Ask Correia 2– Writing gun stuff

This was posted to the comments last time.

Here is a new writing question for you. What is the best way for a writer to include guns in his/her novel convincingly if he/she has little experience with them? I have ideas for novels involving a lot of firepower, but having lived in mostly gun-unfriendly states (NJ, MA) I don’t have enough experience (ok virtually none) to be able to write about them in a realistic manner. Thanks. – Scott

That’s a great question, and one that I am actually qualified to help with.  For those of you just joining us,  before I was a professional writer, I was a merchant of death (sometimes called a gun dealer in areas outside of Jersey) and a crazy-militia-extremist-terrorist training camp leader (usually known as a Firearms Instructor in places other than Massachusetts).

Guns are great in fiction. If you write anything even vaguely contemporary, and there is an element of danger in it, then there will probably be guns.  Thrillers need guns. Horror is much better with guns. I’m a huge fan of guns in fantasy. Sensitive Oprah book club selections… they definitely need more guns.  

So how do you write good gun stuff?

Guns & Character

You thought I was going to start with technical esoteric factoids, didn’t you?  (pistols have magazines, not clips, there).  Nope. Well written characters are the basis for having good gun stuff in your fiction.

Keep in mind the background of your PoV character. Guns are an everyday part of life for a giant chunk of America.  To us, they are not some weird, scary, mystical item, they’re another cool tool, like a cordless drill, or the George Foreman Grill.  I hate Hate HATE when I read a thriller, where the hero (usually a former Navy SEAL/Ranger/Commando/CIA Ninja) will have some bizarre disdain for firearms, usually from the author’s own personal bias creeping in.  That does not fit the character at all. People who make their living with guns won’t have a psychological dislike for their guns anymore than a NASCAR driver will have a pathological distaste for driving.  Remember the idiotic Lethal Weapon (3? 4?) movie where the director suddenly got on an anti-gun kick, and all of a sudden Mel Gibson’s vet/ninja/assassin/super-cop character, who’s shot 4,000 people with a Beretta in the previous movies, got all sorts of snooty and disdainful about the evil scourge of guns on the street?   Hell, Lethal Weapon 1 was the reason most of us bought Berettas to begin with back then.

If your PoV character falls into the “gun culture” then he will respect his weapons and probably enjoy them.  Now, not all characters with guns need to be a member of the gun culture though.  If the person is an excellent shot under stress (like all thriller heroes) then odds are they are in the gun culture. Cops carry guns, but most of them are relatively clueless about them, and only carry one because it is a job requirement.  If your PoV character falls into that category, then don’t expect them to have buckets of knowledge (and also don’t expect them to shoot very well either). 

Shooting is a skill. Any moron can pick up a gun and shoot it, but it actually takes practice to become good with one.  The insane level of skill demonstrated by most fictional protagonists would only come from somebody who actually enjoys shooting enough to go out and do it on their own time.  Keep that in mind for your characters. Combative shooting is a martial art.  For the love of St. Browning, don’t do that horrible Kung Fu Panda crap where you can defeat somebody who’s trained their entire life because you “believe in yourself”. 

Is your character somebody who is new to guns, but got one because of the events of your plot?  Maybe they will be awkward. They won’t know the details. They will use the wrong terminology. They will probably be clumsy and slow.  Maybe they grew up on a farm and have to think back to the marksmanship lessons their grandfather gave them.  Maybe they are a clueless lefty suburbanite who has to get out of their comfort zone and associate with an evil right-wing death monger instructor (hey, I know that guy) in order to actually learn to defend themselves from the zombies.  They may have psychological hang ups.  How should I know, it’s your character. Make them interesting.

Now as a gun nut, who has had success writing about the adventures of a gun nut, my character will be the kind of person who will spout off all sorts of interesting factoids and jargon. (don’t overdue it, Yes, I am guilty, but I’ll get to that).  If your character is not a gun nut, then they probably won’t pontificate on muzzle velocity and bullet drop of their rifle.  It’ll more likely be “This thing is heavy” or “Oww! My ears!” Stay faithful to your character.

