On A Writer’s Responsibility…


by Janis Patterson


The other night The Husband and I were out to dinner with some of his friends whom I knew very slightly. The wives were nattering on about something so totally mind-numbing that I was half-way listening to the men. They are all sport rocketry enthusiasts – something I know very little about and personally find watching paint dry much more interesting – and were taking about the various propellants used in rocket engines.


One of them laughed about a particular one and said if they weren’t careful they could make a pretty nifty bomb using XYZ. Perhaps unwisely, I said yes, they could, but it would be foolish, as XYZ was disproportionate in explosive value versus weight/size besides being so basically unstable that it was very dangerous to use in the quantity needed to do any significant damage. Plus, it would need a special detonator that would be very easy for the police to trace.


Startled, they all looked at me as if I had lifted my sweater to reveal a suicide vest. The Husband was quick to enlighten them, saying that I was a novelist and that he had helped me research explosives for a work in progress. Obviously intrigued, they peppered me with questions about various fuels and propellants and their non-rocket related destructive capabilities, then became rather petulant when I refused to answer them as completely as they wished.


I probably could have answered all their questions sufficiently to give them a great deal of destructive knowledge, but even though these were all decent and law-abiding men, I didn’t. Why take the risk if I were wrong? Besides, I never tell everything I know, either in print or in person.
Why? Because I write novels, which should be momentary escapes for ordinary people – not technical manuals. I long ago decided that I should never put anything in a story that someone can use to hurt someone else. The idea, yes, or I wouldn’t have a story. Enough facts to have a feeling of verisimilitude, yes. A blueprint, no. There’s no way I can stop people bent on destruction from seeking out all the information they need about any kind of killing tool – and it is out there if they’re determined – but I don’t have to help them.


For example, years ago at an NRA convention I met a salesman who, on finding I was a mystery novelist, delighted in telling me how to get a ballistically clean and therefore untraceable bullet – i.e., how to kill someone with a bullet that had no rifling, no striations, no markings at all. He seemed so proud of himself and then asked me when I put that in a novel would I mention his name. Horrified, I told him NO most definitely, then begged him not to tell anyone else.


I write about crime. I want to entertain, and entertain only. I don’t want to teach or make it easy for some demented person to eliminate another without leaving clues. Sadly, that made the third way I have found to have a ballistically clean bullet. Those who want to can find the information if they search assiduously enough, but I don’t have to help them.


I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to entertain, and perhaps maybe even teach some (hopefully benign) facts. It is not our responsibility to become an instructor – and therefore, in spirit at least, an accessory.


So – I imitate my betters by using selective censorship and obfuscation. Some of my characters do horrible things, but while readers are given enough facts to know what is happening, none are able to recreate the crime. At least, not from what I write. Not everyone out there – especially on the internet – is so responsible. And that is sad.

5 thoughts on “On A Writer’s Responsibility…

  1. I agree. We have enough problems without giving word by word directions. This applies to other topics as well.

    Like

  2. Excellent! I’m sure there have been authors not so responsible, and without knowing it, gave a bad guy the way to do something horrendous.

    Like

Comments are closed.