Research tip #4: Shoot the bullet

For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page


A few years ago, I was at the big national conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and a friend of mine, Tom Franklin, was on a panel discussing research in fiction. Franklin joined the panel by virtue of his historical novels Hell at the Breech and Smonk (particularly Hell, which is based on a true story), but Franklin freely admits he dislikes research, so I knew the panel discussion would be fun. The panel did turn out to be a pretty lively one, frequently digressing into friendly banter and swapped anecdotes between Franklin and his friends and fellow panelists Julianna Baggott, Justin Cronin, Jennifer Vanderbes, and Mark Winegardner. In fact, the stories the panelists started telling sometimes had little to do with research — the group quickly became just a bunch of practiced storytellers trying to outdo each other — but they all did a terrific job of bringing their rambling stories back to the point at hand: research.

Among the planned topics for that panel, some (“what really happened!”) seemed fairly gratuitous, and others (“what to look for and how to look for it”) fairly dry and mechanical. But there was one point that people keep debating, and after the comments from this panel, I’m not sure why, because the answer seems pretty simple. The conference program lists this point three different ways: “negotiating between historic fact and story-truth,” “approximating what can’t be looked up,” and “what’s better made-up,” but they all boil down to one axiom: sometimes it’s better to shoot the bullet.

I should confess here that I don’t recall who told this story. I know it was a guy, and I know it wasn’t Franklin. That leaves Justin Cronin and Mark Winegardner, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Winegardner. That should make it Cronin’s story, but my memory keeps adding a fourth guy, tacked on the end of the panel as a late addition, and I don’t want to put words in Cronin’s mouth that weren’t his. But until someone corrects me on this (I e-mailed Franklin, but he doesn’t remember, either), we’ll say it was “Cronin” who told this story.

And the story goes like this: “Cronin” was working on an action sequence in which a character has been shot in the leg but must run to escape his enemies. He has no surgical experience and no time to stop and dig out the bullet even if he knew how, but he also cannot run effectively with that bullet still lodged in his thigh. What he does have is an almost superhuman expertise in firearms, and he has a pistol. So he does what any desperate action hero would do in this situation: He aims his pistol at his own thigh, muzzle pressed into the open wound and angled along the same trajectory as the original bullet. He grits his teeth. Then he pulls the trigger and fires a second bullet into his leg. The result is something like projectile-billiards — his bullet strikes the first bullet and knocks it out the far side of his thigh, and his bullet then continues on the same path and exits the same wound. No more bullets, and now he can run. And off he goes.

We in the audience all laughed at this story, as did the guy who told it. It is a ridiculous scene, he admitted. (In my head, I recalled the scene in Rambo III when Rambo, out in the deserts of Afghanistan and wounded in the stomach, uncases two rifle bullets, pours the gunpowder into his wound, and ignites it — fire bursting from his muscled torso into the desert night — to cauterize the wound). Still, “Cronin” said, shooting the bullet was just too cool to pass over, and it sounded vaguely plausible to him. He wanted it to work.

He’d already been poring over medical references and firearms manuals in the course of writing this book of his, but he’d never come across anything that would either confirm or contradict his idea to shoot the bullet. This sounded like specialist information, the kind of thing you could probably only deduce from experience. So “Cronin” went to the source and called a doctor friend of his. He explained the situation, described how his hero would shoot the bullet, and then asked his doctor friend if such a thing would work.

His friend laughed in his face.

“Of course that wouldn’t work!” the doctor said. “Medically speaking, it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard — and the odds against it are astronomical!”

Disheartened, “Cronin” began thinking then and there of alternative possibilities, but he didn’t get far in his silent, dejected reverie, because the doctor leaned in close and said, “But the way you describe it, shooting the bullet sounds cool as hell. You should let him do it anyway!”

And that was the lesson for the day: Sometimes the research can get in the way of good writing. Sometimes you have to say to hell with realism, to hell with the facts, and just write a cool story. Sometimes you have to shoot the bullet.

