Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Liability and Responsibility

While I don't consider my books to be subversive, dangerous, or inciteful, I have noticed that I've written about some things that perhaps should have remained unwritten about.

In WHISKEY SOUR, I explain how to put fish hooks and needles into Halloween candy.

In BLOODY MARY, I explain how to beat a lie detector.

In RUSTY NAIL, I explain how it's possible to break out of prison.

And now, in DIRTY MARTINI, I go into detail about how to poison food products and make explosives.

On one hand, I want the books to be realistic. I write about things that interest me, and I think that these bits of 'forbidden' information make the story more compelling.

On the other hand, I'd be mortified if some psycho used my books as a blueprint for their own sick crimes.

I justify my forays into criminal explanations by rationalizing that:
  1. The information is already available on the Internet, in books, in movies, etc.
  2. Sickos are going to commit crimes anyway, no matter what the inspiration.
  3. It's doubtful disturbed individuals are reading my books when there's a wealth of prurient material already out there to indulge in.

Ridley Pearson's wonderful book HARDFALL was about some terrorists who fly a plane into the White House, years before 9/11. Clancy had a similar concept in one of his books.

Did the terrorists use these books as blueprints? We may never know. But if they did, are the writers to blame?

There was a big lawsuit involving the HOW TO BE A HITMAN book from Paladin Press, when this was found among the items of an actual assassin. Paladin lost, and had to pay big bucks.

With DIRTY MARTINI, I'm considering putting a disclaimer at the back of the book, telling would-be sickos that if they tried some of the things mentioned, it wouldn't work out as I've described.

What do you think? In an age where you can get any type of information on the Internet, are there still some things that shouldn't be written about? Should writers self-censor?

46 comments:

J. Carson Black said...

When I was researching my book DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, which concerns the danger of nuclear waste trucks driving through major metropolitan areas in the west (one of them is hijacked by eco-terrorists), I found everything I needed on the internet. My main source? The DOE website.

Although these trucks carry low-level nuclear waste, they could pose an incredible threat should one of these cannisters be breached. It's one way to clear out a city.

I worried, a lot, that I was disseminating information about this, even though it was readily available all over the net. I was more worried that I came up with the idea at all; that I would be giving someone else ideas. But like you, I believe anyone with that kind of bent will have probably thought of this long before I did.

One thing I did was to make it much *harder* in fiction to get hold of one these trucks. I made up a border inspection station used specifically for these trucks at the Nevada/California border, even though there isn't one.

I'm pinning my hopes on the fact that Al Qaeda would never read a book by a girl.

Mary Stella said...

If we write something in our books and someone somewhere at some other time commits a similar act, we aren't liable or responsible. They are. The person who first invented a gun and showed another person how to use it isn't responsible for every murder since.

I didn't self-censor in my first book when I wrote about marine mammal research. I had to be careful not to use any current or planned research projects from the facility where I work, but that was a non-disclosure issue and entirely different. So, I made up a project instead.

Adam Hurtubise said...

"On the other hand, I'd be mortified if some psycho used my books as a blueprint for their own sick crimes."

You'd also be a number-one bestseller for a number of weeks.

I don't think you should self-censor. Why? Because, as you said, it's easy to find information out there.

Adam

M. G. Tarquini said...

In BLOODY MARY, I explain how to beat a lie detector.

Yeah, Joe, meant to thank you for that one...saved my ass.

Oh, um, er...well, everything you just mentioned IS available on the internet, and I could come up with some pretty simple and ingenious methods all my own for poisoning food products and putting needles in Halloween Candy.

*Joe notes: Don't accept dinner invitations at M.G.'s house.*

I think stuff that's REALLY ingenious like the flying planes into the White House, might be more problemmatical then what you've listed up there. I say that only because it really did shock us when it happened.

Remember in the movie Airport? Helen Hayes stowing away and she described her methods. That was amazing back then, laughable today. The first airline hijacking shocked people. Yet it took years to say, 'Hey! Maybe we shouldn't allow guns on board!'

It had never been done, so if somebody had written a novel six months before that first hijacking, people might say, 'That's where he got the idea.' But it would have to be pretty unique and extraordinary.

Self-censor? I'd purposely leave out the key ingredient if something was that unique. Or purposely change a crucial detail if it involved national security or something. It wouldn't mess up the enjoyment of the book any.

Otherwise? Figure it this way. If people were writing books about using airplanes as bombs, shame on everybody for not anticipating that a bad guy would come up with the same idea. Blame Flight Simulator, that's probably where everybody got the idea.

Mark Terry said...

