Wish I had Joe 90’s BIG RAT

[March 2007] Now there’s a sentence I’ll bet you never thought you’d read.

When I was a kid, we got one television station. (That’s not exactly true. There was also a French station, but we didn’t switch to it unless there was a hockey game on, and only then with the volume turned down.)

Three British TV series from that era blur together in my mind because they all used “supermarionation” technology—creepy puppets with big rolling eyes and mouths that clicked like teeth when they closed. These shows were Stingray, The Thunderbirds (recently a movie) and Joe 90. All featured characters who were part of acronymic organizations that fended off evil creatures and/or empires.

The reason Joe 90 comes to mind now is the show’s premise. Joe was nine years old, but he was a super-talented spy. Whenever he needed a special skill to complete a mission, he sat in a chair inside this gizmo that resembled a set of concentric eggbeaters that spun in opposite directions. The machine was known as the BIG RAT, a strangled acronym meaning Brain Impulse Galvanoscope: Record And Transfer.

The ability he needed (piloting a jet, brain surgery, whatever) was copied to tape from the minds of experts in the field and implanted temporarily in Joe’s brain by this device. So long as Joe wore a pair of special glasses with hidden electrodes, he could retain this knowledge.

When it comes to writing short stories, I often wish I had access to the BIG RAT. I find myself in need of expertise in certain subjects, but only for the brief period it takes to create the story. Some people might have the luxury of studying law to write a short story, but not me. As the saying goes, I have to learn enough to be able to lie convincingly.

I recently wrote a story where the main character was a freight train engineer. Now, I’ve been around trains all my life. I grew up less than a mile from the main rail line through Eastern Canada. I took trains back and forth from my childhood home to university time without number. I used to know how many cars made up a mile of train, and we frequently sat at a level crossing waiting for the red caboose to go by so we could continue on our way into town.

But I’ve never met an engineer, have never been on a freight train, and had no idea what the inside of a modern locomotive cab looks like. It was important to the story that I know these things—not because I was writing a technical manual, but because the protagonist knew all these things. They were second nature to him. Many readers probably wouldn’t blink if I had him gripping a steering wheel or stepping on a gas pedal instead of moving a lever to change the speed of the train, but these mistakes would ruin the effect for those who knew I’d gotten it wrong.

How often have we watched TV shows or movies, or read books or stories, and shaken our heads at some detail that didn’t ring true? Dan Brown totally fluffed the geography of Paris in The Da Vinci Code. Unless you’ve been there, you probably wouldn’t know—but I have been, and it temporarily took me out of the story. That’s not to say that if you set a short story in Prague (as I did recently) you have to get on a plane and head for the Czech Republic. But I did a lot of research so that people familiar with the local geography wouldn’t totally hate me for making it all up. You know all those travelogues people post on their blogs, complete with cheesy photos? Pure gold when it comes to location research. Pictures truly are worth thousands of words, and are a great substitute for a costly trip to Europe.

So I did my research. I sat in my BIG RAT and filled my head full of locomotive knowledge. Thankfully, the internet is a decent stand-in for the BIG RAT. I found animated schematics and video snippets shot in locomotive cabs on HowStuffWorks.com. I tracked down “day-in-the-life” features about engineers in newspapers and on career web sites. Those types of articles are usually the first thing I look for when researching a new topic. I googled “day in the life” locomotive engineer and found interviews with men who drive trains, and even one about a day in the life of a train.

If you stood me next to a locomotive (so long as I’m wearing my special electrode-bearing glasses), I think I could find my way up the ladder (8 feet tall) into the cab. I’d know enough to throw the main switch and all the circuit breakers to power up the system. I might even be able to start the diesel engine and get the train moving. Certainly, though, after a couple of days of research, I knew enough so my main character could perform most tasks of his routine existence while at the same time coexisting with the plot of the story.

The stuff I learn is almost never the focus of the story. It’s the window dressing that makes everything else seem real. Without it, my stories would be as starkly staged as Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Readers have to do more work if the walls are all imaginary and the doors non-existent.

I’ve gone to great lengths for research. Literally. I’ve driven all the way across Texas with a video camera mounted on the dashboard to do location research—because there’s only so much you can learn from the internet. A few snapshots and maps of a locality might be enough for a short story, but in this case I was writing a novel and things went so much better after I visited the place where the book was set. You learn things like how often trains go through the middle of town, disrupting its normal calm, what color the mountains turn when the sun sets, and how rundown the part of town south of the tracks is compared to the way it looks on the computer.

I’ve gone to lectures, ridden with police officers for their entire shift and attended the Citizens’ Police Academy. I’ve watched documentaries and read books about pertinent topics. I’ve taken mornings off from work to sit in a courtroom and watch jury selection. Much of what I’ve learned has worn off, except for the material I’ve captured in my notebooks, on video, audio or digital film. Like Joe 90, when the immediate need for the expertise goes, the details slowly dissipate. Except for the ones I’ve used as part of the palette in painting the staging for the story.

The secret is to not let the details overwhelm the tale. I often put a lot more in on the first draft than survives upon revision. I’m proud of my research. For a week, I probably bored my wife to tears with train trivia. Did you know that a typical freight train weighs over two million pounds and that it can take two miles to stop? Did you know that the area of contact between a train wheel and the track is smaller than a dime? I do—or I did while I was working on the story. Six months from now, I probably will have replaced much of that trivia with something else. The average speed of an unladen European swallow, for example.

Sometimes the story comes out of the research—“Rule Number One” happened because of my first police ridealong—but normally the story dictates the research. My preference is to do the research before I start writing, but sometimes the writing has to come first for logistical reasons. It’s not every day that I can pick up and drive across Texas, and the story wouldn’t wait for me to get there.

But it would all be so much easier if I could just sit in that BIG RAT for a few minutes and then wear my special goggles while I write. I have to wear glasses anyway. Just so long as they got the prescription right…




Comments are closed.