I write thrillers so I need to have guns and shoot-em-up scenes. I also like crime novels, action movies and cop shows.
But I’m British and it’s illegal to shoot guns as a civilian here. They don’t feature in everyday life and even the police don’t usually carry them. When living in Australia I went shooting on a range for a day (see right) and really appreciated the physical experience of shooting which definitely helped with my writing.
But let’s face it, most writers don’t know much about guns, bullets or shooting! So I’m pleased to introduce this interview with J. Daniel Sawyer who now brings his expertise to writers in his new book. Audio, video and text below. The video includes Dan showing us real guns.
J Daniel Sawyer is the author of 9 science-fiction, fantasy and mystery novels, as well as a podcaster, media producer and philosopher/polymath. Dan’s latest book is the brilliant Throwing Lead: A Writer’s Guide to Firearms and the people who use them which we are focusing on today.
We won’t be discussing any politics, just the useful aspects of writing about guns which is important in so many genres. Guns are a reality in our world and we use them in our books so that is the focus of the discussion. This is a serious topic but one we need to be aware of to write effectively.
- How Dan got the idea for the book when a number of writers asked him to help them with writing scenes with guns. Dan comes from a family of cattle ranchers and also military so he has grown up with guns. He was taught gun safety at aged 4 so has a lot of life experience with them. Most people don’t have contact with guns except through seeing a police officer with one, or in films and TV which is often not realistic.
- What writers get wrong. The confusion between a revolver and a pistol. No shooter would call a revolver a pistol. You have revolvers and semi-automatics and the latter are called pistols. A related confusion is the dramatic moment with the click as the shooter pulls the trigger and nothing happens. This does not happen with a semi-automatic as the slide will lock. [Dan shows us why with a real gun] The person on the other end of the gun can also tell that you’re empty as it actually looks different. No combat shooter will ever run out of ammo without realizing they are about to. They would mentally count down and switch magazines when they are out.
- Some other things people get wrong. Shotguns don’t fire bullets. They fire sprays of little pellets which makes using a shotgun very different experience, both as the shooter but also in the damage they can do. Cops or combat shooters don’t fire a lot in a crowded spaces and then miss everyone.
- Bullets go through things. They have power to pierce a lot of material and travel a long way. You can’t protect yourself behind a table from a hail of bullets. Movie physics work on Disney principle of plausible impossible so people get away with that in film.
- What does a bullet really do to a body? (gruesome). There are two kinds of damage. The puncture wound and the hydrostatic shock wave that pushes all the fluids out the hole and flooding other organs. This can cause sepsis or internal bleeding. Being shot in the torso will usually be very serious. Being shot in the leg or shoulder can hit a major artery so you bleed to death. Your character would likely be ok if they got shot in the ass or shins, so if you want your hero to survive then shoot there. A shooter would not aim for torso or shoulder unless they are taking responsibility for potentially killing someone.
- When you draw the gun, you accept responsibility for someone dying. That mindset shift makes a difference. Target shooters don’t tend to think about the violent side. It’s more a dangerous toy treated with respect in a special environment. If you’re a cop or in the army, that violence is much more in your awareness. Dan shares how he was seconds away from shooting someone in self-defense. You have to make a value judgment that the person’s life is less important that your own or the person you are protecting. This is very difficult in an egalitarian society. This colors the way you see the world, often permanently, which is why cops and veterans can have issues with stable relationships. They see the world in more strategic terms and this can create a barrier to intimacy. This can create a lot of character dynamics in our writing.
- What actually happens when you’re a shooter? As the adrenalin kicks up, the blood supply to your peripheral nervous system is starved. So your fine motor control is slowed. This explains how you drop your keys when you’re nervous. Women’s adrenalin takes longer to spike and longer to come down, whereas men go up and down more quickly. Things don’t work right. Aiming therefore is difficult and why combat shooters train under stressful situations so their autonomic system can respond. Your vision will narrow and you will be hyper-focused on details. Focusing on the wrong details can be fatal. Dan gives a real-world example of this.
- You need to be trained to handle this type of stress or you freeze. The freeze response is how massacres like Columbine happen as no one knows how to respond or do anything. We aren’t used to terror as we live in such a safe world. A civilian under fire from a criminal who then turns bad-ass karate kid would never happen in real life. Combat training will help the characters become habituated to the physiological response of terror.
- How to choose weapons for your characters. I chose a Barak SP-21 pistol for my protagonist as Morgan Sierra used to work in the Israeli Defence Force. People tend to fall in love with their first gun that fits. It needs to work with your body and your grip. Dan explains his own preference. This also depends on what people train with in the military, and this will also depend on age. It is an individual reaction to guns and people tend to be monogamous e.g. someone in the US army in the 90s they will love the Beretta 92. Civilians get guns later than the military so take that into consideration when ‘shopping’ for your characters. Size is an issue as the bones in your wrist will feel the impact over time. Go to a target range, rent a few weapons and find something that works for you if your character is a similar build to you. Balance this out with where you will carry the gun e.g a derringer in a garter vs a holster. You also need to think about what it is for – rabbits vs humans vs bears.
- Dan talks about what is in the book that you will find useful: realistic safety practices; the evolution of firearms and the terminology that has grown over time and how you can get it wrong; tactics of home defense; ballistics and forensics; the physiological effects of bullets; handguns and concealment; psychology of snipers; science fiction weaponry; marksmanship and drills; cleaning & maintaining a weapon; silencers; body armor; small artillery; psychology of warrior hunters; … and loads more…
Do you have any questions about guns or shooting as it relates to writing?