Friday, September 9, 2011

Getting Guns Write in Crime Fiction by Kenneth R. Lewis

Ken Lewis is a police chief and crime fiction author who lives in Oregon. He is the author of “Little Blue Whales” (2009, Krill Press) and “The Sparrow’s Blade” (2011, Krill Press). He is currently at work on his third novel, “The Helical Vane” to be published in late fall, 2012

Facebook Page: Crime Fiction Author KENNETH R. LEWIS


Kenneth R. Lewis

            When I was nine years old, I fell in love for the very first time.

            Her name was Daisy, and every time I saw my reflection in her carbon blue barrel, felt the raised, fake wood grain of her chestnut brown plastic stock when my fingers closed around her pump, my heart would pound, my mouth would go dry, and in the deepest recesses of my adolescent soul it would be affirmed that this was going to be a love that would last forever.

            We met at Christmas that year, under the tree in our living room. Daisy was a beautiful, sleek Model 25 pump action .177‑caliber BB repeater, with a pressed-sheet metal steel barrel housing and receiver, a 50 round magazine feed tube, and a rear sight adjustable for both windage, and elevation. It was, as they say, love at first sight, and by the time summer arrived there was not a field mouse, hornet’s nest, or marauding neighborhood cat in our back yard that was safe from Daisy’s lethal reach while I cradled her lovingly in my arms.

            Daisy and I were inseparable for many summers to come after that first memorable one, but as is the case of most first loves, we eventually grew up, and began to grown apart. Daisy found solace hidden away in a dark corner of my bedroom closet, given a considerate coat of Hoppe’s gun oil and laid gently back inside of her original cardboard box, while I turned my eye, and my affections, toward a new blued-steel beauty, a Remington “Fieldmaster” pump-action .22 rifle that I received as a gift on my thirteenth birthday.

            Ten years after that milestone birthday, and after owning a succession of different rifles, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers growing up which I enjoyed collecting, hunting with, and target shooting, I was finally out of college and a member of the work force. However, in my case, it was the police force, work force, and I found myself now carrying a gun for a living every day of my life. Twenty years after that, I became an author, writing about police officers carrying and using guns, every day of their lives, in the age old fight of good versus evil. Today, I am still a police officer, and I still carry a gun, every day of my life. But in my other endeavor as a writer I’ve become more and more surprised, and even somewhat dismayed, at the number of mystery and crime fiction authors who seem to know so little about guns; many of them, admittedly, having never even held a real gun before, let alone fired one.

            Getting guns wrong in crime fiction is like baking a delicious, lemon meringue pie to serve your dinner guests for desert…but leaving out the meringue. It’s still a pie, all right, but it is not going to have that same flavor they were all expecting without it. If you are going to write crime fiction, you are going to be writing about guns at some point, period. And putting aside all notions of political correctness, personal prejudices, fears, bias, general misgivings, or just plain feelings of foolishness, or inadequacy, I believe you owe it to your readers to get guns right.             Many of today’s crime fiction readers and fans are shooters, hunters, gun enthusiasts, or even people in law enforcement themselves, and while for the most part they don’t expect a certain type of gun to necessarily take center stage in a story, they wince in near-pain when an author gets a gun wrong in a book. It’s a big letdown, and it jars the reader back to reality…the reality that the author is only human, a fallible human, and they are just making all this stuff up. They must be making it up, because they got something factually wrong. Therefore, it is not believable as fiction. Remember, good fiction is always very believable, even if it is one hundred per cent “made up.”

            Writing about guns is easy for someone like me, because I know a whole lot about them. And I do like giving certain guns minor “starring roles” in all of my books in an understated, yet accurate manner. Like Thud Compton’s off-duty Smith and Wesson Airweight .38 Special in “Little Blue Whales,” and Larry “The Rat” Luebcke’s WW2 .30-06 M1 Garand rifle in “The Sparrow’s Blade.” But what happens when a writer gets a gun “wrong” in their book? Here’s a recent example (a really glaring one) from a book I’m currently reading; Sweetheart by Chelsea Caine, published by St. Martin’s Press.

