Master Sergeant Chris Grall (U.S. Army, ret.) has 26 years of military experience and over 15 years of Instructor experience dealing with Law Enforcement topics. Chris has served on a U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha as an Engineer Sergeant, Intelligence Sergeant, and Operations (Team) Sergeant. Before that he served in a Long Range Surveillance Detachment and an Infantry Unit.
Chris is currently working as a government contractor and offers subject matter expertise to authors throughhis consulting company,TactiQuill.
Matty Dalrymple: Welcome to The Indy Author Podcast. This is Matty Dalrymple, The Indy Author, and I’m back with a podcast after a bit of a sabbatical, and I’m very excited about the guest I have to mark my return to podcasting. Chris Grall is going to be talking about top firearms mistakes that writers can make and as you’ll hear in a moment he’s well qualified to talk about that. Welcome to the podcast, Chris!
Chris Grall: Nice to be here.
Matty: So to give a little background on Chris:
Master Sergeant Chris Grall (U.S. Army, ret.) has 26 years of military experience and over 15 years of Instructor experience dealing with Law Enforcement topics. Chris has served on a U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha as an Engineer Sergeant, Intelligence Sergeant, and Operations (Team) Sergeant. Before that he served in a Long Range Surveillance Detachment and an Infantry Unit. Chris is currently working as a government contractor and offers subject matter expertise to authors through his consulting company, TactiQuill.
Chris’s qualifications include Ranger School, Airborne School, Army Static Line Jumpmaster, Combat Lifesaver and Tactical Combat Casualty Care, and others too numerous to list. You’ll have to go to the TactiQuill website to find them out for yourselves.
His deployments include Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras, Bolivia, and the Caribbean.
He’s obviously the person that we as authors wanted to be listening to to understand how we should be representing firearms in our work.
So Chris, why don’t we start out by you sharing a little bit of information about what took you from those experiences I described to being a consultant with TactiQuill.
Chris: Well, like just about everything good that’s happened in my life, I kind of backed into it. I had been reading a series of books and I noticed something that the author wrote and I said, well, that’s not exactly right. I sent him an email and I got a reply and after much discussion back and forth he asked me to fact check him and give him advice and I became one of his guys, and then he referred me to somebody else and I became her guy. And then I ended up speaking at Thrillerfest, and now here we are.
Matty: Now you’re my guy.
Chris: Now I’m now I’m your guy.
Matty: Chris has been a hugely helpful in helping me work through some things with Always Faithful, which is the book that I just wrapped up and is with the editor now.
Matty: Thank you. So I have firsthand experience that Chris is excellent at what he does. I was fortunate to hear that talk at Thrillerfest and there were a lot of things I learned from that, the common things that authors can do that make the firearms experts crazy. So I’m really just going to turn it over to you and let you share your cautions with us.
Chris: If there were two things that an author should never do, they should never, ever confuse clips and magazines as a source of feed for a pistol or rifle. The term clip came from World War II, and the M1 Garand, and it was the internal magazine of the weapon was fed by a clip. That’s where “toss me a clip” comes from. In the modern era, there are very few weapons out there other than single shot rifles, muzzle loaders, and revolvers that don’t use a detachable box magazine, so unless you’re dealing with an antique or revolver or some really odd weapon, you’re probably not going to be using a clip.
You’ll probably be using a magazine, and these are easy things to find out. If you just do a quick Google search for your weapon, most of them pop up on Wikipedia. And when you look at “source of feed,” it says “ejectable box magazine” most of the time. You will never need to use the word “clip” when you’re writing about your pistol.
Matty: In terms of a character in a novel handling a magazine, are there some things that authors should keep in mind so that they’re not accidentally carrying forward some erroneous information that they picked up from the “clip” users?
Chris: No, not really, because the term became somewhat interchangeable and it just kind of creeps into the vernacular of the day, so people will use the terms interchangeably when they are not. It’s kind of like me saying, “Hey, I’m using my suspenders today,” but I’m really talking about my belt. Both items hold up your pants yet, but they’re completely different in how they’re used. Think of clip and magazine as belt versus suspenders and you shouldn’t go wrong.
