Don't Shoot Holes in Your Credibility
by John Rains

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I am engrossed in a page-turner, a tale of a serial killer, and at a moment of tense action the main character says he clicked off the safety on his Glock.

Aw, geez, I wish he hadn't done that.

What's the problem? Glock is famous for making pistols without external safety latches. That's the problem. (You can have a manual safety installed on a Glock, but if your character is using one of those, you had better explain it.)

Readers like me, and there are many, are distracted by such errors. We lose confidence in the writers. The mistakes jar us out of our focus on the story and turn attention to the writing. In fiction, the errors usually aren't fatal -- we go on reading, but with diminished enjoyment. In nonfiction, mistakes about firearms can be deadly to a writer's credibility.

Firearms mistakes are common in all forms of writing -- news stories, TV and movie scripts, opinion pieces, novels. So common, in fact, that it is more surprising than not to read a story about firearms without catching the writer in a mistake. The subject is confusing for many writers, especially those who haven't handled guns or shot them. But writers who want to earn and keep the trust of their readers, not to mention their editors, need to avoid mistakes.

I will give you some tips on how to do that, but first, let's look at some of the most common mistakes to guard against:

Writers owe it to their readers and to themselves to be accurate and fair. But how do they thread through the thicket of misconceptions, misinformation and sheer arcana, some of which is counterintuitive? For example, the uninitiated might logically assume that a shotgun shell with No. 8 shot would be more powerful than one containing No. 4 shot. The opposite is true. To avoid errors (and embarrassment), you will need to do some research. You will need to learn at least a little about how firearms work, how they are used, how the various kinds differ. You will need to learn a vocabulary of firearms terms.

I recommend that you:

One caution about that last tip: Don't assume expertise on the part of the clerk behind the sporting-goods counter or the average cop. Many police officers have little knowledge of or interest in guns, except for what they need to qualify with their issued weapons.

By the way, remember my complaint about the novelist who didn't know that Glocks don't have safety latches? Perhaps that sounded like a trivial error. But suppose you were writing a scene in which the bad guy snatches a pistol from a police officer. The bad guy aims the gun at the officer, pulls the trigger -- and nothing happens. The safety is engaged, and before the villain can figure out how to disengage it, the police officer counterattacks. That scene has happened a number of times in real life. But if the pistol is a loaded Glock, it will fire when the bad guy squeezes the trigger.

Your whole scene, and maybe the whole story, can fall apart on that one little point. Check those details and score a bull's-eye in your writing.

Find Out More...

Don't Fire Blanks: Aim for Accuracy in Your Mystery! by Stephen Rogers

Copyright © 2003 John Rains
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

John Rains is a newspaper writing coach in North Carolina and has self-published three books: Shooting Straight in the Media/ A Firearms Guide for Writers, Writing Beyond the Routine/For More Readable Newspapers, and Write Your Way into the Papers.


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