            ...Henry came around and unlocked the desk drawer where Archie kept his
            service revolver. Henry picked it up out of the drawer, flipped open the
            cartridge to make sure it was empty, and then closed the drawer.

            Ouch! Revolvers have cylinders, into which the cartridge, which contains a bullet (projectile) is placed, and then rotated in line with the chamber (rear) of the empty barrel, then fired out the other end of the barrel (the muzzle.) Now, please don’t get me wrong. This is not a dig at Chelsea Caine, who is, by the way, an Oregonian like me. Her first novel, Heartsick, was flawless, perfect crime fiction, the highest example of the art form today, and my impression of Sweetheart so far is that it is every bit as good as its predecessor. We all aspire to be Chelsea Caine! Nevertheless, either Chelsea, or her editor, or both, goofed—big time. In the writing world of firearms faux pas’ this is a biggie; not knowing the difference between a revolver’s cylinder, and the cartridge which is inserted into the cylinder—a single, multi-component object often mistakenly referred to in books as a “bullet” but which in reality contains a bullet, and a brass casing to hold the bullet, a charge of gunpowder (the propellant), and a primer (which is struck by the gun’s firing pin, and ignites the gunpowder).

            Oh–but it gets even better. That first passage from Sweetheart is on page 103 of the St. Martin’s paperback edition. On page 126, we have this:

            Archie snapped his phone shut and unholstered his gun. Henry was already out of the car, his badge out, barking orders, shouting at the uniforms to enter the school.
            Archie turned the safety off on his weapon and got out of the car.

            I am sorry to report, ladies and gents, that Detective Archie Sheridan is carrying a revolver, according to page 103 of the story, and revolvers do not have “safeties” to be “turned off.” Also, while I am at it, I might also add that nowhere along the way between page 103, and page 126, has Archie bothered to look for his box of cartridges in his home, or his car, or in his desk at work so he could LOAD his weapon before he sets out to find Gretchen Lowell, one of the most psychotically murderous serial killers ever to grace the pages of a crime fiction novel and the woman who had previously abducted him, tortured him, and carved a heart into the bare flesh of his chest. There are 326 total pages in this book, and I would be willing to bet that if a firearm is somehow referenced again, there is a fifty-fifty chance the description, nomenclature, or other details about the weapon will be in some way wrong.

            As a crime fiction author, you basically have two ways to mess up when writing about guns. You can be overly specific about a certain weapon, it’s ammunition, accessories, and characteristics, and if there isn’t a dammed good reason for such an in depth description as it pertains to furthering the story line, it will make many readers wonder if you are nothing more than a Wikipedia whore, trying to make yourself look good as an author. Or, you can go the Chelsea Caine route and become a “gun minimalist” and hardly make any reference to a weapon at all, other than the bare minimum. Either way, you run the risk of getting guns wrong in your novel if you really do not know what the hell you are talking about. The solution? Learn the basics of firearms, and learn to shoot. And no, I’m not talking about watching YouTube gun videos; although there is a certain amount of merit to some of these—the downside being the large number of idiots also posting on the internet doing idiotic, dangerous things with guns.

            Almost every small town, city, and county in this country has organizations dedicated to the furtherance of firearms education, hunting, or the shooting sports. These range from the NRA (The National Rifle Association) to your local gun club which may offer firearms familiarization courses, classes in obtaining a CCW (Concealed Carry Weapon) permit, or just fun target shooting—after an appropriate firearms safety course first, of course. Other options which could lead into an eventual firearms learning opportunity may be to attend a Citizen Police Academy in your area if one is available, or take advantage of a police Ride-A-Long program if your local law enforcement agency offers one. Another excellent source is retired cop Lee Lofland’s online, and real-time, Writer’s Police Academy. Shooting guns is usually not a part of the curriculum of these activities. However, introduce yourself to a friendly officer while you’re there, let him or her know that you are an author wanting to learn more about guns and give them an autographed copy of your latest novel or even a draft copy of your W.I.P. and you may just find yourself out on the range with that same officer in the very near future, having the time, and firearms education, of your life.