Matty: Perfect. So that was tip number one, right?
Chris: Yes. The second biggest one is, the gun clicked on empty. Now, most of the firearms in use in fiction are semiautomatic handguns or semiautomatic rifles, or shotguns. Some revolvers. With a resolver, as long as you pull the trigger, the cylinder will cycle and you can click on empty. In a pump shotgun, you can keep cycling the action until it’s empty and the gun will click on empty. But all other semiautomatic weapons, when they are empty, the bolt or the slide will lock to the rear and the trigger becomes locked. It will not release the firing mechanism and you won’t get a click.
Now, the problem is “how do I as a writer tell my reader that the gun is empty?” Well, the gun clicked on empty. Right? That’s a very easy thing to do. And I can tell you where that came from a little bit later. But, basically you’re looking for something to clue the reader in that the gun is empty and the writer tends to fall back on the old trope that the gun goes click instead of boom. And that’s where that comes from. And it makes me a little crazy, not that it would take me out of the story, but it is one of those simple little things that demonstrates that the writer hasn’t had a whole lot of firearms.
Matty: Yeah. It sort of reminds me of the difficulty of dealing with cell phones now that authors have lost a whole host of great moments: “she slammed down the phone” or “she punched in the numbers.” The language hasn’t caught up with cell phones to give you that same dramatic moment. It’s like the phone equivalent of “it clicked on empty.”
Chris: Exactly. You know, you just don’t get that satisfying slamming of the receiver down into the cradle because you’ll crack the face of your screen and nobody wants any of that.
Matty: Yup. Exactly. Yeah. Is there a, any recommendation you have for people who are trying to be more accurate that they can correctly portray the situation where the person has run out of bullets?
Chris: Well, it will depend. It will depend a lot on the firearms experience of the character, and this is something that should always be kept in mind when you’re writing your action scene or dialogue about the firearms. If I have a completely novice character, novice in the facts of firearms, then I can make them use all kinds of mistakes. I can let them say “clip” instead of “magazine.” I can have them do just about anything because they don’t know. But if you have an expert character, there are things that they will know how to do. They will never make the “magazine” versus “clip” mistake. They’ll use “magazine” or shorthand “mag”: “Toss me a mag” … “He slipped in a new mag.” Depending on POV, you can shorten that “magazine” to a “mag” pronoun.
If I have a novice, they could squeeze the trigger and nothing happens—you know, “they’re squeezing the trigger and nothing, nothing. And they look down and they see that the slide is locked to the rear”—that’s the indication that you would give instead of writing the auditory click. That doesn’t exist with a semiautomatic handgun.
You can then instead jump into the fear and adrenaline of the character. So you take the handgun out of play, which is nothing more than a prop, and put the reader back into the head of the character, which is where they want to be anyway.
Matty: Yeah, that’s a great, a great observation. And, you might be able to make more dramatic hay out of the fact that the person doesn’t know what’s going on because they’re a novice, they’re pulling the trigger, they can’t figure out why they’re not getting the result they’re expecting and they look down—
Chris: “The gun looks funny! Why is this thing back here? Because I don’t know how to use it.”
Whereas a professional, they’re going to be shooting, shooting, shooting, and then boom, they will feel that the gun is empty. They’ll just know because the trigger doesn’t return to an active position. They’ll know by the sound of the last round and the feel of the gun. And for them, that magazine running empty, the gun running empty is a cue to the next performance task. Which is reload the gun as quickly as possible.
Now, if they don’t have another magazine, then they have to get a new gun. You’ve got a whole new set of issues, so the expert will know and the novice may or may not know.
So when the expert’s gun goes empty. you could easily say “he felt the gun go empty and immediately fished out another magazine” or “he immediately reloaded” or “he cast it aside and dove after the guy”—however that action scene plays out.
Matty: I think your comment about accommodating the expertise of the character is really important because, as you were saying, there may be times when it’s completely appropriate for the character to use the wrong terminology because they don’t know. But you as a writer better know that you’re putting the wrong terminology in the character’s mouth, not just accidentally do it because you don’t know yourself.
