I fired up the search engine.

Plato! I was told again and again…but wait…What’s this? “Incorrectly attributed to Plato.”

The quote actually comes from George Santayana, a Spanish poet and philosopher who wrote it in 1922, some time after Plato as it turns out. Many people believe that Plato said it because the movie Blackhawk Down opens with the quote onscreen, and attributes it to the ancient Greek philosopher. But director Ridley Scott was guilty only of perpetuating an already common mistake. Evidently, General Douglas MacArthur, in his farewell address to the cadets at West Point in 1962, attributed the quote to Plato, and ever since, people looking for a really good quote about war have taken the General at his word and ascribed that bit of too-true wisdom to the wrong person.

This underscores to me the fact that we writers—even those of us who deal in fantastic escapist fiction—have an obligation to do our homework. We have a sacred trust, given us by our readers, to provide correct information whenever possible, and to always check our facts, even when we’re pretty sure we know what we’re talking about. And really, nowadays, it’s not that hard to do.

Speaking of Blackhawk Down, I recall another news story recently where a young boy discovered his even younger sister had apparently drowned in the backyard pool. This little boy did everything right—he got help, he called 911—but most critically, he performed CPR and was able to resuscitate his sister. When asked where he learned to do that, he proudly replied that he had seen it in his favorite movie, Blackhawk Down. I won’t go into the issue of whether that’s appropriate content for a 9-year old…hey, he saved a life, that’s all that matters. But just imagine if Ridley Scott had treated medical procedures as cavalierly as he had the words of Plato…I mean Santayana. What if I had, after watching Blackhawk Down, attributed that quote to Plato in my college paper…and looked foolish in front of my peers?

It’s not enough to simply say “oh, just make it up.” Someone’s life could depend on whether or not I get the details right. Or at the very least, someone’s dignity.

“The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you can never know if they are genuine.”—Abraham Lincoln

Sean Ellis is the author of the Nick Kismet thrillers, The Adventures of Dodge Dalton, and other adventure and pulp novels. He is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources Policy from Oregon State University. Sean is also a member of the International Thriller Writers organization. He currently resides in Arizona, where he divides his time between writing, adventure sports, and trying to figure out how to save the world. Visit Sean’s website: http://seanellisthrillers.webs.com

1 comment:

  1. All too true. I've always had a fascination with where sayings come from, but now I think that might expand to quotes as well.


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