This doesn’t mean you can get away with shoddy writing. You don’t always have to operate within the rules of the real world, but you do have to operate within the rules of your established world — you have to remain true to your story. Take my novella, for example, which involves a couple of teenage boys running around causing trouble just outside Boerne, Texas, in the woodsy little subdivision where I grew up. I have spent a lot of time constructing complicated calendars and character note cards, and I’ve gone through every line of the story checking that the timeline adds up. I can’t say my character is 14 in the winter and 15 the summer, for instance, without knowing that he has a birthday sometime in the spring (it’s March 14, if anyone cares). I don’t have to mention the birthday at all, but I do have to know that I can’t mention his birthday in the fall if it had already happened in the spring.  The rules of my story won’t allow it.

But I’m not tied to the physical details of my old neighborhood. This is fiction, after all. So I have my characters tearing loose in a version of my own back yard even though the reference sites for each boy’s house are nowhere near my parents’ actual home. I can manipulate geography because I’m not drawing a map — I’m writing fiction. The point is not that people reading my story can go out to my old subdivision and find the secret hiding place where these boys spend their time — they can’t, because the geography is imprecise. The point is that someone can read the descriptions and, if they know Boerne or my old subdivision, they can recognize the general landscape (which I hope people can).

When I was an undergrad student, Madeleine L’Engle once visited my college as a visiting speaker. Among the many insights she touched on during her audience Q&A session, she explained what she saw as the difference between fact and truth. Facts, she said, are details, data, pieces of information that we can record and prove and quantify . . . and manipulate. They are not inherently true. On the other hand, truth is not always dependent on facts — truth is just as much something we can feel or something we believe as it is something we can point to or measure. And fiction, according to L’Engle, is often more truthful than factual.

Fiction writer and memoirist Bill Roorbach has alluded to a similar phenomenon in his own work. He likes to joke that his greatest frustration is when he reads from his nonfiction and people challenge him, shouting out from the audience, “That didn’t happen! You’re making that up!” but when he reads a piece of fiction, people creep up to him and lean in conspiratorially, wink at him, and whisper, “I know that’s based on a true story — I know all that really happened to you.” The point, Roorbach says, is that people often confuse fact for truth, so when he writes a story full of truth, people mistake it for fact, and when he writes an essay full of truth, people want only the facts.

We are not in the fact business. We are in the truth business. It doesn’t matter what form our work takes — fiction, essays, poetry, scripts, aphorisms, whatever — so long as we strive to tell the truth. And sometimes, telling the truth, or even just telling a damn good story, requires us to bend or even ignore the facts.

When Tom Franklin was writing Hell at the Breech, his first novel, he spent a lot of time interviewing people who knew the true story, whose relatives had lived through it and passed down their version through the generations. He wrestled and agonized for a long time over how to reconcile all the variations of the local legend, how to write the most factually accurate story possible and please all the folks he’d talked to. But eventually he realized he couldn’t, and in his author’s note in the book, he explains that his is a work of fiction, not fact. Once he let go of trying to get in all the factual details, he discovered he could tell the truest story possible.

Which isn’t to say Franklin gave up doing research. What he did, though, was a specific kind of research best suited to his writing style, something I like to call “shopping the catalogue,” but that’s for tomorrow’s post . . . .


The situation in Haiti is getting better, but it’s also getting more desperate.  Supplies are bottlenecked, relief organizations are tripping over each other, and what little order people managed to cobble together in the immediate aftermath is deteriorating.  Let’s not make this sound prettier than it is.  But let’s also focus on what is getting accomplished:  Supplies are arriving and are getting distributed.  In fact, despite the bottleneck, supplies are running out as fast as they’re arriving, which means relief organizations still need your help.  When you return from the public celebrations of the Reverend Dr. King’s life, and before you switch on the Golden Globes, take a moment to give a donation.  See this list of organizationsfor more information.

UPDATE: United Arab Emirates, where we live, is joining other Arab nations in sending aid to Haiti, both through Khalifa Bin Zayed Charity Foundation and through the UAE branch of the Red Crescent Society, the organization we’re donating to.

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