Chris: Right. The biggest thing that the expertise of the character gives the writer is another little section that I call weapons pronouns. It’s repetitive and boring to hear “the gun,” “the gun,” “the gun,” “the pistol,” “the pistol,” “the pistol,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So if you know the type of gun that you have and what its caliber is, it opens you up to a whole new realm of pronouns that you can spice up your paragraphs with.
An expert will refer to their firearm of choice in several different ways. If I have a Beretta Model 92F semiautomatic pistol in nine-millimeter, if I say that the first time, it’s like introducing any character or any other piece of gear. You say, “he jumped into his 1969 red Ford Mustang.” Well, now, because you’ve established this piece of equipment, you can call it “the Mustang.” You can call it “the car,” you can call it the “V8.” You can use all of these plethora of pronouns to spice up your fiction.
The same is true with pistols or any other weapon. If I have the Beretta Model 92F, then I can call it “the Beretta.” I can call it “the Model 92,” “the nine-millimeter,” “the pistol,” “his semiautomatic,” or “the gun.” Now I have all of these pronouns that I can use just because I’ve established the full name of the pistol at some point during the introductory phase of that character and his equipment.
Now you don’t have to get all pedantic about it. You don’t have to say, “the Model 92F nine millimeter pistol sat in Serpa holster,” blah, blah, blah. That’s too much detail.
Matty: That’s only going to appeal to a certain subset of readers.
Chris: Right—the gun porn people. But if you say “his Beretta Model 92F,” then all of the gun geeks out there are going to go, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what that is. It’s the model 92 semiautomatic double action, single action, nine millimeter, 15 round magazine,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. All of those people will know what you’re talking about automatically, and you’ve opened yourself up to use all of these pronouns that come from naming the piece of equipment early on.
The expert will use certain pronouns that the not expert or the gangster will use. So, a professionally trained operator will never call his Beretta 92F his “nine”—that’s a gangster term. The terminology and the pronouns are specific to the expertise of the operator.
Matty: I know the one piece of advice you had given me that was really useful is that in a couple of places in Always Faithful, I had described distances in yards, and I think it was you who had said a person who had come out of the military would think of it in meters. Then I had to go find all the places where < I had used “yards”> … thank heaves for search and replace!
Chris: Control F.
Matty: You can’t do Control F too much, cause then you end up with, “She looked out into the meter where the dog was playing.”
Matty: The pronoun advice is really good.
Chris: It all goes back to the character and their expertise and experience with firearms. So, you know, that right there determines how much fun you can have when you’re writing those passages.
Matty: Another piece of advice that <you provided> is the danger of providing too much detail and in some cases you want to keep it a little vague so that the nerds won’t suddenly start having an internal dialogue about of whether what you just said was right or not.
Chris: Exactly. Sticking with the Beretta model 92 F, there are certain schools of thought on how to carry pistols and there are different organizations out there that say, “You must carry your firearm in this manner.” There are other people out there who say, “Nope, I don’t have to do it that way. I’m not going to.” The experts and the people from the different schools of thought will always find a way to mess with you. You know, they’ll pick their pet peeve thing and say, “Nope, that’s just all messed up. No one would ever do it that way.” Contrary to the fact that people do do it that way. The Beretta Model 92 is a double-action to single-action pistol, which means that when it comes out of the holster, it’s a double-action pistol. When the operator pulls the trigger the first time, it draws the hammer all the way back, which is the first action, and it releases the hammer, that’s the second action. That’s why it’s called double-action. After that first round is fired, the action of the weapon cycles, which cocks the hammer back to the rear, and now the gun is in single-action mode. I’m done shooting, but my gun is in single action mode. No one will ever holster a Beretta 92F in single-action mode. There is a safety on it, which decocks the hammer, putting it into a safe position, and now you can holster the pistol.
The safety also decocks the hammer while it puts it on safe, but you can also flick it back up into the fire position and now you have a double-action pistol sitting in your holster ready to be drawn and fired. So the two schools of thought are that the weapon should always be on safe, even in the holster, and the other school of thought is it’s a double-action pistol so it’s inherently safe as long as the operator’s not an idiot. And I can holster the pistol because the trigger housing is protected by the holster, so there’s no reason to be on safe because if I’m pulling this thing out of the holster, I need it right now.
