Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Get Real

Yes, I write fiction, but that doesn’t mean my detectives can shoot laser beams out of their fingertips.

This debate comes up from time to time, about how realistic fiction needs to be. And it’s annoys me, because I think there are those that give newbies bad advice on the subject.

I’ve had conversations with people who’ve referenced using television programs as their research. I’m not talking about American Justice or The First 48 here. I’m talking Law & Order and CSI and NYPD Blue - the typical crime-solving shows that are on TV.

Now, I too thought that it was a solid base to work from when I started. I didn’t worry that much about procedure when I was first writing. And you know what happened when I had the manuscript edited by a published mystery author? First thing they said was that there was no issue with my writing, it was that I didn’t know what I was writing about. She proceeded to nail me to the wall on mistake after mistake.

Since then, I started researching properly, and I also started listening to authors. Authors who said they’d get letters for referencing a coin in the spring of 1547 that didn’t exist until the summer. No, I’m not kidding. Check out that interview with Simon Kernick that I did last Spinetingler and see what tiny detail he got caught on by a reader.

This is the reality. Crime fiction authors will get complaints from people when they fail to be accurate. And here’s another reality. I’ve seen fans say they won’t read books by an author anymore because the research is lazy.

Now, personally, I don’t think it can be 100% realistic. Look at my post from yesterday. There is a dividing line.

What I actually think it boils down to is believability.

The problem for new crime fiction authors is that if you base your research on television, it might come off believable for that audience…

But the TV audience isn’t the same as the reading audience. And therein lies the trick. If you really want to know what the expectations are for authors you need to pay attention to what the readers say.

Now, some readers don’t care. This is true. After all, some readers read cozies, some amateur sleuth… An enormous range of books fall within the mystery genre. You have to ask yourself what you write, and then pay attention.

I’m on a few listserves. DorothyL. 4MA. Rara-Avis (although I’ve never introduced myself there – still lurking in the shadows). I’ve read Val McDermid’s forum for a few years.

And I’ve seen readers criticize Val… With one book they criticized her because she had official records stored in the wrong place. Now, the thing was, the records used to be stored in the location she referenced. They’d been moved. And a reader felt the need to go on Val’s forum and criticize her for it. The reader actually slammed the book on the basis of that error.

I think all of us who write would agree that we’re going to put books out with mistakes. Sooner or later we’re going to slip up. I don’t think you should be so anal that you follow technical procedure 100% - that’s what I mean by believability.

What you should do is read books that fall into your part of the mystery spectrum. And pay attention to what readers comment on. 4MA is particularly good for that, because the discussions are very thorough.

Bottom line, for me, is that I write primarily in the police procedural side. And therefore, a healthy amount of research and understanding of procedure is necessary.

Now, if I wrote about crime solving cats or bakers or candlestick makers… I haven’t a clue. To me, the very premise is unrealistic. And maybe for those writers – I stress maybe – there’s no need for research.

All I know is, if the reviewer in me picks up a book that involves police and they don’t even attempt to follow procedure, I’m going to rake it over the coals. An example? Trusted employee doesn’t show up for work at the usual time and is now an hour late. Co-worker calls the police and reporters her missing, giving a generic description (mid-thirties, blonde, fit, nice-looking). Sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line before the police take the name down and then tell the co-worker to get to the ME’s office right away to ID a body.

No fucking way would that happen. Police might go to the office to take a statement, get a photo and then move from there. With nothing more than a generic description over the phone of a woman missing for an hour they are not going to tell a co-worker to go to the ME’s office.

And when authors cut corners like that, that’s when I expect deux ex machina endings, angels to fly cops over rivers and – of course – when faced with death the gun will click but no bullets will come out, or something stupid like that.

And don’t take me wrong. I don’t have a problem with supernatural thrillers at all, or paranormal, or whatever. Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal remains one of my favourite reads of the whole year… I’d say even of the past three or four years.

So this isn’t about slamming them. That’s entirely different.

What I’m saying is, if the book is supposed to be a procedural it automatically requires a certain degree of realism… of believability… and I expect that. I expect plots to hold together believably, and if they’re cops, I expect there to be some representation of the dynamics of police work.

I’m not saying you have to spell out every aspect to the point of boredom. Lord knows I don’t. But you have to know enough to get the important things right.

Of course, this is when you readers will tell me that you don’t care if the books are realistic or not…


Anonymous said...

I just recently finished a book that had a huge error in it. It wasn't an error that affected the whole book, or a character or anything like that. It wasn't even something that everyone who reads the book will notice. It was a book by an author I really like and I was stunned to find it and I really didn't know what to do. I was almost finished with the book so first, I kept reading.

