When Technology Intrudes


Write what you don't know.

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I've been writing crime novels for the last three years, set in dozy 21st-century Cornwall, but where modern technology constantly intrudes. Mobile phones, computers, CCTV surveillance cameras can certainly be used as key elements of the plot, but they also slow the action down, for I feel that I have to mention them, (or I'll sound like I don't know my subject), but I'd prefer to move things along with face-to-face questioning of suspects.

The same applies to forensic pathology and psychiatry, with offender profiling, all of which are crucial, but which involve masses of research for the writer. Thanks to series like CSI, everyone thinks they're an expert.

I well understand why many crime writers choose to base their stories in olden times before everyone was connected. My second novel was so stuffed with technology, that I set the third on untamed moorland, with no security cameras and where mobile phone reception is patchy. This returned my story to basic policing skills for my protagonist detective and was more enjoyable to write.

I've been reading local crime writers' novels, to see how they tackle the county and plot layout. Thankfully, for my future prospects, most of the best-known are long gone. It was reading one of the most popular, W. J. Burley, that emphasised how much things have changed in the last forty years. Burley wrote a series of stories featuring Inspector Wycliffe, which were turned into popular television crime dramas that are still shown on British television.

The novel I read, 'The Pea Green Boat' was set in 1975, and the detectives did their work without computers, mobile phones or security cameras. Most documentary evidence came through the post, or by police courier, if it was really urgent. In one hilarious scene, Wycliffe had to wait for twenty minutes outside the only phone box in the village, while a young man flirted with his girlfriend!

These were simpler times, and, it seems to me that it's easier to tell a human story without gadgets constantly interfering. For one thing, explaining evidence gained from phone, computer and CCTV records means a lot of 'telling' rather than 'showing'—something we're discouraged from doing in writing.

Do any of you resent the interference of technology? Did you move your story to a bygone era to get away from it?

Imagine Pride and Prejudice set in modern times, with texting, Skype and social media!

It's tricky. I just skate. Instead of Sunny picking up the telephone at home, he just picks up his mobile...no brand details. Writing stories set in earlier times, you're still skating all sorts of world appropriate information; cooking, transport, clothing.
Yes, technology can make it too easy for characters to get out of trouble. Setting stories here in NZ is great, because I can always find a technology-free location so my characters' cell phones don't work. And it doesn't have to be far off the beaten track, either. Even at my house, cell phone reception is sometimes spotty. And because of the mountains, you can play with reception to advance the plot--in the bush or in a valley, the characters can be cut off, but in the right locations, they can climb a peak and have reception (or they can climb the peak and discover that there's none...mwahahaha!)
The more tech there is then the easier it is to make mistakes. If your reader demographic is the grey haired set then it's less likely to be an issue if you make errors about the detailed workings of Instagram. That's why I keep away from writing in the YA genre - I stick to what I know++.

On the other hand, if you delve very deeply in your writing then, as my father used to say, 'bullshit baffles brains' - most readers in the YA genre would not know a lot about the detailed javascript behind Instagram. Of course, that ignores the question of whether an author believes that the content should be as accurate as possible.

James Patterson is often quoted as saying that an author should not let the grammar get in the way of the story. Within reason, one could also say that about technical detail, although I do realise that your point was about story flow.

Instead of moving a story to a bygone era, then there is the option of moving it forward and inventing whatever you like. For example - Bonzo used the xyz technique and a download from the gene library. He spliced the DNA sample to show that a dinosaur had been in the bank vault.

The other approach is to invent secret technology as Jack Higgins did with the 'Codex' phone - entirely credible but completely false (at least as far as I know - and Google says).

And that's before we start an alternative universes. You could do that with Cornwall, just dropping hints about how the UK was now a French Department and so on. :)
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Write what you don't know.