Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions

A response to a blog comment, and more.

I need to say that I really can’t thank blog commenters enough for taking the time to write. Not only do they often add useful information beyond what I know — thus adding incredible value to this blog — but they sometimes post questions or comments that get my mind going and give me fodder for new blog posts.

I received such a comment this morning and it prompted me to write a new article for my Writing Tips series.

The Importance of Accurate Descriptions

I touched upon the topic of accurate descriptions in fiction in a post I wrote last month: “Facts in Fiction.” In it, I explained why I thought it was important to get the facts about the “real” parts in fiction correct. I talked about the depth of a fictional world and how it would determine what facts and descriptions needed to be accurate.

My goal in that piece was to urge fiction writers to get the facts straight. Errors, when noticed by readers, can seriously detract from the work. For example, I believe I cited the example of a bestselling author who claimed that when a helicopter was low on fuel, it would be safer to fly lower than higher. This is downright wrong, no matter how you look at it. The author’s reasoning proved he knew nothing about the thought he was putting in a character’s head — a character that should have known better. This absolutely ruined the book for me, making me wonder what else he’d gotten wrong.

You can argue that fiction is fiction and that the writer can make up facts as he goes along. I disagree. My “Facts in Fiction” post explains why, so I won’t repeat it here.

Today’s Question

Today’s question comes from a comment on my recent blog post, “Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters,” in which I painstakingly (and perhaps nitpickingly) point out a bunch of errors in Brown’s latest literary masterpiece (and yes, that is sarcasm), The Lost Symbol. The errors revolve around the inclusion of a helicopter as a repeating plot component throughout the book. Brown used his descriptive skills to make several claims about helicopters that simply were too far fetched to be believable. (But then again, isn’t that what Dan Brown’s work is all about?) I detailed them for blog readers.

One reader found the post useful. She wrote:

I just wanted to let you know I found this blog immensely helpful as I am writing a chapter in my book that involves a helicopter ride. I must say that I am striving to find new ways to describe the sound a helicopter makes. It’s rather unmistakable when you actually hear it, but to describe it to a reader is much more difficult. I recently wrote… “the deafening drill of the helicopter’s rotors made conversation impossible…” and one of my proof readers balked at the use of the word “drill.” I’d love to hear your comment on that one!

I started to respond in a comment, but the length of the comment soon bloomed into blog post length. So here’s the response.

First, I definitely agree about the word “drill.” Now here are some points to consider:

  • Have you actually heard a helicopter close up? Or at the distances you’re trying to write about? First piece of advice is to go someplace where you’re likely to hear helicopters and listen to them. Then describe what you hear.
  • Does the word “deafening” really apply? I think Dan Brown used that one, too. Deafening is a strong word. Unless the listeners were standing/sitting right outside the helicopter or inside with a door open/off, I don’t think deafening would be accurate. Helicopters are not as loud as people think — unless you’re right up next to them.
  • Lots of folks think it’s the rotors making all that noise. Close up, it’s the engine you mostly hear. Piston engine helicopters sound like airplanes; turbine engine helicopters sound like jet planes. Are you trying to describe the sound of the helicopter’s engine or spinning blades?
  • The tail rotor on many helicopters actually makes more noise than the main rotors. Why? The tail rotor blade tips are sometimes traveling near the speed of sound. Maybe it’s the sound of the tail rotor you want to describe.
  • How fast are the blades spinning? Is the helicopter just winding up? Is it at idle RPM (usually around 70%)? Is it fully spun up to 100% but still sitting on the ground? Preparing to lift off? In flight? There are differences — significant or subtle — in the sound depending on the blade speed and what the helicopter is actually doing.
  • How many blades does the helicopter have? You’re more likely to hear a rhythmic “wop-wop” sound coming out of a large helicopter with a two-bladed system — like an old Huey — than a smaller helicopter with four or five blades — like a Hughes 500C or D.

As you can see, it’s not as easy as asking someone if you can use the phrase “deafening drill” to describe a helicopter’s sound. There are too many variables. And at least three components are making that noise: engine, main rotor, and tail rotor. You need to hear the sound to describe it.

Do Your Homework

As I writer, I’m more bothered by the introduction of stereotypical descriptions — even if they’re not actually cliches — than inaccurate descriptions. Yes, it’s easy to ask a pilot whether a description you’ve written about flying rings true. But it’s lazy (for lack of a better word) to use a stereotype or cliche to describe a sound when you have the ability to hear it for yourself. And its irresponsible, as a writer, to expect a pilot or proofreader to come up with a better descriptive word for you. That’s your job.

