Cluing in Fiction Writers In the Nevada Desert
by Peggy Tartaro
Executive Editor, Women & Guns Magazine
It was too warm-in the mid 90s in October-for a deerstalker cap, but the 4th annual Firearms & Fiction Seminar presented by the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), offered solutions to mystery writers wrestling with the problem of realistically portraying guns and gunowners in their books.
It's no secret that "popular culture"-everything from television to books to movies-often gets guns wrong. Sometimes the mistakes are laughable technical gaffes spotted by even the most casually acquainted with firearms, like those by NBC's "Law & Order" franchise which is so convinced revolvers leave behind spent cartridges that can instantly be traced to an exact make and model of gun that it has used this imaginary crime-stopping tool in at least three different episodes.
Sometimes the mistakes are the result of simple (but no less embarrassing) ignorance on the part of the writer, like the bestseller about the lone-wolf police chief with a safety on his Glock.
Now cynics might think there is some conspiracy about to make guns and gunowners look alternately superhuman and superdumb. Come to think of it, that might make a good movie: Judy Davis as Sarah Brady, James Brolin as Michael Moore, Alec Baldwin as Bill Clinton and Dame Edna Everage as Hillarybut I digress. Certainly on television and at the movies, civilian gun ownership is generally the purview of the bad guys-often characterized in the broadest strokes-but the mystery/thriller genre of novels presents a different set of challenges that are met by writers with different levels of knowledge of firearms.
By their nature, mystery novels will often involve guns-both in the hands of the villains and the heroes/heroines.
The rationale for SAF, parent of Gun Week, and NSSF, a firearms industry trade group, for putting together and funding the seminars is to provide writers with the resources to realistically use guns in their fiction. Certainly we would be happy if hitherto hoplophobic characters (and their authors) suddenly became responsible and proficient gunowners, but we would happily settle for writers who previously knew little or nothing about guns and their owners portraying guns confidently and correctly in future works.
Since the seminar program started in 2000, more than
70 writers have attended, most of them mystery writers, but also
including several working in television and films, science fiction/fantasy
writers, and a couple working in multiple genres.
Some of the writers attend with more than a little trepidation, perhaps fearing a face-to-face with the "gun lobby." But the writers who do participate deserve enormous credit for taking the time and expending the effort to extend their knowledge. It is certainly a mark of their collective professionalism that they attend the seminars. Feedback is uniformly positive and we have gone on to assist several of "our" authors later on when actually setting gun to page. In some cases we have recommended firearms for particular characters, in others we have vetted scenes for technical accuracy.
Several weeks before the seminar begins, we query the authors as to their knowledge of firearms. This involves simply asking how they would rate themselves as to knowledgeability. Most of the authors that have attended rate themselves as novices, although a few have had military experience, taken a basic course, or had some hands-on experience under the guidance of a friend or relative.
One of our participants from 2002 asked if he could attend and possibly help out at the 2003 event. Michael Black (A Killing Frost), had, if memory serves, rated his knowledge of firearms as "intermediate." It turned out Michael was playing possum a bit; in addition to his writing, he's a sworn officer with a suburban Chicago department. We were glad to have him say a few words to this year's group, reasoning he could connect with our attendees on several levels.
As it turned out, Michael got pressed into more extensive service when our regular group of firearms instructors-T-CATT Training-had to cancel at the last minute as other duty called.
With a big hole in our presenter list, we turned to two other stellar trainers who accommodated us on very short notice: Gila Hayes and Mark Tartaro.
Gila and her husband, Marty, run the Firearms Academy of Seattle (firearmsacademy.com) in Washington State and she is the author of Effective Defensive, now in its second edition.
Mark is my (much) older brother-but this wasn't nepotism at work. He's a retired 20-year veteran of the Buffalo, NY, Police Department, who now works as a training instructor for Erie County Central Police Services, who has worked for the Transportation Safety Administration and is an accomplished martial artist as well.
With very little notice and no prior meetings, Mark, Michael and Gila worked superbly together, first in our classroom and later at the range.
Julianne Versnel Gottlieb, Women & Gun's publisher and I rounded out the distaff side of our presenters. NSSF's vice president of communications Gary Mehalik was on hand for his second year, and Pat Squire, a retired firearms industry executive and firearms trainer also joined us.
Back for their fourth year were Alan Gottlieb, Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms chairman, SAF president Joseph P. Tartaro and Torrey Johnson, chief criminalist with the Las Vegas Metro Police Dept. (LVMPD).
The seminar's classroom portion began with a formal welcome (we had a brief get acquainted drink with folks the night before), introductions and seminar objectives by Gary and Alan.
Shortly thereafter I got the ball rolling with a story I told the writers wouldn't make it into any of their books. I briefly described a home invasion and my response to it, stressing that I had mentally rehearsed my response.
The story is rather mundane; a call to 911, followed by a call to whoever was downstairs telling him that I was armed and the police were on the way. It ends rather undramatically without a face to face confrontation and with several squad cars arriving in minutes. I was able to tell the group that while it might seem dull to them, it was pretty harrowing and pretty commonplace.
This is a story I've told at all the other seminars and it never fails to illicit comment and questions. Some folks are always surprised that the organic alarm system (aka "Ezra," a mixed breed pointer) doesn't come off very well. His contribution was to alert me that something was going on and rather meekly accept a place behind a closed door. Others are startled at my deliberate use of the term "rehearsal"-folks who haven't given serious consideration to their personal safety often find this borders on the paranoid. But, I think, they are quickly disabused, when they begin to consider the other possible scenarios, scenes that occur rather quickly to a group of professional mystery writers.