So I’ve just had my character in a shooting incident. I can say, “He put the weapon on safe and holstered the pistol,” and that makes all of the people who want the gun on safe happy based on what organization that operator works for based on their level of training and expertise. Based on a whole host of factors.
The operator may decock the pistol, putting it back on fire, holster it, and now you’ve satisfied all of these other people over on the other side. But the two halves all have their opinions on how that weapon should be holstered and carried.
So you could say so manipulating the safety, by decocking the pistol and then holstering it and specifying that it’s now on or off safe in the holster … this is too much detail and you don’t want to spend paragraphs and paragraphs explaining why this character is carrying it in one configuration or the other.
When that character’s done shooting, I can say “he decocked it and put it in his holster” or “He put it on safe, put it in his holster,” or “The shooting was over, he made his weapon safe and put it in the holster.” “He made his weapon safe” is now vague. I make my weapons safe by decocking it and putting it in a holster, or I make my weapons safe by putting it on safe and putting it in the holster.
So all of that detail can spark an argument or a discussion or a bad review. And if you keep it as vague as possible and let the reader fill in the blanks then you’re less likely to get into hot water by keeping too much detail.
Matty: Great advice. So, onto your next pet peeve?
Chris: Well, my next pet peeve is kind of the source for every other pet peeve that I have. And that is using movies and TV shows for your research in how firearms work. We’re all visual people. We’re all people of entertainment, and the majority of people out there don’t regularly work with firearms. They’ve not been in gunfights. They’ve not fired guns in training, in force, on force simulations or anything like that. They don’t have the tactical training or the experience. Where do we get that? We can talk to an expert or we can watch what we think is a really gritty and realistic television show or movie. And the errors that come out of movies and television shows are legion. And in fact that’s where my second pet peeve comes from: firearms clicking on empty.
There was an episode of The Punisher, available on Netflix, and I forget what the episode number was, but the bad guy is shooting at the Punisher who’s hiding behind a column, and the guy shoots the correct number of rounds, but then the gun clicks like 15 times as he’s trying to run away, pulling the trigger. I mean, I counted them—like twelve, fifteen times—and I’m like “What?” This was part of my presentation at Thrillerfest, and I got a screenshot of when the guy was running away, and you can see that the slide is clearly locked to the rear so it could never make one click, let alone 12 to 15 clicks.
Matty: I really liked one of your comments at Thrillerfest, and I won’t give away the punch line, but who in movies is most responsible for weapons inaccuracy? Do you want to share what the answer is?
Chris: It’s the Foley artist who adds in the sound effects, and this is exactly that problem. The Foley doesn’t know. So the guy’s gun is empty, I want to tell everybody that’s watching that the gun is empty, so I’m going to click that thing like 15 or 20 times. Another perfect example is when somebody draws a gun, when they draw their pistol, you automatically hear the click click of the hammer being cocked.
Well, there are several guns out there that don’t have hammers—for instance, any Glock, that’s a striker-fired pistol. There is no hammer to manipulate, and yet every time that gun comes out of the holster, you’ll hear click click. And that mistake could easily transfer into, “The character of cocked the hammer on the pistol.”
That Foley artist just did you a disservice if you’re using that particular movie as research. You think, “Oh, well, it’s got a click when it comes out of the holster. ‘He cocked the hammer.’” No, you can’t with that pistol unless it’s a pistol that you can cock.
The Foley is really the greatest sinner when it comes to inaccuracies with firearms.
Matty: I know when I was working on, well, really any book—my books don’t normally have a lot of guns in them—but once I decided what the gun was, it seems like there’s always videos on a manufacturer’s website: here’s how you load, here’s how you unload—you know, like instructional videos. And I figure, well, if Glock is posting these videos, they’re probably accurate. In some cases, I would need to go to you and, you know, obviously the terminology that you’re using is assuming someone has a certain level of experience—and I’m like, “I want to describe this, but I don’t quite know what terminology to use,” but at least that seems like a reliable source for information.