            Another variation of the above theme is to seek out, find, and cultivate your very own “gun guru” such as myself. Most police officers, and especially the recently retired ones who have the unlimited time to do it, make excellent gun gurus. These are people who have not only used and handled a multitude of guns throughout their careers; they have also experienced a vast array of “non-police” type firearms used in criminal activities—sometimes against the officer personally himself. You can’t buy this kind of real-life information to use in your writing, but get to know the right cop, and you can earn it.

            As a self-professed writer’s gun guru, my email inbox is always open to all writers of every skill level, from the not-yet-published, to the bestsellers in Chelsea Caine’s category (Chelsea, you shoulda’ called me!) and what used to be in years past, just a handful of firearms inquires sent to me, has now turned into an average of over a hundred a year. In just the past year and a half alone, I have been able to play a direct part in saving several authors from making egregious firearms errors, and, hopefully, adding an air of authenticity to the guns and the characters using them in their novels…Julie Dolcemaschio, Jonathan Quist, Earl Staggs, Beth Anderson, Mike Nettleton, and Donald L. Ball. The questions posed to me ranged from what happens to a person when they get hit dead center-chest with a 158 grain solid lead .38 Special bullet while wearing a ballistic vest, to the #1 All Time Champion Question of Questions…where is the safety on a Glock pistol? The answer to question #1 is, it hurts like hell, and the answer to #2 is, there is NO SAFETY on a Glock pistol. I repeat: there is NO SAFETY on a Glock pistol! Forget about the “Glock Safe-Action Trigger” on this most popular, and easily recognized semi-automatic pistol in the world. It is NOT the same as a traditional safety mechanism, and it will NOT prevent a Glock pistol with a round loaded into the chamber from firing!

            Now, if I only had a buck for every time I saw that particular firearms faux pas appearing in a book, or a movie, or on TV, I could retire tomorrow…and become a gun guru full time!


Anonymous said...

Great post, Ken, and thanks! I will run a couple of gun sequences past you soon -- I hope.

I loved LITTLE BLUE WHALES, as you know, and I'm doing my best to get back to THE SPARROW'S BLADE. Life -- in capital letters -- keeps interfering!

All the best,

Pat Browning

Beth Anderson said...

Considering how stupid I am about guns in general, and Lord help us all, I own one, you were very kind in your comments about authors writing about guns. Good thing there are people like you around to keep us straight, Ken. I'll have to print your great post here and have it tattoed on my back or something. Or at least, put it in my reference file. Yes, that's it. Tattoes are too painful anyhow.
Don't go far away, I'll need more coaching in the near future!

Ken Lewis said...

Hey, Pat, my motto as a Gun Guru is "Any gun, anywhere, any time." Feel free to shoot me....Uh, I mean, email me your gun writing related questions whenever you have one!

Ken Lewis said...

Dear Beth: Glad we were able to clear up that pesky "wax bullets vs. simmunitions for indoor target practice" question you had before "Raven Talks Back" went to print. My personal belief about owning a gun is that if you do, then you have an obligation to yourself and everyone in your household to learn the basics of how to safely use it, or you shouldn't have a gun at all. Having never driven an automobile before you wouldn't buy a brand new car, let it sit in your garage for a few years, and then one day just grab the keys and decide to take it for a spin would you? It's the same principle with firearms. They can be potentially be deadly, even to the person holding one, unless they know how to handle them. And just like learning to become a competent driver with a car, firearms can provide great recreation, utility, and could someday even save your life or the life of a loved one. I'm not talking about becoming Wyatt Earp, here. Just find a good gun club, or even a competent friend, and learn the basics of safe gun handling and shooting if you are going to be a gun owner.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, everyone! Kenneth, another terrific post - Thank You!!! (I, like Beth, know nothing about guns. If I include guns in my first novel you'll be the guy I call, for sure!).