It does make you wonder. I'm not as concerned about that with The Devil's Pitchfork, which deals with biological terrorism. There would be easier ways to do it than the terrorists do in that book.

On the other hand, the follow-up, The Serpent's Kiss, deals with sarin gas attacks, and if Aum Shinrikyo could do it, so could other people with an interest in this sort of thing. I didn't find the actual chemical recipes online for sarin, although I didn't look all that hard. It was a simple enough google search to find the basics and it wouldn't take much more than a trip to a university library to find a textbooks that spells it out, in most cases.

I wrote an unpublished book about cyanide gas poisoning, and my research was fairly extensive, and I was fairly stunned at how easy it was to buy cyanide. Just go to google and type in jewelry making or electroplating.

Still, the biggest killer on the planet is the AK-47. And as Michael Moore so astutely points out in "Bowling for Colombine," those idiots went bowling before they shot up the school, so perhaps bowling should be outlawed.

J. Carson Black said...

Speaking of AK-47s, and snipers, I'm still wondering why terrorists haven't picked up on how a whole city was terrified by a couple of malcontents - John Lee Malvo and the other one. And how simple was that?

I'm guessing most terrorists don't read for pleasure. They're too busy looking up stuff on the internet.

Sadly, in this brave new world, books--particularly fiction--are on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Marcus Sakey said...

Like every other (author) here, I don't think you should self-censor information that any twelve-year-old can find online.

Obviously, if you had truly classified material--say you'd once worked for the Secret Service--then sharing that info is beyond the pale.

On the flip side, Stephen King has said that the biggest regret of his whole career was publishing RAGE, in which a lonely, depressed teenager shoots up his classroom. Especially when several lonely, depressed teenagers who shot up their classrooms were found to own a copy of the book.

Is King to blame? Hell no. But man, it must have been hard to go to sleep that night.

Which I guess is the real risk. The man who invented gunpowder isn't responsible for the murders committed with it. But it might take some serious inner strength to believe that in the face of a grieving mother.

Millenia Black said...

Marcus makes good points.

I'm not 100% certain, but there may be case law about this. Remember the civil suit against the heavy metal band Judas Priest? They were found not liable. Everything seemed to hinge on intent. I'm sure there are many other such cases on the books.

Terrence said...

I agree that writers should not be expected to censor or even have to put in a disclaimer. If the sickos out there repeat something in your book, its their fault not yours. If your book was not there they would like to the same thing or find something else to do. Normal sane people do not read things like this and then go out and do it. Society likes to blame other people when bad things happen, when in most case they are to blame. We need to start learning to take responsibility for our actions; MacDonald’s is not to blame that you burned yourself on the Coffee. We all know Coffee is hot, if you spill it you know it’s going to hurt don’t blame someone else.

Terry

JLB said...

In your post about "How far is too far," I was considering the same thing... I often consider what might happen if a reader were to emulate something I write about...

I'm not sure whether or not it's important for a writer to self-censor, although I must admit that I often have. Perhaps I should just be a bit bolder, and assume that, as you say, folks are going to do what they're going to do anyways.

William G. said...

Well said, Marcus.

Though I have to admit, after the tongue-lashing I've received about my last WIP, the thought has crossed my mind many, many times. What if it gets published and somebody out there thinks its a good idea? Then I realize it's not in any danger of getting published unless I get off my butt and send those query letters out.

SAND STORM said...

AK 47's are not the biggest killer on the planet, Birthdays are! You have enough of those suckers and you're toast!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

There's a big difference between BLOODY MARY and HOW TO BE A HITMAN. But I would defend the right to publish the latter as well, although I would question the writer and publisher's motives.

If someone takes something they read, however, and uses it in a violent way, the burden of responsibility is on THEM, not the writer.

The writer did not commit the act, nor did he force the reader to do so. He is not an accomplice, an conspirator, an instigator.

To say he is, is an attempt to shift that burden of responsibility to another person -- and that just doesn't wash.

If you pick up a stone and use it to kill someone, you wouldn't blame Nature for making that stone.

J. Carson Black said...

Unless, of course, you could sue the stone.

Justin R. Buchbinder said...

JA.

No, writers should NOT self-sensor themselves.

Thanks to the age of the Internets we can learn whatever we damn well please. And some psycho is going to put hooks in candy regardless of if you tell him how to melt extra chocolate onto the entry points.

However, I'm ALL FOR the warning. Why? It gets the law off your ass. You WARNED against it. I mean THIS IS FICTION. But that's all you need in court SHOULD someone try and take you down.

