Call Me Inaccessible

Cell phones are so convenient in real life life and so inconvenient in fiction when you want to strand a city girl on an unlit road in the desert on a cold winter night. So inconvenient when you want characters to be inaccessible to each other. Unless you set your stories far enough in the past, people can be reached and can call for help. Normally, I work the hyper-connected nature of life into my plots, but once in a while I need to cut off my characters’ communication. How can I do it without over-using the obvious and without too much of a deus ex machina effect?

Battery running out? I’ve used it a total of twice, in different books and with different characters, and I think that’s about as many times as I should use it.

Phone lost or stolen? In Snake Face, I have a stalker take her victim’s phone. In Death Omen, I have two children hide an adult’s phone so he won’t receive a call that would get them in trouble.  I think I’ve hit my lost-or-stolen maximum.

Phone turned off while driving?  One of my ongoing characters does this. He doesn’t trust himself to handle any distractions. I leave mine on and ignore it until I can pull over, but I see plenty of people talking on phones or even texting while they drive. They don’t make any effort to be safe. The National Safety Council and the Scientific American both say that hands-free devices are no safer than hand-held phones, but it’s not uncommon to believe that hands-free systems must be safe since they’re often built into new cars. If we’re writing realistically, not idealistically, that means driving isn’t an obstacle for a lot of folks. They can be reached by phone, even with a short delay for the safety nuts like me.

Phone off for sleeping? Maybe. But some people take their phones to bed with them.

No signal? I’m about to use that for the first time. In traveling all over the country, I’ve seldom been in a place with no signal, but when I was doing research for my work in progress set partially in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, one of the many unexpected facts I learned was that there’s no cell phone reception in town or within a ten-mile radius. It makes sense. The town is in a canyon. But it hadn’t occurred to me to use my phone any of the times I’d been there. The museum owner told me about the cell signal problem when I asked about internet service. I’d expected there might not be any, but Chloride stays in touch with the world through DSL internet—and landline-only phone access. (In case you’re wondering: ghost towns aren’t always uninhabited. They are ghosts of their former selves. Fourteen people live in this one.) I’d wanted to have a character get stuck on a country road outside Chloride at night, unable to make a call, and I’m so glad it’s realistic. I’ll be able to set it up as an established fact of life there well in advance.

Have you used up your quota of no-signal events? How about something strange?

Recently, I tried to make a cell phone call to a local business and got the message: “This call cannot be completed as dialed.” I checked the number in the phone book, called again, and got the same message. I looked up the business online. It was still open, with the same number listed. Weird. My bill was paid and my phone was working. I didn’t get bad reception or no reception, and when I tried calling friends, I got the same message. Naturally, I researched this phenomenon. For most people who experience it, it’s an ongoing (though unexplained) problem in a specific place. I was calling from my apartment, where the phone has worked well for a year. Could there have been too much cell phone traffic? In Truth or Consequences? June is the off-season, when it’s too hot for tourists to come to the hot springs. Some locals who can manage it leave town, too. Who could be making all those calls? If I want this mysterious problem to occur in a book, it had better be a frequent one and not pop up out of the blue when I need it. It hasn’t happened to me again, and that’s just too random for fiction. Fiction has to be more believable than the chance events of real life.

Another option for making people hard to reach is to cast low-tech characters. For my other work in progress (yes, I have two in progress in the same series), this works well for my protagonist’s former in-laws. I know people who don’t have cell phones, and some who don’t even use e-mail. One of my yoga students accidentally left her phone turned off for three weeks and didn’t notice. Not everyone who has the technology is particularly attached to it.

Any other ideas? Have you needed to cut off your characters’ phone access and found a creative way to do it?