Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Using Technology in Fiction

Rick’s post yesterday about his background in music got me thinking about my own background, i.e. what I did before I started writing. I was a Computer Science major in college, earning both of my degrees during the 1980s. When I started studying computers,

Xerox 8010 time share systems were on their way in and punch cards were on their way out. The Apple II and TRS-80 came out the year I started my undergraduate degree. By the time I received my B.S. four years later, the IBM PC was on the way to store shelves, helping to bring personal computing to the masses.

My first programming assignment was writing software for the Xerox Star 8010 (I started working at Xerox right before the first release came out in 1981.) For many years, I worked on it and the systems that followed. It was a great time to be programming. Icon based systems were new and you felt like you were on the cutting edge. I have many fond memories of my time there. By the time I stopped programming twenty years or so later, the computer world had drastically changed.

Technology can be a lot of fun to include in a story, particularly in a mystery. You’ve heard pacemakers can be hacked, right? That’s an interesting method of murder to use in a story. But, technology changes at light speed. Apparently, now traces are left behind when someone hacks a pacemaker.

So, when you’re writing a crime story you have to decide how much technology to put in and be aware that what you use in a story may not work the same even a year later. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put it in. You just have to be aware that an intricate plot device you set up today may not make sense to someone who reads the book years later.

Then there’s the ubiquitousness of cell phones in every day life today. Plots set in modern times have to take into account that calls can be made from pretty much anywhere so if you want a character to be out of reach you either have to put him in a dead zone, have him forget to charge his/her phone, have him/her lose the phone or have it no longer functioning for some reason. Then there’s the use of phones by people of different ages. Someone in their 70s probably uses a phone differently than someone in their 20s. Sometimes, I think Sue Grafton has the right idea by setting her Kinsey Millhone mysteries in the 1980s before cell phones, the internet, Facebook, twitter and wi-fi existed or were common.

My protagonist in Fatal Brushstroke is a freelance programmer. I don’t dwell on what she does because, well, programming can be quite boring to read about. But she is of an analytical bent, as many programmers are, and she does use the internet to do research. (And the fact she works freelance means she makes her own schedule and can do her sleuthing any time of the day or night.)

Keeping up with all the technology changes can be quite daunting. I’m not sure it’s even possible. But I still intend to put bits and pieces of technology in my stories. But when I need a break, I think I’ll write that historical I’ve been thinking about. Of course, that brings up a whole other set of problems...

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