And, like Pat, you know how much I LOVED "Little Blue Whales." And, like Pat, I'm doing my best to get to "The Sparrow's Blade!" I was tickled pink to read that you're working on your third novel - Yay!!!!

bo parker said...

Guns and autos. I'm often reminded when reading that it's a work of fiction. But I still experience an "Ah,come on" moment.

And a thank you for the kind words on the cover for THE PROVIDENCE OF DEATH. I was fortunate to work with the graphics department at Lulu who spent many days converting my ideas into what you see. The first challenge was to find art that reflected my concept of the title. And there were multiple changes on the layout of words so that they were not a distraction, but complimentary to the art.
As you know, trying to convey the concept of a story with a picture, a title, and a tag line makes writing a query child's play.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Ken, I'm holding you to your offer to go shooting in November.

Julie D said...

You were, and still are, invaluable to me on this and all issues surrounding law enforcement. I expect a lesson in November. Soup to nuts!

Great post.

Vicki Newell said...

Thanks for your wonderful post! I can't count the times my husband, a long-time gun enthusiast, has yelled, "this person knows nothing about guns!" He get especially irate about the Glock error--thanks for clearing that up! I have no doubt Dorothy_L members will make no mistakes now, but hope other writers see your post, and are more careful in the future. Thanks again for your useful information.

Ken Lewis said...

Bo: I don't know a whole lot about cars, so that's one subject I have to research carefully in my writing, but then again I don't get too specific about them, either. But I do know one lady mystery author who's got both guns and cars covered, and that's Lonnie Cruse. Her '57 Chevy mystery series is VERY specific about that particular automobile and a few years back, Lonnie took some shooting lessons, from her local law enforcement agency, I think. Somewhere still kicking around on the internet there's a picture of Lonnie at the range, unleashing hellfire and damnation with a semi-auto pistol....a Glock, I believe. I remember Lonnie saying that she took those lessons not only to better her writing, but because she also wanted to learn how to handle a gun for self-defense, so good for her!

Ken Lewis said...

Julie, Carolyn, and Mike: Yes, we all have a date on the pistol range in November, weather permitting, and if you guys have the time. The Oregon Book Fair here starts Saturday morning but I won't be getting back from my Idaho hunting trip until late that Friday night, so I won't be able to link up with you guys until that Saturday morning. However, if you are free on Sunday, we'll head up to my "private range" in the mountains above Rogue River and we'll shoot the Glock 40, Springfield Tactical .45 auto, Ruger .22 auto, Smith & Wesson 2" .38 Special, a Tactical 12 ga. shotgun, and even a .223 police patrol rifle if you're game! And Beth, this goes for you, too, if you decide to come down for the big event.

D.M. McGowan said...

Great post!
I make a point of mentioning firearms and being descriptive in my novels; too many people have claimed that Canadian pioneers didn't carry firearms.
Such statements get me extremely upset partly because it isn't true and is a rewriting of history. Such a statement also suggest that all our pioneers were idiots.
And, yes, everyone should learn to shoot. You shouldn't shoot unless you've learned how. And you shouldn't condemn firearms (or anything else) unless you know something about them.
By the way, the Henry rinfire on the cover of "Partners" does not appear anywhere in the story; its a designer's idea. However, the Henry does appear in "Homesteader"

Ken Lewis said...

Dave: Who are these people claiming Canadian pioneers didn't carry firearms? Let me guess. Idiot Canadian liberals? So, you have these types in your country, too? I'm sorry to hear that, because I was hoping some of our own would get tired of making the majority of us here in this country miserable with their pie-in-the sky platitudes, delusional and destructive tree hugging environmental policies, and their disastorous political ideology, and would emigrate to Canada. Preferrably to polar bear country. And without any firearms