Or, even better (something I do)... change one small thing so it wouldn't work. That way it's fictional and undoable.

In a perfect world, we'd stop blaming Marilyn Manson and JA Konrath and figure out what the real damned reasons are.

HawkOwl said...

I think the way the US works, it's only a matter of time before a criminal tries out what's in your book and sues you because it didn't work. But I wouldn't be too concerned about somebody trying out what you're describing. Those are all pretty basic criminal pursuits... Making explosives? Pfff. I'm not even a criminal and I know how to make explosives. I doubt somebody's gonna read your books and find these ideas fresh and novel. (I'm not saying your writing isn't fresh and novel, just that these things are fairly passé as far as crime goes.)

HawkOwl said...

I'll add, after reading the other comments, that a lot of people seem to be confusing criminal and civil responsibility. It's doubtful a writer would face criminal charges for writing about crime. The civil standard, however, is different, and if I recall my commercial law course, the question in tort is "could a reasonable person have predicted that X action would result in someobody being hurt?" In your case, the probability is pretty remote.

Frank said...

Being in law enforcement and a writer, I straddle a little bit of a fence here. Just because information is available doesn't mean we have to make it MORE available.

That said, I don't think censorship is the answer, either, It's understandable that a writer wishes to be down to the tacks accurate about something for the sake of authenticity. You can't have the secret ingredient in a nuclear bomb be Crisco and expect to be taken seriously.

I think, personally, that we do have the luxury of being fiction writers in that we can fictionalize just enough to spoil the recipe if someone tries to replicate it while still maintaining what seems to be perfect authenticity to all but a very, very few OCD readers.

Example? Authors play with geography all the time, moving a street or putting a house on an empty lot. It the reader were to go there, expecting to find a bank (or, since Stephen King was brought up, the author's own house, as in the DT series), they'd find an empty lot. What are they going to do, sue?

How about a closer analogy? In THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, which is probably Clancy's best book for pucker factor, he is very detailed about the rescuing of an nuclear device and the work that the technician did on it to make it live. The detail was painstaking, as is usually the case in Clancy's work, but in an afterword, he makes it clear that he fudged more than enough details to foil any would-be bombers out there...not that there is a plethora of nukes lying around, but a reasonable precaution nonetheless. And probably only a few nuclear physicists knew the difference.

Now in Mr. Konrath's books (only read Whiskey Sour so far--but Bloody Mary got the a thumbs up from the wife and is on my short to-read list), I don't know that there needed to be much of this self-editing, if any. The fish hooks in the candy description is well-depicted, but no real trade secrets are revealed. How to beat a lie detector? Scores, if not hundreds of sites out there with suggestions on this matter (a good operator, by the way, will recognize these attempts and simply stop the test). Bombs? Welll...I think a little fudging here might be a good idea. Poisoning? I can't say--I'll hafta read that one.

In closing, I guess there are really three criteria to consider: Is the information already readily available out there? What are the stakes (lie detector counter measures versus a nuke)? What impact on the book itself will there be if I alter some of these facts?

Ultimately, each author has to make his/her own decision on these matters.

Anonymous said...

Joe--

Don't put out a disclaimer. The way lawyers think these days, if they see a disclaimer on your book, that means, to them, that you're worried about being sued. Which means that you must have written something very, very bad in your book.

You're inviting a lawsuit by putting in a disclaimer.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Well, I gotta admit that the candy thing freaked me out just a bit. OTOH, it also made me realize that just because something's sealed doesn't mean it's impossible for it to have been tampered with. I didn't think while reading it, "Oh my God, he's telling sickos how to do this!" On the contrary.

I doubt people are reading fiction to figure out how to do bad things. That doesn't mean that it can't happen. Marcus's example of SK and RAGE. I remember reading that King said he'd like to take that book back if he could. I guess it comes down to your own personal sense of responsibility. What are you comfortable with? Doesn't mean you are to blame, but if you feel like you would accept and internalize the guilt, then maybe that's a signal.

pam said...

This is something that I've often wondered about. I would never condemn another writer for putting information out there that is readily available, but I'm not comfortable doing it myself, because people are easily influenced, and bad people do read, and the ones who do are the ones you need to worry about. The film Natural Born Killers comes to mind. There were several copy cat killings by teens who admitted being influenced by that film.

Robin Cook had a book, I think it may have been called Vector, that dealt with terrorism and anthrax. Shortly after 9-11, it was reported that copies of his book were actually found in police headquarters as reference material.

