Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Like candy for the writer

by Dietrich Kalteis

Thinking of innovations, from the sundial to the online emoji generator, what would you most like to un-invent?

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to un-invent any of the great inventions that have been real game-changers for mankind: the phone, autos, airplanes, modern medicines, the printing press, and so on. Of course, we’ve also seen an explosion of lesser inventions over the past few decades designed to make our lives better. Thinking back, did we really need Hair in a Can, Ford Pintos and Hula Chairs? And there were inventions that nobody seemed to want in the first place, like New Coke, picnic pants and pizza scissors. Or ones that failed from the get-go like fish-flavored water for pets, rush-hour reading glasses and the cigarette umbrella. And some we might even be afraid to try: horny goat weed anyone?

Okay, some inventions have been brilliant, and there have been some we could do without, but all of them can be like candy to the writer. I love researching and finding something I can use to spice up a scene and make it more convincing or humorous. A TV remote in the hands of a channel surfer could be funny, and we’ve all sat next to one of these people, so we can relate. Or, put a cell phone in the hands of a call zombie who texts while driving or walking, looking down and tapping the little buttons.

Sometimes I catch things in the news, and I think hey, I can use that. Adding some gadget or invention can help make a scene more interesting or convincing. For instance, I read about this innovation from the fifties called a Spiegelantenna, an option for the vintage Porsche 356. It was a car aerial built into a sideview mirror. My character Karl Morgen from Ride the Lightning had to have one for his own car. It wasn’t a big deal, but it lent a touch of realism. For Zero Avenue, I researched and found a pink pepper-spray gun my female protagonist Frankie del Rey kept tucked in her handbag. And I gave her friend Arnie a Pinto Cruising Wagon with the wild stripes and the horrid round bubble windows on the sides.

When I saw a news clip about drug cartels building high-tech subs in the mangrove swamps of the Amazon a couple of years back, it gave me the spark for my novel Triggerfish. After watching the clip I did more research and found that the parts for these narco subs were being carried overland to secret jungle locations where they were constructed under slave-like conditions. Equipped with sonar, ballast, these small subs are built to defy infra-red detection and could travel underwater virtually undetected, with a belly full of cocaine. At the time of my research, one captured cartel sub was reported to be able to reach distances of over two thousand miles without needing to refuel. I checked and found that was more or less the distance between the top end of Mexico and Canada, and I had the start of my story.

While working on House of Blazes, set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, I came upon a news story about a California couple who found some old rusting cans poking from the ground on a property they owned in 2013. Unearthing the cans, they discovered 1,427 gold coins. While there was much speculation how ten million dollars’ worth of gold coins got there, historians and experts couldn’t agree and were left scratching their heads. They did agree that the coins had been there a very long time and were minted at the San Francisco Mint between the 1880s and the 1890s. I was already well into the first draft of my novel when I came upon the article, and since I don’t plot out my stories beforehand, I made a few changes and created my own spin to how the gold coins ended up on that couple’s property over a hundred years later. That news gem gave me a twist to the story that I never would have been able to dream up on my own. 

So thank you to all those inventions — the good, the bad, the ugly — from Red Dye No. 2, to Agent Orange to Ron Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman — any of which can give an inventive writer a spark of an idea or enough ammunition to add a punch of realism or a touch of humor to the stories they’re working on.


Unknown said...

Hiliarious list of bad inventions - I love it!

RJ Harlick said...

Love how you find a use for useless inventions. Great post.