Chris: YouTube is one of my resources. And if you can get through some of the banality of some of these YouTube posters, then you can actually learn what’s going on with the gun. You can use that to say, “Okay, this is what it looks like,” but you know, you run into a whole lotta a whole lot of ignorance out there that could also propagate into your fiction.
Matty: You have to be careful what source you’re using.
Chris: You know, it’s like, “Yeah, I just got my new Glock and I’m going to show you how to run it.” And they do all kinds of stupid stuff with a gun when all you’re really looking for is load, cycle, manipulation, that kind of thing. So you really have to vet your source.
On the other hand, I recently used one of those horrific videos to a research a .45 caliber handgun that had been converted to full automatic. So, yeah, it was horrific and hard to listen to, but I did get the information that I wanted out of the video.
Some of it I left to the side. Some of it I took for what I wanted, but then again, I knew what I was looking for, and I also knew the caliber, pardon the pun, of a video that I was going to be watching.
Matty: It is useful for describing the sounds. If you can get a video that shows the gun being fired, then almost regardless of the production quality, at least you can get that sense of, “Oh, this one sounds more like a bang. This one sounds more like a pop. This one sounds more like something else.”
Chris: Well, the other interesting thing is, when you fire a firearm without hearing protection, it’s not the bang that gets you. It’s the pressure that’s released from firing the handgun. You have a small explosion occurring in your hand. The force of that explosion is what causes damage to eardrums. I mean, the volume does play a part, but the concussive force of the shot is what causes the ringing in your ears. So you get the sounds, but if you’re firing without your hearing protection, you’re going to be slightly deaf just because of the pressure released by the firing of the gun.
Matty: Next pet peeve?
Chris: Well, if we’re sticking with mistakes caused by movie research or TV research the next one is what a bullet actually does to a human being.
Matty: Don’t be too gory because it’s a family show.
Chris: No, no, I wasn’t going to get graphic. In fact, I’ll stay very PG. The problem is that a .45, I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but a bullet only weighs a couple of ounces depending on caliber. Let’s see … “The average nine-millimeter round weighs in at a hefty quarter of an ounce.” I don’t care how fast, how much energy that bullet has. A quarter of an ounce versus a hundred-pound human, the human wins. The human is not going to be moved. In fact, the bullet will penetrate. That’s what they’re designed to do. The amount of energy delivered to the target is not enough to blow that person across the room. In fact, oftentimes the bullet will go through the person. How much of that energy is being transferred to the target? Not enough to lift a hundred-pound person and throw them fifteen feet.
Matty: What happens if a person is wearing a bulletproof vest and gets hit by a bullet? Is there any kind of motion that that would be imparted to a person’s body.
Chris: Not having experienced that myself, I can’t tell you what it feels like, but I’ve seen video of people getting knocked over. But then there’s all kinds of other stuff going on. When a bullet strikes a vest, you’ve got the spalling effect of the round as it shatters. So suddenly you’re hit by what feels like a high-speed basketball or possibly somebody striking you with a bat. If you’re not prepared for that, you’re going to get knocked back or maybe lose your footing.
The transfer of energy is way different with body armor. Now soft armor is going to have less of an effect than the level four body armor that stops rifle rounds. There will be an effect. There will be a physical knock back, because all of the energy is now being transmitted directly to that person.
Depending on that person’s posture and physiology—body mass, body composition—then something will happen with them. There are too many variables to say exactly what. But even a shotgun blast with double-ought buck or slugs is going to penetrate the person and not throw them across the room.
It’s best to describe wound effects than it is to have that person do a double back flip, half gainer, whatever, across the room when they got shot. Movies and TV shows are horrific about, about doing this, although they were getting better. So, that’s another big thing that comes out of movies and TV shows. It’s just terrible. And it creeps into writing. That’s the biggest problem. You know, I’m watching this gritty movie or TV show. I see this guy flung across the room: “Oh, that’s what happens.” And it creeps into the writing. It propagates across all media. <in> this movies and TV shows article that I wrote, the bullet offense that I have in my top 10 comes straight from that so just another thing not to do. Talk about the effects on the person, not about how they got flipped up in the air.
