by J.T. Ellison
I read this article in the New York Times a few weeks ago. After I finished giggling, I decided I needed to do a piece on this, because it’s the bane of my existence. I hate having to turn to cell phones to relay information, but it’s become a reality that I can’t seem to get around.
I remember our Rob doing a blog post on his old site about how one of his mentors says you never want to have your characters communicating by phone. I’m sure Rob can chime in here with the exact reference, but that advice has stayed with me for the past few years. I take it to heart. You always want your characters to have face to face interactions, especially in a crime novel. I mean really, is Taylor supposed to call a suspect and ask him if he did the crime, all the while judging his reactions by the amount of heavy breathing and stuttering that ensues? No. Of course not.
But technology has made its way into our modern discourse. It’s getting to the point that you must work around the pervasive nature of technology – of cell phones and MacAirs and Eees and instant messaging and texting and twittering and facebooking.
Here’s the reality – cops do use cell phones. I don’t know the rules on usage, whether it’s SOP (standard operating procedure) to do so, but they do. I’ve been there, and witnessed it. They use radios as well, but if they need to reach someone immediately or send a private message, they’ll dial it up. They also have computers in their patrol cars so they can run instant information, be advised of warrants – if you haven’t been in a modern patrol car, you should head down to your local police department and ask for a tour. It like Knight Rider out there.
Simply put, technology, and cell phones in particular, have changed the way we write about crime.
How many people can get kidnapped and put in the trunk of a car anymore? How many get stranded at the side of the road? How many miss their flights and don’t call their friends and spouses so they aren’t waiting at the airport for hours? How many divorce proceeding are based on snooping through cell phone records?
Our cell phones have become an extension of our bodies, a third hand (or second head) that few of us can do without. So the hypothesis is it’s impossible for a modern novel to be considered at all realistic if there aren’t nods to the mod cons. Is this true?
To an extent, yes. But when you’re writing a story, you do need to keep that earlier advice in mind – face to face is always better.
In my upcoming book, I took all of this into account. I wanted to kidnap a girl who was stranded on the side of the road. The scene worked great – she ran out of gas on a semi-deserted stretch of Highway 96; a young, trusting soul who has no reason to believe that the good Samaritan who’s stopped to help is going to betray her. One little problem. What girl in this day and age doesn’t have her cell flipped open to text and call her friends 24/7?
There was a simple solution – the character comes across as a little flighty, but admits she forgot to charge her phone the night before and has no juice. Problem solved, and it actually goes a long way toward describing the character and her ultimate gullibility. She did run out of gas, remember, so she’s not the most responsible type. Forgetting to charge the phone works.
Cell phones can and do get all kinds of mileage in a novel. Phones not on, not charged, fitted with GPS, reworked by Q, satellite phones, encrypted phones. One little problem: We’re teetering on the brink of dating ourselves, because in ten years, the cell phone will be obsolete and everyone reading the book will know immediately that the story was written pre-2012 (or whenever it is that they become obsolete.) And don’t think it won’t happen – look at how far they’ve come in just a few years. Our cells are going to be making us breakfast here before long.
The same issue arose out of 9/11: Every book about New York that was written prior has the twin towers, and all post 9/11 book don’t. The same with movies – I know I still get choked up anytime I see the pre 9/11 skyline. You have to think carefully about when your book is set to make sure these major changes are addressed. And some of us can anticipate the changes before they come, making those books the ultimate cutting edge accessory.
Coda phones became answering machines became voice mail became visual voice mail. Our satellite television has caller ID. Pretty damn soon we’ll have holographic images of people “calling” us that pop up in our living rooms, and then our bedside tables, and then our retinas. Technology moves fast, cutting edge leaps are made every day. For all the books about eco-terrorism now, the nano-tech books are start taking over.
As authors, we’ve always embraced change, adapted to the new and different with relative grace, luddites among us excepted. Many of us are developing the ideas in our novels that will become tomorrow’s technology. Science fiction writers have always been light years ahead with their fanciful ideas (of course, airplanes were a fanciful idea 100 years ago…) Crime fiction is a close second, with all of our spy novels and satellite intercepts and wireless wiretaps.
It’s a brave new world out there.
So what about you? Does it throw you out of the story when you read about a detective making a cell phone call? Do you think there’s a better way? And what’s your prediction for the next wave of technology driven story lines???
Wine of the Week: I hope I’m tromping through their vineyard as you read this: Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel. I know I’ve recommended it before, but it’s well worth the second mention.
(My apologies for being absent this week. Hubby and I are celebrating my birthday in Sonoma and Napa, California, and I left my laptop at home so I can get a real, live break. We’ve been touring the vineyards, sampling the wines, and I’m hoping to come back with a plethora of new wine suggestions for you. Congrats in advance to all the Edgar winners, and I’ll see you next week with a wine-soaked tourism heavy blog.)