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
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GETTING GUNS WRITE IN CRIME FICTION
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!