Riot Nerd Weapon Speak

One of my first proof readers, John Shirley (also a gun nut), used the term “Riot Nerd Weapon Speak” to describe my needless info dumps that would cause most reader’s eyes to glaze over.  (believe it or not, the version of MHI you read was actually cleaned up quite a bit) So don’t make it boring.  That’s a fine line for some of us, because trust me, I could easily write six paragraphs describing how awesome a particular weapon is, but 92% of my readers will skim it.  Elmore Leonard (I think it was him, but I paid no attention in English) once said “don’t write the parts people are going to skip.”

Now, if you are posting fiction on the excellent creative writing section over on or you got started like me posting an online serial at then you can write for your audience, and put in every juicy gun detail you feel like. Just be aware that outside of the gun culture, some people are going to fall asleep.  This makes actually getting published kind of difficult.

Avoid info dumps whenever possible, unless you are Tom Clancy, and that’s what you’re getting paid for.  You don’t need to do a complete inventory of a character’s equipment before they enter the fight scene. This is not a role playing game.  And yes, I’ve violated this one, too. So if you’re going to do it, at least try to make it interesting.  Give the equipment information in little bits, interspaced with the rest of the story.  Don’t just hammer the reader over the head with a giant equipment list…

…Unless it is really awesome.  I’m not one of those people who gets hung up on “rules of writing”. That is crap for college professors and people on the internet who’ve never actually written anything.  If it is awesome, and your readers like it, write it.  I info-dumped the hell out of one gun in MHI, but Abomination is borderline a character. (and strangely enough, a really popular one). 


Now this is the part that may require a bit of research. Some writers love research, some of us hate it.  I fall into the love it camp.  I read a four foot stack of history books before I wrote Grimnoir, and I probably still screwed stuff up. If guns are going to be an integral part of your story, then you may have to do some research.  The two webpages I linked to above are filled with great discussion and is mostly technically correct. (remember, advice on the internet is worth what you paid for it). 

Terminology needs to be as correct as possible, but keep in mind the character.  If the character is a hard core shooter, then they will never refer to a pistol’s magazine as a clip. They are magazines.  If they’re Sally Soccermom who just picked up a gun off a partially devoured cop and is fighting off hordes of suddenly (and mysteriously) ravenous squirrels, then she may very well need another “clip” . 

But that’s perception. Now let’s get to reality, and the things that regardless of character, fiction usually manages to get wrong.  Bullet impacts do not lift people up and throw them.  Any weapon that had enough energy to hurl the target backwards, would have so much recoil that it would launch the shooter in the opposite direction. When you shoot somebody with a pistol, you poke a hole in them. That’s it. They will not fly backwards through the air, through a window, do a flip, and catch on fire. (despite how awesome Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis was…)

Rifles and shotguns do more damage than handguns.  Anybody who has a clue, if given the option in a gun fight, will take a long gun or a handgun.  Anything with a stock is easier to aim than something without.  Cop shows where the cop shows he means serious business by opening up a case and strapping on ten different handguns… Crap.  Realistically, the case would open and there would be a rifle inside of it.

Most of the things people hide behind in movies will not stop a properly motivated bullet. Car door. Nope. Sheet rock. Nope.  That said, every little bit helps, but bullets penetrate. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

There are more than one kind of “bulletproof” vests.  The kinds that can be hidden under a shirt will only stop pistol rounds.  The kind capable of stopping rifle bullets have big ceramic plates in them and are very bulky.  Despite what you see on TV, there is no such thing as a cop-killer bullet.  Spraying your bullets with Teflon will not suddenly make them go through vests, but Teflon will make it so that your scrambled eggs do not stick to the pan as much.

Shotguns do not throw a boulder of death so big that you don’t need to aim. A shotgun still needs to be aimed.  Pattern size varies depending on a lot of factors, but across the largest room of your house, a buckshot pattern is probably only the size of a softball, unless you have a really big house, then it might be the size of a basketball. 

