Mike Porcaro was kind enough to invite me on his radio show when my last book was released. He’s a heck of a nice guy and I always find his interviews like a campfire chat with an old friend. We finished up and I was feeling pretty good by the time I walked out of the studio to meet my wife.
“You know you used verisimilitude twice,” she said.
My cellphone rang at that moment. It was my old boss. He skipped the hello and went straight to: “Seriously, Hemingway, verisimilitude?”
I got at least three more texts before the day was out, with friends chipping their teeth about my use of that fifty dollar word.
But frankly, there aren’t too many other ways to say what I’m going for in my books. I admit to writing hard-charging adventures where the good guys generally win in the long run and the villains are exceptionally bad. I know that life is a lot more nuanced than that, but the thing is, I’m really not going for reality. I want to stretch the truth in such a way that it is vastly more exciting that everyday life and yet still feels real.
Yep. I want verisimilitude.
My wife and I were married pretty young, barely in our twenties. I got on with a small police department by the time I was twenty-two. At that time I reckoned that I was pretty dang smart and spent most of every cop movie we watched pointing out all the things the director got wrong. Looking back, it’s a wonder my bride actually sat through a single movie what with me pointing out how this cop was holding his gun wrong or how no SWAT team worth its salt would ever enter a room like that…
It was so clear to me. I knew some stuff and Hollywood did not.
Later, after I was hired by the U.S. Marshals, I saw a movie that included characters who happened to be on the Witness Security Program. In this movie WitSec was managed by the FBI and not the Marshals. I thought how great it was that Hollywood got all the sensitive parts of our operations wrong. It seemed real to the public, didn’t jeopardize anyone’s life and even pinned the dorky mistakes made by the characters on our sister agency.
Before I started writing full-time, I spent twenty-nine years in law-enforcement, twenty-two of those with the federal government. It was a great career for researching the agencies, people and weapons involved with counter-terrorism.
Contrary to Castle and Becket’s adventures (which my wife and I love, by the way) real homicides that aren’t solved immediately are generally drawn out affairs. Circumstantial evidence is often the only evidence you’ll ever have. DNA results are a long time coming, the bad guys lawyer up pretty fast, and the investigators aren’t nearly as pretty. They certainly don’t wear high heels and boss each other around so much. But it sure makes for fun TV.
I never want to be the guy to make my books so real that some igmo with a grudge can use them as a recipe for making a bomb, crashing a plane, killing a judge… or the commission of any other felony in which I might be an expert. To that end, I leave stuff out on purpose. Let’s say I want to have terrorists attempt to make a binary bomb. There are plenty of sites demonstrating how to do this on the Internet. But when I write it, I’ll describe the device in great detail, except say, for one of the ingredients and how to wire the detonator. Tom Clancy-technical, I am not. If a reviewer wants to sit in their sweaty wife-beater T-shirt in their mom’s basement and bash my bomb-making skills…well, that’s the way it goes.
The same goes for the racy scenes in my stories. Heck, parents can certainly get angry with me for the violence—there is a lot of that—and a spicy word or two—but when it comes to raunchy stuff—we all know it’s a human condition. I don’t have to provide a map. I’ll fade to black and let the reader imagine the rest. It’s more comfortable for all of us that way.
I freely admit that my characters are over the top. They travel the world, ride fancy motorcycles, speak several different languages, defuse bombs, get the girl and put the smack on terrorists. The thing is, I know real men and women just like this—larger than life. My plots are not all probable, but they are possible, given the right set of circumstances and a healthy dose of imagination. My friends have heard me say that I know I’m on the right track when I hear the Indiana Jones theme song in my head while I’m writing. I’ll take motorcycle chases, bareknuckle brawls, knife fights, and evil geniuses over a plodding police procedural that, while interesting in its own right, doesn’t get my blood going the way a running gun battle does.
And still, it all has to seem real.
Several years ago while I was working on one of my Westerns, I wanted to have one of the characters shoot the handcuffs off someone with a rifle. Unsure of what might happen, I hung a pair of handcuffs on a dry stick about the size of my wrist, backed off a few feet and shot the locking mechanism with my trusty .44 carbine. The torque of lead twisting the metal cuffs snapped the stick to smithereens, but it looked so cool that I left it in the book. Hey, it could work.
Two of my Thrillers involve terrorist plots to unleash biological weapons on the United States. I’m fortunate to have friends who are physicians and friends with the CDC. My family practitioner gave me loads of good information for the next book. That said, too much detailed description of a deadly virus or bacteria and the associated symptoms and the writing can become so real as to be clinical. I don’t really want to read about that. I just want to see enough that it makes me feel a little queasy—and maybe suspect I’ve somehow contracted the disease from merely reading about it…
Here’s the deal: We writers don’t have to be exactly, perfectly, down-to-the-nose-hair realistic in everything we write. But we can’t be wrong. If I stretch the laws of physics and make Jericho Quinn fly, no one believes it. But if I have him jump from a window that could possibly—but does not—break his ankle while in pursuit of a terrorist, a reader might be persuaded to believe that—especially if they see he is human and gets broken in other ways at other times.
So, I’ll keep doing research and continue to stretch the truth far enough to try and raise my readers’ pulse while making every attempt to make the story ring true.
That’s what I’m looking for; fiction with a ring of truth… I’ll have to use that next time I’m on the radio. Maybe it’ll get less flack than verisimilitude.
Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published ten novels, six of them Westerns (several as a ghost writer and two under his pen name, Mark Henry). His present Jericho Quinn series—NATIONAL SECURITY, ACT OF TERROR, STATE OF EMERGENCY and TIME OF ATTACK (February 2014 Kensington) features an adventure motorcyclist, Air Force OSI agent and renaissance man who spends his days sorting out his life and hunting terrorists. Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle where he is working on the fifth book in the Jericho Quinn series.
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