Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Those pesky cellphones

Barbara here. We have all seen the park benches, restaurant tables and buses where everyone is hunched over their favourite electronic devices, thumbing through data on a minuscule screen to the complete exclusion of the outside world and their friends beside them. The art of conversation, and of real-time, real-life connection, is being lost, and at times I despair of the future of humanity.

I am not writing about the demise of humanity today, however. That's a post for another day. I am writing about the challenge of writing a suspenseful thriller or mystery in our digital, over-connected world. Almost everyone has a smartphone, and digital towers are springing up all over the world, even in remote deserts. Not only can these phones communicate instantly by text or voice, but they have built-in GPSs and location functions, so you can look up where you are, and others can look up where you are. In addition, the phones have cameras, so you can take photos of bad guys, pursuers, and suspicious characters and instantly text or email them. Help is rarely more than a click away. Danger is averted and the murder solved, possibly within fifty pages.

That is a serious problem. As cellphones slowly encroached on our lives, we writers devised ingenious ways of disabling them in order to ensure that the suspense and drama could continue to escalate. The wretched things have been dropped in puddles or absentmindedly left on bedside tables. The batteries have died. But we are running out of fresh ideas. Our hero can forget her cellphone once, but do it twice, and the writer risks an impatient eye roll from a reader who, having seen this ploy before, has been silently screaming from the sidelines "Don't forget your cellphone, you idiot!" Or "Not another puddle!"

In the city, a writer has to stand on her head to get around the problem of cellphone coverage, public wifi (and old Starbucks or Tim Hortons will do), and Google map functions that can tell you the location of any place you want and how to get there. It's really hard to be lost or out of touch in the city. It used to be that there were enough dead zones in rural areas that a writer could get away with having no signal for their hapless hero to use. This still happens, but it's increasingly rare. Add to that the availability of satellite phones, and the excuse of no signal becomes tenuous. What halfway competent, forward-thinking hero would head into the wilderness without a satellite phone, beacon locators, or at least a hand-held GPS?

Well, mine. In my latest book,  FIRE IN THE STARS, which was just submitted to the publisher, there would have been no story if she'd had those things. She would have phoned the RCMP, they would have pinpointed her location, and that would be that. I was forced to use some ingenuity to explain why she had no sat phone, GPS, or even a functioning compass, when she headed into a remote region of northern Newfoundland. I knew she was a smart, resourceful woman, so I had to explain why she would risk her life and continue on rather than going back for help or being prepared in the first place. Many remote parts of Newfoundland have spotty cellphone coverage, and handily even the police radio signals are not always reliable– another challenge for the writer of modern crime novels. Satellite coverage– whether for radios, phones, or GPSs– can also be disrupted if a hill or other obstacle blocks the signal, but using that excuse more than once or twice also risks an eye roll from jaded readers. "Just climb the freaking hill", they would shout.

The problems really started with the advent of 911 (or possibly with telephones themselves) but has steadily worsened. We have all read books where the hero gets herself into a ridiculously complicated situation while the reader is silently thinking "Oh for Pete's sake, why doesn't she just call 911?" Modern readers are savvy, and you can bet some of them know the latest tech gizmos that every intrepid hero should not leave home without.

Cellphones and other devices can be used to advantage for the writer too, of course. A cellphone can be found by the dead body, and its history and messages can provide clues. Cellphone conversations can be choppy or incomplete, the signal fading at the crucial moment when the killer's name is being mentioned. Computer search histories and emails are a gold mine of information to enhance the mystery. We writers have embraced that. Now if we could just lose that pesky smartphone when we need to. Anyone out there have any other ideas?

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