Matty: And I think it’s also sort of dependent on the tone you’re aiming for. if you’re writing something that’s intended to be realistic, then you don’t want to do that. If you’re writing something that’s intended to be sort of cartoonish and over the top, you can probably get away with all sorts of stuff, as long as that tone is consistent through the whole book, and it’s not just suddenly that it’s realistic and then at this one point it gets to cartoonish. Weigh the effect you want to leave the reader with.
Chris: Exactly. Whatever your tone is, stay with it. Don’t switch halfway through and not expect to get called out on it.
I guess the other big one that ends up in writing that’s also pretty horrific is things that you want to do for dramatic effect, like racking the pistol or racking the shotgun as a menacing gesture. This happens quite a bit in almost anything. I’ve seen it happen in novels, stories. I’ve seen it all over the movies and the TV shows.
Racking the gun or working the action of a pistol only proves your ignorance. If you look at how most people, most professionals carry their gun, there’s a round in the chamber already. if I rack the slide or work the action on a shotgun, all I’m going to do is eject a good round that I might want to use later.
So I’m pointing my gun at a guy and I’m menacing him and I want to show him I mean business. I rack the slide. Well, if a bullet doesn’t come flipping out of it, that means your gun was empty to start with. You’re holding a guy at gunpoint with an empty gun until you rack the slide on that gun.
Same thing for shotguns. When you’re looking for a dramatic action to do with a firearm, racking or cycling the action is right out. Don’t do that.
Matty: It’s there a replacement you can suggest for that scenario where a writer wants to create that kind of menacing sense?
Chris: For any of your long guns—AK 47, M16, AR series, shotguns hunting rifles—no, there’s not much you can do with it. Flicking the selector lever from safe to fire is just not a dramatic action that is going to instill fear in your other character. So long arms, no, not much you can do with them. They’re not very dramatic in the menacing category. Just looking down the barrel of a shotgun is menacing enough.
With pistols, there are actions that you can take that provide menacing but it depends on the pistol in question. If I have a Glock and I want a menace the guy, there’s nothing I can do with that. It’s a firearm without an external safety and it doesn’t have a hammer. If it’s loaded, it’s about as dramatic as a brick.
I could raise it up like I’m going to hit you with it, but then again, why? The business end is the little round part at the front. if I choose another pistol, like are our tried and true Beretta 92F, then that has a hammer that can be cocked.
If I pull it out of the holster and flick it off safe, if that’s the way I carry it, and I’m pointing it at somebody that I want to menace, I can shoot them at any time right now cause the pistols off safe. But if I want to show I mean business, then I can cock the hammer back to the single-action mode and that provides a dramatic moment.
It tells that the other character that’s having the gun pointed at him, ooh, I mean business. But the fact remains, you could have shot him at any point in time anyway. That dramatic menacing only really works visually. It doesn’t really translate to the written word in my opinion.
There are other things to do with dialogue, with gesture, with posture that you can relay to the reader that is more effective and doesn’t open you up to questions about your firearms handling or usage. But there are pistols out there that I can cock the hammer as a menacing gesture. But the reality is if a gun is pointed at you, it’s menacing enough.
Matty: I guess the benefit that authors of books have over writers of screenplays is we can delve a little bit into the internal mindset of the people involved, which in that scenario would offer all sorts of opportunities for menacing and being menaced.
Chris: There are a couple of others that come out of the movie category, but the big one is using two pistols. Never, ever use two pistols at the same time. People think it’s cool. I mean, Harvey Keitel did it in Reservoir Dogs. Antonio Banderas did it in like maybe every movie he ever wrote. Tons of movies with characters that use two guns at the same time because it just looks cool. Laura Croft, two guns at the same time.
The problem is that I can shoot two guns like crazy. I’ve got two guns with 15 round magazines. I’ve got 30 rounds and I’m just shooting like crazy. Well, if both of those guns go dry at the same time, how am I going to load it? How am I going to reload? I’ve got to put one gun to the other hand so I can pull out a magazine. Now I’m actually slower and less efficient by using two guns.
