The Car Thing: Words of Wisdom from a Gearhead
©May 17, 2011 by Daven Anderson
I’ve noticed some readers think my stories have excess detail when I refer to cars by their specific model, even sub-model. The specific references are there to help the clarify the readers’ mental pictures of the character’s cars.
Example: How descriptive are you when you say that your character drives a “Dodge Charger?” Do you mean the muscle car two-door coupe made from 1966 to 1978, the subcompact hatchback made from 1983 to 1987, or the current four-door sports sedan made since 2006? This is a perfect example of where specifying the car’s sub-model is of great help to assist the reader in knowing which Dodge Charger you’re writing about.
By specifying that my character drives an “SRT8″ (sub-model name), not just a “Charger” (model name), I give my readers the important clue they need to know exactly what kind of car he’s driving. Some readers will recognize what an “SRT8″ is immediately, and the rest can Google it.
I ran into the car-model problem myself one evening at our critique group. When I wrote about my character’s “Shelby GT-500″, one person at the table wrote that he loved my reference to the “classic 1960′s muscle-car.” The only problem was, I meant for the car to be the current 2011 model year Shelby GT-500. The next day, I made sure to add “2011″ to my chapter.
It’s true some readers don’t care about cars. The reverse is also true. When Stephen King’s novel Christine was released in 1983, he made numerous factual errors when describing various attributes of a 1958 Plymouth Fury. His errors were even more notorious than usual because the novel’s central character, Christine, is a (supernaturally sentient) 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Even in 1983, error after error leapt out at me from the pages of Christine, yanking me out of the story. Christine was painted “Autumn Red” color, even though the 1958 Fury was only offered in Buckskin Beige. King himself had to explain (after the book was released!) that Christine was special-ordered in red. But he never explained the “Hydramatic transmission lever” (push buttons shift the 1958 Plymouth’s Torqueflite transmission), the “Rocket V8″ air cleaner (did Christine eat an Oldsmobile?), Arnie replacing the “rear door” on a car that had no rear doors, or the non-existent door lock button clamping down as Leigh Cabot eats her burger in the drive-in. The movie’s car builders had to install fake door lock buttons in a 1958 Plymouth to replicate this scene.
The final insult was when I noticed the rear cover’s picture of Stephen King, sitting on the hood of a 1957 (not a 1958) Plymouth. A world-famous author, who could have bought a 1958 Plymouth Fury just for research purposes, or at least borrowed one. What did it say about his “research” when even a teenage reader (before the modern Internet existed!) was laughing at all his mistakes? This is why I swore back in 1983 that if I ever wrote a book, the car details would be correct. My younger self would be proud to see I kept that promise.