To Tech or Not to Tech?

A guest post by Susan Little.

Disclaimer:  I am not a writer.  Would I like to be a writer?  Yes, but I lack the imagination needed to write fiction.  I do so admire all you writers and wish I could do the same.  I, however, am a reader and a librarian so I do know books and I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t and of some of the rules of writing that great writers can oftentimes successfully break.

Now that that’s out of the way, I want to talk about one rule with which I wholeheartedly agree:  Do not overwhelm your story with too much technical detail.  You know what I mean–the detail that threatens to swamp the narrative and slow down the progress of the story.  One author that springs to mind is Tom Clancy.  I’ve read one of his novels but had no desire to read more because I felt slogged down by all the technical detail about military weapons and procedure. (If you love Tom Clancy and many people certainly do,  forget what I just said.)  This rule applies to all realistic fiction, where explaining current or past technologies in excruciating detail can leave the reader wanting less tech and more story.

As far as I’m concerned, though, Patrick O’Brian proves the exception to this unofficial “rule.” I first read his historical Aubrey/Maturin series about 20 years ago, and fell in love with his books. I read them for the characters. I think that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin may have the greatest friendship in all of literature. There are scenes between those two characters that bring me to tears every time I read them. I defy anyone who reads the end of The Reverse of the Medal to come away unaffected.

I’m not, however, a sailor. When Jack says, “Surge the hawser and lower away,” I understand that something is being lowered but have no idea what. The first time I read the series, I began by skipping all the technical ship stuff, just wanting to get to the story. But, magically, as I continued to read, I actually began to see how brilliant Mr. O’Brian was in including technical details. I now see how those details complement the story telling. Because of the description of the ship and sails and because of all the technical lingo, I actually feel as if I’m on a sailing ship. I can feel the wind in the sails and the roll of the deck. In the heat of a battle, as the cannon and carronades are fired (and also described in great detail), I’m there tamping the powder and cannon ball into the cannon. I wouldn’t know a “Fore topgallant” from a “mizzen,” but I’ve become quite adept at using the picture at the front of the book which labels the sails of a square-rigged ship because O’Brian’s stories have made me want to learn more about sailing ships in all their glory.

And how does Patrick O’Brian accomplish this? One of his many ways is to have a main character who is as “lubberish” as I am. Stephen Maturin may be a brilliant surgeon, naturalist and deadly spy, but he doesn’t know larboard from starboard even after sailing for years with Jack. The seamen are ever patient with him and try, in loving and sometimes very humorous detail to explain what exactly is happening on the ship. This device allows the reader to also get the benefit of their expertise, and hence all the technical explanations meld seamlessly into the story. You will agree with Stephen when he says, “It’s a pleasure to hear a man who thoroughly understands his profession.  You are very exact, sir.”  Stephen is hopeless, though, at remembering all this seafaring so he requires constant help, and thus, we readers get to learn all about sailing ships in the Napoleonic Era. You could do worse than learn the technical details of that era from Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous novels.


About Susan Little:IMG_0662a

Susan Little is a recently retired high school librarian and English teacher, two professions where reading is mandatory. In her case reading is also a joy, although she is currently taking a short break from reading young adult literature after having to read so much of it for her job. When reading for pleasure, she is partial to mysteries and historical fiction.  She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she pursues her other passion, oil painting, and helps out in the family accounting business.

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