In a training scenario I once tried to use two guns. I was fighting a SWAT team with simunitions and, they were clearing the building and I was the bad guy. And I thought, I’m going to use two guns. I’m going to see how this works. And what I found was I would shoot right-handed and then I would shoot left-handed, but I would never shoot both-handed at the same time. It’s just too difficult to aim with both eyes open in two different sight pictures that you’re trying to get. And it’s incredibly inefficient. And so I found myself fighting with one or the other. And when one went dry, I was like, well, crap, what am I going to do with this now? So you end up tossing it to the side and you’re back down to one gun anyway. So two guns, right out. Don’t do it.
Matty: If a character has two guns, then one should be available, but not in use, I guess.
Chris: Take the Blackbeard approach. Blackbeard used to roll into battle with a whole brace of pistols slung across his chest, and he’d pull one, fire it, drop it, pull the next one, fire it, drop it, and that’s how he rolled. So if you’ve got two guns, use one at a time. You could holster one and draw the other, and now you’re back in action, but sooner or later you’re going to have to reload one or both. I’d just stick with one. It’s way easier. It keeps you out of trouble. Never use two guns at the same time.
Matty: I know you have ton more on that topic to share, but I want to make sure that we have time to talk about another topic that you and I had discussed earlier, which I think is going to be hugely valuable to the people who are listening to this podcast. And that is the best way to use a subject matter expert such as yourself so that it’s the best possible experience for both the writer and the person who’s providing the subject matter expertise.
Chris: I get this in the conventions at times. It’s kind of funny, but it’s also really frustrating as a subject matter expert for what that’s worth.
Don’t ask your questions piecemeal. I was thinking about a good example of how this has happened to me in the past, and this is the way it progresses.
“Hey, Chris, I need a gun for my character.”
“Okay.” I ask a couple of questions and make a suggestion.
“Well, how would that work if they’re wearing big, heavy gloves?”
“Uh. Okay. Well, let’s talk about the big heavy glove issue,” and we talk about big, heavy gloves and firing the pistol.
“Okay, that’s great. Now, what about the scuba mask?”
“The scuba mask, because this fight is taking place under water.”
“No, no, you don’t want to do that.”
“Well, why not?”
And then we have to have a conversation about firing guns under water, which is the conversation that we should have had in the first place. We wasted five to 20 minutes of time talking about different guns, talking about their character’s expertise, talking about use with gloves, and all of these other things until we hit the crux, which is, “I want to use my gun under water. Can I do it?” And that’s what we should have led with.
I fall into the trap all the time as much as I know that I shouldn’t. Somebody will send me an email and say, “Hey, Chris, I got this going on,” and without asking for any context or any further questions, I’ll make an assumption. I’ll say, “Oh, you asked me this. It must mean, based on my experience, that you want to do this.”
For example, “How would you waterproof a weapon?” Oh, well, there’s several ways to waterproof a weapon, and that means that you must be deliberately wanting to go into the water with your weapon, which suggests a whole slew of issues that you’re going to have, not necessarily just with the gun, but with other equipment. I’m going to talk about maybe SEALS or Special Forces scuba guys, or small boat teams infiltrating into a denied area, and this is how they protect their weapons and this is everything that you would want to do because of it.
Now that was my assumption and I spent a couple of hours writing up how you do all this stuff. This is how you’re going to waterproof these. These are the actions you’re going to take once you get to land. These are the actions you’re going to take to maintain the pistol or the rifle later, blah, blah, blah.
And then I send that off and that’s great information. I might use it later. But the character just happens to fall in the lake. You should have told me they were just falling into the lake because if you pull the gun out of the water and you rinse it off and you clean it, you don’t have to worry about waterproofing a weapon.
You’re asking a subject matter expert so you may not necessarily know that what you’re asking, they infer a whole set of circumstances based on their expertise. You ask, “How do I waterproof a weapon?” I think it’s deliberate. It ends up being accidental. And nothing is needed to be done.