I think the fine line is how specific you get, and how unique the information is. For instance, I live in the Boston area, and an ideal way for a terrorist to cause major damage would be to simply shoot a handheld missile at one of the large gas tankers that come into Boston Harbor. I'd probably hesitate to use that.

I asked a writer who focuses on scientific thrillers what he thought and he said the way he handled it in his book was to be very specific about a bio-threat that had an antidote...so the cure was also made known.

It's an interesting issue to consider.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Well, I agree with anonymous about not putting a disclaimer in. Did you know if you put up a "Beware of the Dog" sign, you can get sued if the dog bites someone, because you know the dog will bite and don't have it under control!

I think it's a personal writer thing. It depends on how you'd feel if your writing was ever connected to a crime!

Jeri said...

On the other hand, the disclaimer might intrigue more people to buy the book. Like putting those "WARNING: ADULT LANGUAGE" stickers on CD's.

Alex said...

Psycho fruitloops will find a way regardless if you write about it or not. I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. If your editor thought it was too much, they'd speak up.

chidder said...

If Paul Schrader had never written Taxi Driver, would it have prevented John Hinckley from attempting to assassinate President Reagan? Probably not; he would've just found another reason to justify his lunatic act. And then we wouldn't have Taxi Driver.

Anonymous said...

The written word is a very powerful tool, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Try imagining your own kid gobbling a halloween candy stuffed with a fish hook or a needle. Surely you'll have to feel a certain bit of remorse yourself no matter where the culprit got the idea.

It's not 100% accessible without your 1% contribution.

Cheers!
HAI!

E. Ann Bardawill said...

Cross that bridge when you come to it, dear.

If some sicko uses your books as a blueprint for some caper, get a lawyer and sue the little bastard for plagiarizing your ideas.

;-)

Bernita said...

Most ding bats, as well as terrorists, are way ahead of you in evil designs, Joe.
And many methods and devices have been discussed in many books before yours.
People tend to forget this stuff is not new, and then gasp "Oh, how COULD he put that out there for all the nutcases to read! How irresponsible, etc.,etc."
In fact I learned a lot of neat tricks just reading about the Hungarian Revolution in a Reader's Digest and "Is Paris Burning?"
Why anyone should blame fiction when non-fiction accounts proliferate astonishes me.
Just doing a simple search on semtex, for example, gives me interesting recipes I wouldn't want to try at home.
The ignorant might blame you, but no one with any sense.

kathie said...

What's out there is out there. You putting it into a book isn't going to be that helpful to your average psycho...he'll do just fine if left to his own devices.

What you say about being realistic reminds me of the suit against the D.Code. Some non-fiction writers are saying Browne stole their work because he used some facts in his work...similar to what crime writers do, I imagine anyway, to make things realistic. People need to chill out. If I'm wrong and he lifted sentences etc., that's one thing, but ideas are up for grabs...procedures for crime stuff is up for grabs...isn't it? Thank Goodness for me I only read that stuff.

Bestselling Author, Pontif. said...

I don't think anyone should censor their imagination, this is why we call it fiction. If some looney tune actually goes out and makes it a reality after reading your book, that's not your fault.

I agree with the point that it would be very hard to sleep at night though. Stephen King should know.

Carol Davis Luce said...

In my second novel, a bad guy throws acid into the face of a beauty queen, blinding her in one eye and disfiguring her for life. After the novel was released, my editor called me to tell me about an incident in NY that day where a stranger threw acid into the face of a women in a highrise elevator. Of course it gave me pause, but I didn't blame myself or even consider he might have read my novel and used it as a blueprint. Thank god that was the only acid-in-the-face incident. It was, however, somewhat troubling at the time. So, JA, I know where you're coming from with the question.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

I think this is a valid concern for anyone writing crime fiction. It's also something each writer needs to think through and decide for him/herself. And I believe in now and then examining my reasons for both reading and writing mysteries.

Personally, I don't like disclaimers of any kind. Either something is good to go as is, and people use it intelligently, or it's not, or they don't.

Disclaimers can go on and on, and not be complete enough for the stupid or insane reader. I mean, what if a meal consumed in the novel isn't nutritionally sound? Do you include a disclaimer about that? About smoking? Drinking? Sex? Using a gun? The complete disclaimer could wind up longer than the novel. The simplest and most logical to me is that bit at the beginning of a work of fiction, stating that it's fiction.

As long as you write with your own conscience and values firmly in place, I think that's what counts.

But I've also wondered how long it will be before books have ratings like movies do. I'm not sure whether I think it would be a good thing or not.

Jude Hardin said...

