I don’t know what to say to this.
As a writer of thrillers I have to make stuff up. An imaginary hero, an imaginary villain, something evil for the villain to do, crazy conspiracy theories that are just plausible enough to happen and a near impossible way for the hero to save the day.
I get a lot of my ideas from watching the news. I simply take a story I see and stretch it to the limits of my imagination. If I can combine several stories into one that’s even better. If there’s a shred of real-life in the plot it usually resonates with the reader and makes the time spent reading it that much better.
For instance; last night my brain entertained ideas surrounding the hijacking and disappearance of a large jetliner. I’m looking for ways that my characters might get involved in a similar situation. If you watch Law & Order you know what I’m talking about. “Ripped from the Headlines” they call it.
But I never thought it would happen in reverse. That is until I saw this story today in the Huffington Post;
Child Organ Harvesting And Trafficking-Linked Arrest Made In Mexico
In all honesty I got sick to my stomach.
If you’ve read Scarcity you already know why, if you haven’t I’ll go ahead and tell you that this is one of the major plot points of the whole book.
I’m not the first to write about the subject. I believe Tess Garritsen did so in one of her first books. Others may have as well, I don’t really know, I didn’t do an extensive check before writing the book. I do remember that the initial idea came about from reading about a new organ transport machine in one of the many medical journals I still get. (In a former life I was a flight medic and hauled a lot of organs and transplant teams around the country) So, the idea was not original, I just put a modern slant on it.
Still, it bothers me. Are drug cartels and Mexican gangs reading medical thrillers? I doubt it. But then why do I assume that? Did the 911 hijackers read Tom Clancy and decide to use his idea of crashing planes into buildings? Nobody can say for sure. I remember an Army friend of mine who beta-read my first book Closure for me. Closure was a vigilante sniper story that I wrote not long after the Maryland Sniper shootings, this was a few years before Dexter, but long after The Punisher or Mack Bolan. Nothing unique as far as the basic plotline, but he sent it back to me full of red ink along with a letter warning me that I was writing a how-to manual.
To my horror I saw that he was right. I was taking the skills and knowledge I had gained in the military and laying it all out there for others to emulate. He was telling me to go back and edit several areas, omitting key information so the book didn’t invite people to try stupid things.
Can they find the missing information somewhere else? Probably. I can’t stop them from doing that. Hell, you can buy most Army manuals from Amazon, complete with 2-day shipping. If they want it bad enough they’ll find it.
But this raises a question;
Do authors have a responsibility to keep their books safe?
If a writer can pen his story without making the world a more dangerous place, should he/she feel obligated to do so? Granted we can’t control what’s in a person’s head, but we can at least, in theory, deny them the ability to be more lethal when they do make the decision to be violent.
I’m not saying we should make all our stories PG rated, that would be boring. But if a writer can tell their story and still do so without taking anything away from it, just by leaving key things out, should they? Do they have any responsibility in this matter at all? And if so, where does it stop? Books? Video games? (GTA anyone?) Television? Movies? In The Basketball Diaries Leonardo Decaprio’s character walked into his high school wearing a black trench coat and proceeded to kill a number of his fellow students with a shotgun. A short time later we had Columbine. That’s a three step process; obtain gun, walk into school, start shooting. The trench coats just served to tie it all together. I don’t see how we can blame the writer for this.
But what about something much more complicated? The 911 hijackers may have gotten the idea of hijacking and crashing planes from Tom Clancy, but he didn’t tell them how to do it, they had to go to flight school for several months in order to learn that. (Ironically right here where I live now) That requires a certain amount of dedication, funding and time.
But it’s not all that hard to make a silencer in your garage, and I almost gave away the complete recipe, just because I could and thought it added some nice detail to the story.
In the end I chose not to. I didn’t want them to find a copy of my book inside the dark basement apartment of the next John Hinckley. I still don’t.
I’d like to know your thoughts.
2 thoughts on “An Authors Responsibility?”
This is a pretty tough question. As writers, we sometimes have to imagine how to make something horrible into a realistic possibility. To compromise that is to destroy the story, and to refuse to ask the questions that sometimes have to be answered rather than ignored. Then again, I’ve often wondered how I would terrorize the US if I were a murderous radical organization, and it doesn’t involve grand attacks on notable locations. Much the opposite. I don’t talk about it online, though, for the exact reasons you’re bringing up. I know it would work, and I don’t want the wrong people getting the same idea.
On the other hand, I don’t think the problem is whether our ideas are free enough to get into the wrong hands. The problem is twofold: 1) a free society always carries the risk of freedom used for evil, and 2) are we effectively protecting ourselves from those dangers? A lot of stories have come out lately about how the TSA is a joke, how dangerous stuff passes through the screenings more often than not, and so on. So, 1) do we want a free society, and 2) what steps do we need to take to make it that way?
That’s all talk about the societal level of things, though. For individuals like us… I agree that some ideas are best kept to ourselves.
I finally locked the kids in the closet long enough to check out the stories (Sunshells) on your blog. You paint a good picture. It’s not a genre that I read that often, but it never-the-less hooked me and that’s what you want in an opening chapter. Me, I usually kill someone or blow something up. Almost a requirement for thrillers. But old habits die hard I guess. I’m curious as to what these war machines are. I have a picture in my head from Wild Wild West; the giant mechanical spider, or maybe a king-size AT-AT Walker. Either way they sound cool. Guess I’ll have to add you to the reading list to find out.
As for the Author Responsibility question, I think I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. Unless the detail is necessary for the story I’ll just leave out the key stuff. The other thing I realized is that a lot of people ASSUME that everything is available on the Internet. It took several people saying that before I started to believe it. Example: the “Improvised Munitions” Army manual you can buy on Amazon is only a fraction of the manual I learned with. The one I remember was in a secure building/classroom on the north side of Gruber road, they were numbered and never left. I couldn’t even take my notes with me. So maybe ignorance is key in some areas?
I’ll be checking in from time to time, if the kids will let me.