So when you go to ask a subject matter expert a question, bring as much context into it right off the bat as possible. This will allow the subject matter expert to more efficiently answer the question, thus saving you and the experts more time and your expert won’t get frustrated. You won’t end up with a 15 email chain when it could have been simply done in one email.
If, going back to my first example, “I have a character, they end up underwater in a scuba dive, and he has a pistol and he wants to kill the bad guy. What do I need to do?” As a writer, you may or may not have chosen the firearm yet. The leading question was, “Hey, here’s my firearms expert. I need to get a gun.” But that’s not the real question that you want to ask. Sure, you want to get a gun suggestion, but if you’re going to throw a character into a situation, describe that situation because it’s more important than the nuts and bolts of the equipment you’re going to use.
Matty: One of the things I really appreciated about the help you gave me with my book is that you read the whole book, bless your heart, and I have to say, you have a great story telling sense.
Chris: Thank you.
Matty: I was just expecting you to, you know, correct my use of clips, but you had some really great suggestions for the storytelling aspects as well. And I think that if somebody goes to a subject matter expert and they’re not willing to take the time—you know, maybe reading the whole book is more than you can expect from some people—but at least reading a page or two to provide the context. If they don’t want to do that, then that’s probably a sign that that’s not a subject matter expert that you want to be working with because their advice is going to be suspect based on the example you gave.
Chris: You can ask a question of a subject matter expert and they’re going to answer that question. If you don’t provide the context, which may change the answer, then you could end up writing something that’s completely wrong and then you’re getting called out on the carpet on it on an Amazon review and you’re thinking, “But I asked my subject matter experts.”
But if you didn’t provide the context, if you didn’t provide all that information, they may have answered the question that they inferred rather than the question that you wanted to ask. And it isn’t just firearms. It could be anybody. It could be a doctor, a lawyer, any subject, knitting. There are experts in every field, and if you’re trying to get it right and this person is going to volunteer their time to help you, then you owe it to them to ask the most clear, concise, and contextually relevant question that you can.
Matty: I just ran into this with one of the subject matter experts that you put me in touch with. He was reviewing a scene for me and I realized it would have been better if I told him ahead of time that it took place in the winter, not the summer. Even if he had read the whole chapter, I don’t think he could have told that it was supposed to be winter. I think there’s probably things you need to know: what’s the character’s goal? What led up to that moment? What time of day, what time of year, all those things that you can provide them to make sure the answer you get is as accurate as possible.
Chris: Right. And then it goes back to something that we talked about earlier. That subject matter expert is going to provide tons of detail. Subject matter experts argue with each other in the same field, often. So take that ton of detail and pare it down to only what’s relevant and only what advances the story or develops your character. Then leave it on the cutting room floor because less is more.
Matty: Yeah. I’ve had lunches with SMEs and when I’m done, I used a phrase from that conversation. I hope they’re not disappointed when they read the book, but it was totally worth it to me to have that phrase and know that phrase was right.
Chris: Well, you know, it goes back to a, it goes back to writing your story. 50, 75% of what you think about for that story never gets written. It ends up on the cutting room floor, or as the background that you know what’s going on so that you can keep your story, your timeline straight. Like you said, that one phrase that you drew out of the subject matter expert is all of the stuff that you needed from them, but you’ve got all of the great context that influences how your character behaves, thanks to the subject matter expert.
Matty: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re nearing an hour, so I want to wrap it up. Maybe we’ll be able to have part two with you, Chris, cause I know you have lots and lots of great information to share.
Chris: I’ll have to break out my highlighter and highlight all the stuff we talked about, but otherwise we’ll just be repeating.
Matty: Yeah, make sure we can hit a new set of stuff the next time we chat.
So if people want to find out more about you and your services, where should they go online to find that?
Chris: It’s very easy to find me: TactiQuill.com. Send me an email through the site and I’ll answer your questions.
Matty: And I will give a big recommendation for Chris. Chris, you’ve been great to work with and I’m sure there will be more coming in the future.
Chris: You’re a pleasure to work with Matty.
Matty: Thank you, Chris. Thank you so much for spending the time today.
Chris: Thank you, and thank you everybody for listening.
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