As writers we often play the game "what if." What if someone implanted fish hooks into candy bars? What if someone somehow devised a signal that would take everyone using a cell phone back into a primordial state of mind? What if a small, semi-organized group of terrorists managed to get pilot's licenses and...

Yeah. What if. If we pay attention to the what ifs, maybe we can prevent them from happening in real time. That should be the power of our fiction: to present the real possibilities so that said possibilities might be thwarted. For every bad guy that gets an idea from our stories, at least two good guys should think of ways to stop them. I don't think we should censor ourselves. Think of the worst what ifs imaginable. If you write about them, maybe they will never happen.

Marty said...

Don't sweat it, Joe. If this were true, there'd be no cop shows on television and the evening news would be nothing but the weather and highlights from the Bratwurst & Cinnamon cookoff. I think it shows great character that you're concerned about it. It also shows that like all great writers, you consider your readers in everything you do. Kudos. Now get back to work. :)

Anonymous said...

I've read interviews with Chuck Palahniuk where he mentions having to change minor details in his books (like using frozen orange juice instead of petroleum jelly when making napalm) because his reader actually WOULD try the things he mentions.

I seriously doubt you're reaching those kinds of readers, so I wouldn't worry about it.

Bernita said...

Jude makes an excellent, excellent point - the trump point to my mind.

E.C. Morgan said...

Plus, I doubt Joe is the first person who thought about putting needles and fish hooks in candy.

Although, I must say, when Herb is eating the candy, that was one of the most toe-curling and disturbing passages of fiction I've read in a long time. I loved it.

Bernita said...

Doesn't everyone know how to beat a lie detector?

kathie said...

How DO you beat a lie detector?

JA Konrath said...

How DO you beat a lie detector?

It has nothing to do with staying calm and trying to control your vital signs.

Here's a hint: Read Bloody Mary. :)

Rusty Nail is even more revealing, because it shows you how to escape from a maximum security prison.

What concerns me with Dirty Martini is the new ways I've come up with to poison food products---never saw it done before, but it would work and there is no way to stop it or identify it.

Jude Hardin said...

Even with today's tamper- resistant packaging, it would be fairly easy to poison products on a small scale (similar to the Tylenol poisonings that started it all). The problem is doing it on a grander scale, something that would affect millions of lives.

In my mystery IN THE DAY OF SLAUGHTER, the villain has the means to easily poison most of the country, and bring down a few multibillion-dollar industries in the process. If it's published, I hope it opens some eyes to this frightening and very real possibility.

It could be stopped, but it's going to cost everybody some money. How much are we willing to spend to protect ourselves?

markdterry said...

"Although, I must say, when Herb is eating the candy, that was one of the most toe-curling and disturbing passages of fiction I've read in a long time. I loved it."

Interesting. I thought it was very, very effective. At the same time, it almost (almost) lost me as a reader. And I'm sure it did lose some future readers--and probably gained a few, too.

Anonymous said...

Someone correctly noted that Tom Clancy fudged some of the details of his nuclear bomb, and so stated in the afterword to The Sum of All Fears. However, he also noted that he did so to assuage his own conscience, not out of any belief that his fudging would stop a determined party from finding out the correct way to build a bomb.

The fact of the matter is that, all else being equal, you can count on the lowest elements of humanity to have the tenacity to figure out how to hurt their fellow human beings in an endless variety of creative ways. This is so whether or not they're J.A. Konrath/Tom Clancy/Ridley Pearson/etc. fans. (Dana Stabenow's most recent book comes to mind here, too.)

I'm all for being able to sleep at night, and if changing reality around a bit helps you to do that, go for it. A warning might or might not help you in court, but that's a question for your publisher's legal counsel to figure out. But I don't think writers are responsible for those who decide to act on the things we write about.

After all, if we thought of the idea, maybe they did first.

Julia said...

Joe,

Don't worry about someone getting ideas. If someone is a sicko-freak, they will get murderous ideas from everywhere.

Have you ever read "Alone with the Devil" by Ronald Markman? He's forensic psychiatrist. What was interesting was the story of the man who got the "secret instructions" from the movie Mary Poppins, and proceded to kill his family.

You can't control people, and some are sickos.

Mark Herrington said...

As writers, we all have the duty to entertain. When a reader turns our entertainment into their reality, they have removed the burden of liability.

Peter Gongloff said...

Is there anything in your book that discuss the liability for criticizing another book? Can I be sued for misrepresenting someone else's work although it might not be my intention?

If this is not available in your book can you recommend one that might help or I would appreciate any advice or comments you might have on this matter.