Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Minor Yet Perplexing Problem

Remember the Tommy Tutone song Jenny? It's the one with the refrain, "Eight six seven, five three oh nigh-ee-ai-yine..." Naturally, many listeners decided to call that number, driving quite a few unfortunates insane in every area code.

Hence the convention with which all American movie audiences are all familiar: In movieland, all phone numbers start with a 555 prefix. That's never a working prefix except for connecting to certain phone-company phones (555-1212 is information in many area codes).

The Jenny problem makes many writers (and their publishers) leery about citing phone numbers in books. Some degree of caution also applies to addresses; some cite them quite cavalierly, while others take some pains to ensure that any specific address cited is nonexistent. (A lot of novels set in Manhattan are fond of giving street addresses that run beyond the end of the street, thereby situating the house or apartment somewhere in the river.)

We're pretty casual about made-up names in the US, which is a good thing, as no matter how improbable the name, someone out there probably wears it already. (One of my characters was named Boyce Hammond, which seems like a reasonably unusual name to me, but checking the web I find that there's at least a few out there.)

My current problem is one I haven't seen before. I've got a scene set in a columbarium (which sounds like a fancy name for dovecote, but is actually a series of vaults with niches for holding funeral urns). And my faithful protagonist is, for reasons irrelevant to our discussion here, seeking out a few particular niches--which need to be identified by their, erm, addresses.

The columbarium I'm using in the story is a real place. Any 'addresses' I might use will either be 1) already occupied, 2) empty and unassigned, 3) empty but already purchased by someone, or 4) nonexistent.

Damned if I can make up my mind the best tactic to take. If the address is 1), I may bother someone by asserting that someone else is stored in Grandma's niche. If the address is 4), anybody informed or curious enough to check will complain that there is no such place. And, if unoccupied, there's no way for me to tell whether the niche is 2) or 3). (And, presumably, all 2)s will someday become 3)s... )

It's a silly thing to worry about, I suppose. But it's a useful way of avoiding finishing the chapter.


RDJ said...

That's an interesting problem. I would probably make up an "address," but can't say why.

When writing stories in LA, I'm always tempted to just use my cell phone number -- I've had it for over a decade -- but have never done it.

Frances Garrood said...

I woudldn't worry, David. Even if your WIP becomes a block-busting best-seller (and I hope very much that it does) I reckon the odds are against the owners of the particular niches you choose (a) reading the book and if they do, (b) complaining. They might even be rather pleased.

Phone numbers are different. They are always tempting (although I've never succumbed. Yet).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Ryan--

As you say, I think I'll probably just make up addresses without worrying whether they are real, feasible, or whatever.

I think you should go ahead and use your phone number. It would be an interesting experiment...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

You're right, of course. But it's my nature that if I can noodle around about something, then I must noodle around about it.

Be sure to call Ryan's cell phone when he publishes the number.

Anonymous said...

It's sad that we've become "too smart" by trying to figure out if an address or a telephone number is real. Whatever happened to the concept of reading a book of fiction (i.e. a not-real story) and accepting it as just that?
I, for one, do not try to determine the veracity of a location or whether or not a diner in which the characters are eating is a real location.
On the other hand, I do use real restaurants, bars, or buildings of note. I feel it lends itself to a sense of realism, at least for me as the writer.
Final note: My novella "Quick" has as the main character a petty thief caught up in a robbery/homicide who leaves in a huff from kansas City and winds up in Wichita. His name is Jamie Quick. Like your own situation, David, I talked with a former co-worker. Who said he knew someone named Jamie Quick. Rate here in Wichita.
Waddya know?

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tikiman--

I use real locations liberally...but have some qualms when it comes to personal residences.

And I might have some qualms about larger institutions if I were asserting something obnoxious about them. For example, if I decided that Harborview Hospital, on the hill in Seattle, were trafficking in body parts, I'd probably call it something else. (But, of course, use a description that would make it obvious to Seattlites what I was talking about. That's one of the few joys of being a writer--sometimes we can have our cake and eat it too.)

But there is that subculture of readers who get obsessed with detail ("H&K never made a magazine with over 8 rounds back then," etc, etc.) Perhaps such people are best ignored. But I'm weird enough to think about them, at least in passing.

Jen said...

You remind me of the death of my mother-in-law almost ten years ago now. For the six or so months that we got phone calls for her after she died, I gave out her new address: "CBH 4-68 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92166, (619) 553-2084." I'll bet the guys at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery just loved me.

That aside, I use real addresses all the time. 1515 Young Street, Dallas, Texas is a particular favorite (the Dallas Public Library). I can't recall using a real phone number, but I can definitely see using the number of my ex-law firm, just to see what happens.

On my first book I managed to avoid the whole argument by using a made-up town. No. 6 Calle Alirio Conejo, San Sebastian, Centroamerica sounds pretty real until somebody tells you there really isn't a San Sebastian in Central America. And by the way, it's a little amazing how many people don't know that.