Until I read your post, I had completely forgotten the error. At this point, I can't remember who the author was (I've read books by two favored authors this week), or what the error was. Apparently, it didn't affect me that badly. And I thought I was anal.

I'm on a couple of forums, and I've seen people come on one and point out errors to the author and I just don't get the point. If your ego is that small, well, I don't even know what to say. I think it's almost as frustrating for the regular forum members because our first inclination is to step up and defend "our" author against the intruder. It's difficult to just sit back and let the author deal with it.

Most readers can tell the difference between a well researched novel and half-assed hope for easy money. I think for some of these people it's like finding out that the kid who gets straight A's in english composition has to use spellchecker, they just love catching him at something. norby

Sandra Ruttan said...

Not sure I completely agree with you on this one norby, but I really do think it depends on

a. what the error is
b. whether or not the author has built up credibility or whether or not they're new to you
c. how critical it is to the story

I've abandoned two books because of research issues. That's not a high number, given the volume of books that cross my hands. But, in both cases, it was a new author for me and they made glaring mistakes early on. In the one example, because the mistake had to do with where I used to live, it completely jerked me out of the story, and actually because it was about something that had been a local political issue, the blatant error made me angry (it involved a hospital my best friend had worked at until it was shut down). All it took was typing the name of the hospital into google to get hits right off the top about the closure. And it went on from there - the type of hospital it was identified as was wrong, etc. etc.

If it had been a fictional hospital stuck in the middle of the river I wouldn't have cared. But when something is being passed off as real - in that case, I'd read an article from the author about how to research properly for fiction writing, citing everything they'd done to verify each fact in the book - I think it's human nature to be more annoyed about it.

This is one of the reasons that I chose a fictional town for SC. Referenced off the real, try to keep the geography and the police structure reasonably accurate to the state, but I knew if I tried to set my book in a real town that I'd screw up.

But then, to me, this is also my job. And I know the only reason not to research for my books is pure laziness. I've done some research that's made me re-write scenes because I'd made mistakes initially, but the scenes turned out better for them. So I believe in it. I don't see it as a detriment - often, it ends up being a blessing.

Trace said...

It's a tricky tightrope to walk. The reader does need at least a marginal willingness to suspend disbelief when reading fiction. But I do like the writer to know what they're talking about.

We can't all be experts about what we're writing but we should do enough research to be able to pull it off. I'm sure I'm guilty of ooopses just as much as the next guy, though.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's the trick, Trace. The balance. I mean, I would theorize you must know a little something about cars, having written Repo Chick Blues.

Me, that's why my protag in the Canadian series drives a Rodeo. Coincidentally same year as mine...

anne frasier said...

my first thrillers were police procedurals. seven years ago i started taking classes at the U of M that dealt with fbi profilers, coroners, forensics, etc. i toured all the buildings, took online classes too. total immersion for a period of several years. i burned out and i became bored with procedure and forensics. i noticed that i was including less and less of it in my books. some of the backing off was at the request of my editor who felt the market had reached a saturation point, but i didn't mind the switch. the books without the realism and procedure haven't done as well. i think that's because the procedural audience is much easier to target.

anne frasier said...

i should have said the classes were taught by profilers and coroners, etc. so i felt i was really getting my info from the source. but even at that, even though i have a room packed with binders and notes, questions would always come up and i always felt i didn't know enough, that i was just skimming the surface.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Oy! My editor nailed me left and right on "no, that can't happen" when we were going through the first one. I'm now combing the second very, very carefully for such whoopsies. :-)

I think it relies on suspension of disbelief too. There are a lot of things I'll buy (I'm less critical than, say, my husband, who hates seeing reality slips in books), but there have been points where I've said, "Uh, no way. That wouldn't have happened."

It's the way the author handles the potentially unrealistic event. Definitely.

I think.

(Ouch, this fence post chafes!)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, interesting about the sales. Ultimately I'd say if you're bored with it, move on. I do my research in small doses. I don't meticulously research everything. So, SW, like you I waffle a bit. I mean, one can only believe that Rebus has been insubordinate so many times without getting fired, right? Yet we suspend. I think it's all about the 'what'. If you're writing the forensic side of the investigation and don't know how evidence is processed, you might have some serious trouble.

Vincent said...

There's always a chance that you can get caught out on facts, however thorough the research. I must admit when I can't research something, I do try to leave the description ambiguous enough to leave the details open to interpretation. What's worse for me, and it doesn't happen often, is when the action of a character or a plot point comes across as implausible. I shall reference the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood here. The last episode featured a member of the team who committed gross insubordination en route to almost unleashing an abomination upon the world, threatening his boss with a gun and breaching every piece of security in his top secret place of work, yet at the end of the episode he gets to keep his job.