Despite all the cop shows that indicate otherwise, most states do not have any sort of gun registration.  This week on Crime Scene Undercover Special Prosecutors Unit. “The victim was shot with this bullet.” “Don’t worry, our giant super computer says that bullet was registered to Drake Del Fuego.” Dum DUM DUH!!!!!   Also, that whole thing with matching the fired bullets up to some giant database… It doesn’t work the vast majority of the time either.  But all the stuff that CSI gets wrong would fill a really big book, like frozen meat bullets… That’s just idiotic. Don’t get me started.

Most professionals keep a round in the chamber of their weapon while they are carrying it. Only in the movies does the hero pause to dramatically rack the slide of his pistol before heading into to the climactic battle scene.  “Wow! He means business now!” 

Some guns have manual safeties. Some do not. The vast majority of revolvers don’t. 

 Techniques for the Advanced Writer

Shoot guns.  I know that is kind of crazy, but if you’re going to write about them, you may want to actually try them. You might actually find that they are fun.  Plus, no matter how much somebody tells you about doing something, nothing will hit home like doing it yourself.  I promise that your scenes will be more realistic and visceral once you’ve actually done it yourself.

Techniques for the Super Advanced Best Selling Writer with a closet full of awards

Once you become an actual gun nut, you’ll find that you’ll be able to just look at a gun, and that gun will just want to tell you the story of the fascinating character that used it.  Rusty Winchester 30-30 with the stock held on by black electrical tape… The old man that used that gun has seen some things.   I see an old .38 Super Colt, and I think of a tough P.I.  chasing down leads in a seedy back alley. I see a beat up Inglis High-Power, and there’s an African mercenary who crossed a diamond exchange.  This only works with guns that have character of course.  Sorry, but when I see an HK Mk.23, I see some guy who drives a Hummer, who spends too much time on the internet, and has more money than sense.  And when I see a Desert Eagle, I see somebody who has played way too many videogames (probably calls it a Deagle), and if it is gold plated, I can’t see anything through the tears of sadness.   See?  The gun culture people got that, everybody else skimmed it.

Picking a particular gun for a character

In Hard Magic, (I’ll stick with the free sample chapters, because most of you have read those I’m guessing) I’ve got one character who buys her first gun.  She isn’t an expert. She knows zip about terminology. Her experience is using her Grandpa’s shotgun on crows around the farm. She buys a crappy little Iver Johnson .32 revolver because it will fit in her pocket, and it and a box of 50 cartridges is only ten whole dollars!  Her experience is limited, but she’s a very practical country girl, so she goes behind the store and shoots two cylinders worth of ammo at a stump to make sure it works. Faye is proud that she hit the stump. Mostly.

Then I’ve got another character who is a veteran and gunman. This guy is tough, practical, no BS, and has made his living by his ability to kick ass.  He’s not flashy, but he does appreciate, care for, and respect his hardware. Sullivan would be dangerous with any gun you put in his hands.  At one point his Colt 1911 is broken. He is bothered because the 1911 was expensive, and he is inherently cheap, but he immediately starts carrying a .38 Smith because it was available.  He’s not the emotional type.  The man loses a Lewis gun and doesn’t freak out. I’d still be depressed.

The kind of gun a character shows up with can tell you about them. From Dirty Harry’s  .44 Mag model 29, to James Bond’s PPK,  a signature weapon can say a lot about a character’s nature.

When I was last on tour with John Brown, he had just finished a thriller where the main character was an assassin who carried a Glock. John is not a gunnie, and he asked if that was appropriate, since the Glock is kind of the plain vanilla of the gun world.  In this case, you’ve got a guy who is all business, who is going to whack somebody, and then maybe have to ditch the weapon, and then go with another one that is exactly the same later. That actually sounds like a perfect character match to me.

The proper gun can flesh out a character.


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