If you want to write about the sound of a helicopter, for example, get your butt down to an airport or police helicopter base or medevac base. If you’re writing about a helicopter ride, as this commenter is, go for a helicopter ride.

Talk to the folks at the helicopter base about flying. Be straight with them — tell them you’re a writer and are doing research. (That is what you’re doing, isn’t it?) Let them read a passage or two from your manuscript if you think they can check it for authenticity. Then wait around until a helicopter operates in the area and listen. Get the permission (and possibly an escort) to stand or sit where you need to be to hear the sound as you need to hear it. Record it if you think it’ll help. Make sure you get the right sound for the right phase of flight. After experiencing this, you should be able to accurately describe it.

Do not rely on what you see/hear on television or in the movies. Many sounds are usually added after the fact. I’ve seen clips where the sound of an aircraft didn’t match the type of aircraft being shown. Movies also show helicopters departing almost straight up or landing almost straight down — a pilot will only do this if he must. (Read “The Deadman’s Curve” to learn why.)

Authenticity is Worth the Effort

There’s an added benefit to doing your homework: authenticity now and in the future.

For example, a visit to a helicopter base or ride in a helicopter will give you all kinds of additional details about the helicopter or flight operation. Do people really need to duck when getting out of/into a running helicopter? How is downwash different between an idling helicopter and a helicopter that’s just lifting off or arriving? How strong is the downwash from a hovering helicopter? What does it feel like? How does it smell? What does a turbine helicopter’s engine sound like when first starting up? (Think of your gas barbeque grill and you won’t be far off.) What are the pavement markings like on the helipad or helispot? What’s the pilot wearing? What’s he holding?

These little details will not only add authenticity to what you’re writing now, but they’ll give you plenty of useful material for the next time you need to write about helicopters.

It’s Not Just Helicopters

I’ve used the example of helicopters throughout this post because that’s one of the things I know from experience — and that’s what the question that prompted this post was all about.

But the advice in this post applies to anything that’s outside your realm of knowledge.

You know the age-old advice about writing: Write what you know. Well, you know what you experience. The more research you do — the more things you experience firsthand — the more you know. And the more you can write about accurately and authentically when you need to.

9 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions

  1. A footnote here…

    Later, the same day I wrote this, I happened to fly a charter to the Grand Canyon. On the way back, I pulled one of the headset ear cups away from my ear to listen to the sound of the helicopter at full cruise speed (110 knots). It was not by any means “deafening” from my seat. Conversation would have been possible with some shouting.

    • Chris: Thanks for this link. I could tell that the “author” was trying to take the lazy way out. It bugged me that he used the word “‘copter” (with the preceding single quote) to make his request. Guess he thinks that makes him sound cool. I think it makes him sound like a moron.

      But maybe I’m just in a foul mood today.

    • Chris: Also, I can’t believe you can bear to wade through the garbage in the Just Helicopters forum. Seriously: does every thread turn into a flame war? I wish there were a GOOD helicopter pilot forum out there.

  2. A lot of good points. I agree; write what you know. If you can’t do a convincing job with your writing, you need to either rewrite things a bit or get the experience you need to do the scene well.

    I watched a helicopter take off several times during a local festival a few months ago. From where I was standing, maybe 100-150 feet away, it wasn’t that loud. It was mostly just windy. lol. It’s probably different inside the helicopter, though.

    I’m glad I stumbled across this site; I could spend hours here browsing around. I’ll be stopping back when I have a bit more time. :)

  3. I found your blog while searching for sounds of airplanes. You give good advice, especially about accurate descriptions and your criticism of “deafening sounds.” I’m trying to describe the sounds of an airport, of commercial jets taking off, taxiing, landing. I’ve heard them and I’m not deaf yet, though I suppose with time…

  4. Dan Brown lacks integrity in his writing. I don’t know if anyone was able to read “The Davinci Code” but anyone with knowledge of history knows that those were not liberties that a writer takes, those were lies that brings reproach to all the writers who write with integrity. There are mistakes we make and there are “concoctions” some writers will stirr to make money. Jesus is historical figure. How decent would be of me to concoct a story, say about Madre Teresa of Calcutta to say he was a serial killer? To be honest, I don’t read anything that man puts out. There are liberties a writer can take but there are liberties no writer should ever take. So Mr. Brown thought that if he can get away with the story he wrote about Jesus, he can get away with anything. True of the matter is: he can’t. While many people may not know the historicity of Jesus, many people know how an helicopter works and can point out his mistakes. I can only say: “good job”, and may this be a lesson to all of us to do our homework!

What do you think?