For the first time since I've told this story, a fascinating counterpoint was available. At the time of the incident, Mark was on patrol, although in another precinct. He was able to discuss police response to a burglary in general, and one in which a responding officer had a personal interest, in particular.
From there, Mark and Michael held forth on some of the realities police officers face, both daily and in extraordinary circumstances like SWAT situations (both have served on their department's SWAT Teams).
The next presentation came from Joe Tartaro who was able in the blink of an eye (okay, 45 minutes) give the writers a history of firearms and ammunition-from Biblical times-to the development of the pinfire cartridge system-to modern arms, many of which, he pointed out, were merely technological refinements of guns developed 100 years ago.
Gary, Mark and Michael were back for the next segment which more fully detailed modern arms and their civilian, military and law enforcement as well as recreational, uses.
The first of several scheduled "Firearms and Safety" briefings followed, led by Julianne and Pat Squire.
After lunch, Torrey Johnson and his amazing collection of slides and props held forth for nearly two hours. Even more impressive than the accoutrements which Torrey brings ("lugs" might be a better term), is his own knowledge of ballistics, forensics and police procedure.
He always gets a laugh when he explains just how shows like "CSI" get it wrong, and he always has a throng of writers afterward.
While Torrey held forth, Gila, Julianne, Mark and I were gathered outside the meeting room, which as things turned out happily, was deserted. Here Gila distributed the contents of a box she'd shipped ahead. Inside were a variety of belt holsters and scabbards, a thigh holster, a shoulder rig, an ankle holster, a holster purse and a belly band as well as a box of cast metal dummy guns.
I started the next segment wearing the blazer I had on all morning and telling one of my favorite cautionary tales about the best-selling author who had her heroine gunless because it was too hot to wear a jacket on the Midwestern summer day her action took place.
"Well, yes," I said, "a jacket can be hot." I took mine off to reveal Gila's shoulder rig and dummy gun. "But, if you're really in danger, maybe perspiration isn't your biggest problem."
You could, I told them, instead of a jacket, carry your gun in a specially-designed holster purse. Again, we demonstrated the draw and passed the samples around.
W&G's always impeccably-dressed publisher next modeled the thigh holster under her Chanel skirt and then Julianne showed off the belly band under the matching jacket and t-shirt. The samples went around again and the writers examined them closely.
Gila, more casually dressed in khakis, T-shirt and un-tucked overshirt was next on the "runway" with belt and different holsters. The writers learned why women prefer some methods of belt carry over others and how, why and when particular types are used.
Mark and Michael enacted a scenario in which an undercover officer might use an ankle holster. The graphic demonstration highlighted again how popular culture often gets it wrong. It might have looked "cool" to see Mark roll to the floor and quickly draw from his hidden ankle holster, but it was also apparent he could be at a serious disadvantage.
Alan changed the pace with a review of some common misconceptions about firearms in the general news media, explaining "assault weapons," "waiting periods," and similar buzz words.
Gary, my dad and I took back the floor for a discussion of firearms in plot development with emphasis and how and why a series character who was not armed might come to be a gunowner, and some of the choices he or she might face.
Gila, Pat and Michael ended the classroom portion with the second safety lecture, this time detailing procedures that would be followed at the range the next day.
One last glitch had been solved for us by the fine folks at Taurus USA and Rossi. Our regular range instructors had typically brought an array of firearms with them; with the T-CATT crew hors d'combat, we needed to make some arrangements fast.
Enter Keeva Segal with next day shipping from Miami. The Taurus/Rossi guns augmented those personal ones brought by other instructors and provided a good selection for our writers to work with on the range.
At the range another safety lecture began the day along with the admonition that range officers were to be obeyed absolutely.
To begin with, only one firing point was open. With a fairly small group of students, many of whom were firearms novices, this worked well. Each student went through one-on-one instruction with Gila, as the others observed.
When each writer had one shooting experience down, additional firing points with different guns and instructors were opened.
Eventually, everyone was afforded the chance to shoot several types of firearms. In the rifle category, a Colt Sporter, a surplus M1 carbine and a Taurus M62 .22 rimfire pump-action carbine, were available.
Our handguns were: Taurus Models 351 (.38 Special revolver), Model 971 (.38 Spec./.357 revolver), PT22 (.22 semi-auto), 444 (.44 Mag. revolver), PT140Pro (.40 S&W semi-auto) and a Kahr Model P9 Compact (9mm semi-auto).
Also on loan was a Rossi 20-gauge Break-open single-shot shotgun.
The writers worked their way through these guns, and following a lunch break, were back on the line.
Our Colt Sporter and Rossi shotgun both experienced some fairly typical problems; the former's bolt jammed and the later had extraction problems. However, while I wouldn't recommend that you cause technical problems on a range full of new shooters, in this case, the difficulties provided additional information to the writers.
After assuring one writer that she hadn't "broken" the Colt AR-15, we were able to both solve the problems on the fly and show this group of writers that, contrary to the movies, things don't always work out in clockwork fashion.
It's always interesting to hear the questions our guests ask. Some are extremely complicated technical ones, which I assume might someday become a plot lynchpin, others are more general, but no less thoughtful ones, as to why a particular person might carry a particular gun.
For 2004, we plan to be back on the range and in the classroom to take the mystery out of guns for writers.