Kay: New Dogs, Old Tricks

Can you read the caption? “Andrina Wood at the console of a BTM computer. Tabacus: The Magazine of the British Tabulating Company, August 1958.” The photo was republished on the Twitter account of Mar Hicks, a professor and historian of technology. Many of the vintage photos I’ve seen show women at computer consoles working with a legal pad or paper notebook.

I’ve started a new book. For lack of any better ideas, I went back to a project I last worked on in about 2006—the adventures of my genius computer hacker and the FBI agent who arrested her.

I wrote two books of these characters before I switched to lighter storylines—there’s just something about your hero sending your heroine to prison that tends to get dark pretty fast. And it’s hard to write genius, too, if you’re not genius yourself. Using Sheldon Cooper as a role model, especially for a female character, has its limitations.

The reception I got for these books after I’d finished them was lukewarm. The first book is about stealing an election, a topic that every agent and editor I talked to said would be stale in months. And we all know how that turned out.

The second book is about internet child porn, which turned out to be too gruesome for some. It’s gruesome, all right. For both of these books, I cried all the way through, so at least I think I got emotion on the page.

I’m rereading these books now, refamiliarizing myself with all the characters as I feel my way through the opening of the current book. I’m surprised  at how good the stories are. All that weeping I did—I wasn’t wrong there.

I decided to go back to these characters now, partly because there are so many interesting computer crimes out there these days and partly because there’s a particular crime I want to explore. Unlike the first two plots, this crime is ripped from the headlines—of seven years ago.

The editors and agents who said computer stories get stale before they hit the shelves aren’t wrong. We all know from real life how quickly our devices and operating systems become obsolete, and if your characters are using specific phone models or computer operating systems—and if that information is important to the book—you’re in trouble, unless you’re writing a historical. As I researched this case, I worried that the techniques and systems the criminal used to create his empire—and the techniques the FBI used to crack it—would be outdated. What would I do then? The case is too interesting to give up.

However, computer systems don’t turn over that fast. Even if all the hardware is replaced regularly, software might not be updated that quickly. And even if all the software is updated every couple of months, its basic architecture might not change radically. I held out hope.

I’ve discovered that some of the techniques used to commit (and solve) this crime seven years ago are, in fact, outdated, but some of the technology is still in play today. That’s a relief, because even though I don’t particularly want this crime to be recognizable to those who follow such things, and I want to take liberties with how it evolved, having the plot and outcome worked out for you in advance by real-life people is handy. Thank you, crooks and law enforcement!

Moreover, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds with computer geekhood. For one thing, I know next to nothing about computer programming. For another, that’s not where the story juice is, unless you’re Sheldon Cooper. I just want to have the story and the applicable techniques be plausible enough that the book isn’t laughable to the reasonably knowledgeable among us.

So I’m barely underway, trying to figure out my antagonist. You’d think it would be the evil computer hacker, but maybe not. However, that’s a post for another day.

How about you? Have you ever had to worry about dating yourself in your books?

8 thoughts on “Kay: New Dogs, Old Tricks

  1. It’s amazing how long some organizations hang on to their hardware, and especially their software. There’s a big fuss in the UK at the moment about the fact that the National Health Service remains the world’s biggest buyer of fax machines despite the risks to patient confidentiality and cyber security, because they don’t have the wherewithal to update their technology.

    Story-wise, I completely agree with you about not delving too deep into the weeds of computer geekdom. I’d like the story to be technically plausible, but I’m not really curious about the fine details. I want to know all about the people, what they do, what they feel, and what happens next.

    For myself I’m enjoying writing fantasy, because I’m in control of my own time period and nobody can pick me up for factual errors. I’ve gone for a world that’s vaguely 15th-16th century British, but I have to confess to playing fast and loose with etymology and all kinds of other details when it suits my purposes to do so 😉

    • Being able to choose everything about your world is a wonderful sandbox to play in. One of the reasons I liked writing fiction so much when I started was that I could leave behind the strict requirements of editing articles about computer programming. You start with a sunny sky. You need it to rain? Poof, it’s raining. I love that.

      I’ve just written a neat bit where my heroine is giving the FBI the metaphorical finger. That’s always fun, too. 🙂

  2. Computer stories have two ways to cut an author — one, as you mentioned, is that tech becomes obsolete so quickly. But the other thing is that people don’t learn about tech very fast in a lot of cases. Cutting edge tech can be ahead of its time. For example, I just taught a lady about Print Screen yesterday. (And I only learned it about seven or eight years ago, myself.)

    If you can figure out some way to write in the interstices, where readers feel smart for knowing something even exists, and computer geeks can’t very well point out that it’s not a problem anymore, you’ll be golden, for sure!

    What about that “stealing elections” one? Can it make the rounds again? So topical. They’ll probably tell you it’s “too late”, the sneaky jerks.

    I don’t think I could take the child porn one. I’m almost in tears just thinking about reading it. But there is an audience for that sort of thing. Someone gave me a bunch of books by a special needs teacher who had to deal with kids who had suffered terrible abuse. I think I read two. They were well-written, and there was generally an optimistic ending. But I just couldn’t get through the middles very well.

    • The child porn one was interesting. I wanted a crime that was expedited by computers, and that seemed like a good topic. Child porn is such a terrible crime, and I did so much research, it felt like I was able to show an interesting aspect: how a lot of legitimate businesses can get caught up in illegal activities. Like credit cards—if the credit card company shuts down a porn site’s access to their payment system, then you can’t use a credit card to pay for your online porn, and the site goes out of business.Being known as the conduit for crime is not something credit card companies want, so they go after these guys, too.

      And then I gave the kids agency, and thought I hadn’t gone overboard with descriptions of what adults are willing to force children to do. Both my critique partners, one of whom has children, thought I was on solid ground. But several of my Amazon reviewers were freaked. But…that topic isn’t going to be for everyone, no matter how the author handles it. That works for me. I’m glad I led with election fraud, though.

      • It does sound fascinating when you put it that way. It’s quite interesting when we read difficult books about difficult topics . . . I tend to shy away from spending even five or six hours in the universe. But the AUTHOR! The author has to spend months or even years there. I can tell the redemption factor would be strong with this one, and feel very good when you pulled off a happy ending.

  3. Back in the early 2000’s, I wrote a suspense thriller where the heroine amazed the hero by tapping into a then-unknown technology–hotspot wifi. It’s lucky that ms. had so many plot and character problems, because it wouldn’t have aged well.

    As long as you keep the tech details vague and in the background, you should be fine.

      • One of my husband’s favorite snippets is from an interview with the creators of Star Trek. They were asked about the technology–beaming the crew from here to there, zapping baddies with phasers–how did it work? Apparently the answer came back “Very well, thank you.” 🙂

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