In detail

I have a question to pose today, when does enough research to make story details believable turn into an overload of useless facts?

I’m currently reading Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse and while I love Clancy, the facts sometimes get in the way. Early in the novel John Kelly is pulling his boat from its slip out into the harbor, heading for the island he is currently leasing. Yes, apparently you can lease islands. Clancy describes Kelly’s engines and their gauges, how he uses the bilge blowers even though he doesn’t really need to, how he slipped his mooring lines, and how he “advanced the port throttle a notch farther as he turned the wheel, allowing Springer to pivot all the more quickly into the narrow channel.” After reading all of it I feel like I could pilot a boat. It’s practically a users manual.

Is it too much?

I know some of the details go toward character development. Kelly runs the bilge blowers because although his boat doesn’t need them run, it’s the smart thing to do. Clancy points out that it’s the proper thing to do before starting the engines and Kelly is a sailor who follows the proper routine. I still glossed over these details.

I often find myself wanting to know what happens next in a book rather than appreciate what is happening now. I will skim descriptions of landscape, it’s a forest, I’ve seen forests before, I don’t need to know the exact color of the light trickling through autumn leaves. I’ll jump ahead when an author starts to wax poetic about a character’s feelings for his first love. I’ve fallen in love, I get the mushy stuff without needing to read two entire pages about how even though the relationship didn’t last it impacted all of the character’s future relationships. And I’ve seen boats pull out of slips before, I don’t need to know that “the trim tabs at the stern had automatically engaged, bringing the boat to an efficient planning angle as her speed came to eighteen knots.”

Do I?

Without all of these pesky details I flip past I suppose books would just be a collection of events, bullet points leading to a dry conclusion. And I will admit that I sometimes need to go back and read the sections I skipped. They can contain hints about a character’s motivations, clues about where they are headed and why.

When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch ER. My mom hated it. She’s a nurse and every time something happened on the show that was incorrect, she groaned or rolled her eyes. She also had an absurd hatred for George Clooney, that I’m sure played into the banning of the show. In that case, better more accurate facts would have saved ER a viewer. A friend of mine who graduated law school had a similar reaction to some parts of The Lincoln Lawyer. It was kind of fun to know what was and wasn’t accurate, but even with incorrect information, I was still entertained.

Maybe I’m not Tom Clancy’s intended audience. The man does love his research. He’s written eight nonfiction books about warships, marine units, aircraft carriers, and more. I’m sure former military personnel would have no reason to roll their eyes at anything Clancy writes in his novels. But I’m still not sure it’s all necessary.

In my opinion, too many technical details take away from the story itself. I get lost in the mire of specialized lingo and it distracts me from the plot, from the character I’m supposed to be learning more about. Clancy does weave the technical into the story well, he avoids long paragraphs of solely nautical jargon but it can still be a bit much. What if I didn’t know what a bilge pump was? Not everybody has gone sailing or spent much time around boats. Or are Tom Clancy books not meant for those who are naive to the world of boats? Do you need to come to his books with a rudimentary understanding of mechanics and a knowledge of government acronyms?

Overall I love his books. The Bear and the Dragon is one of my favorite spy thrillers. I love Jack Ryan and Mr. Clark. My husband tells me that the Rainbow Six video game is amazing, very accurate and well written, Clancy had a heavy hand in the making of the game and it shows. I’ll keep reading him, I’ll just feel my eyes glaze over when he explains different gauges showing atmospheric pressure and equivalent water depth.

Am I being too picky? Do you skim dull bits or technical passages to get to the meat of a story? I can’t be alone here.

Kelly Hannon worked in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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