That kind of sloppy writing I just can't buy.

Anonymous said...

In this case the fact that the author is someone I've read before and am a fan of did play heavily in my decision to keep reading. The error (from what I remember) wasn't something that affected the story, it jarred me, because of knowledge that I held. The fact that I so quickly forgot the error was even there, maybe that says more about me, I don't know. I just scanned the books, couldn't find it of course. One book is from the library, the other I own, so maybe I'll come across it again.

If it had been an author new to me, it probably would have been more difficult to overlook. I would have questioned how well the author would be researching future books, what it said about the quality of future writing, etc... In this case, I'm already reasonably certain of the answers to those questions and can feel fairly certain that this was a random one time thing. norby

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby, I wouldn't disagree with a decision to keep reading in that case, for the reasons you say. I'm more inclined to think that - no matter how anal someone is being in their criticism - it's still on the author if they make a mistake. Most authors I know take it very seriously to try to get it right... Like Vincent, I'll be vague on something if I don't know or want to portray the details. The mind interprets a lot.

Vincent, I would agree about that sloppy writing. If you rely on deux ex machina endings people will dismiss you.

I remember one classic story, about someone with a mystery that featured a dog and the dog's owner fed the dog chocolate as treats. A lot of people were really angry about that. Don't remember the book, just the gripes about such an irresponsible action being put into a book.

mai wen said...

I think you need to be believable and realistic enough that the reader doesn't question the information and maybe doesn't even notice. I just read somewhere that a famous author (now I can't remember who) said that if you were to say that there were flying pigs in your novel, it wouldn't be believable. But if you were to say there were one thousand three hundred and thirty four flying pigs in the air, then the reader would believe it. It's all in the details. Enough details to make it believable, but not too many to bore the reader.

Anonymous said...

In Lost Dog, the first victim is hidden in some big concrete pipes in a playground in a real park. The pipes used to be there—in fact, my daughter played on them when she was itty bitty. But now they are gone.

Am I doomed?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Mai Wen, that's a good distinction!

Bill, no, silly! It's when you say they turned left off of fourth street and went up 27th ave and all the locals jump up and say, "You can't turn left off of fourth street onto 27th ave!" that you have problems.

A lot of authors put a disclaimer in about fictionalizing an area or something that's included in the book. Most people get that stuff.

I thought your procedure was handled convincingly, myself. I couldn't put the book down!

John McFetridge said...

Sometimes the strength of the writing keeps me going. I just read a novel in which a bunch of kids disappear or are kidnapped. When the police talk to one mother they feel she is way over-protective of her son, but she let him - a six year old - go to the store by himself and waited three hours to report him missing.

Now, I have a six year old son. That whole thing just didn't work. Three hours missing? But I liked the writing and I kept going, and I'm glad I did. It was the only thing like that in the book.

But people can always pick on something. I was doing a book signing recently and a guy asked me why the gun in the picture on the cover of my book isn't loaded.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You don't need bullets for a photograph.


(Just goes to show you can be taken to task over the most bizarre stuff!)

stevemosby said...

Personally, I don't think that accuracy is anything like as important as believability. As a few people have said, it's about willing suspension of disbelief, and as long as you're consistent, confident and don't commit a howler you'll probably get away with it. Trouble is, what constitutes a howler depends on the individual reader and what they're expecting, and I guess you need to consider that.

I don't like to research; I prefer to make things up. Some writers do it very well: Jim Crace's Being Dead, for example, in which detailed descriptions of decomposition and the attendant animals and insects were entirely fictional, but incredibly convincing. You never realise he made it all up.

I just choose my priorities, and the interaction of the characters, their psychology ... that's what I'm interested in. Getting details of real places seems important to me, which is partly why my stuff isn't set anywhere in particular, sometimes even in sci-fi-weird places. Even then, I get in trouble. I called one town Ludlow (picked quickly from Stephen King's Pet Semetary during my copy-edit stage) and I got a complaint - Ruth from Frodsham, you know who you are - that they lived near Ludlow and it wasn't anything like in my book. Which is true, because nowhere in the possible universe is like it is my book. She should have referenced the laws of physics, not geography.

It's fair enough, and I ruined it for her. My fault, not hers. But you'll never please everyone and, although it's important, my view as a reader and writer is there should be more important things to worry about between the covers. Not in a Freudian way...

Eileen said...

Great post- very interesting topic. I think the point about TV audiences and readers being different is key.

JamesO said...

This is particularly relevant for me as I pick my way carefully through various aspects of police procedure in my WIP. I'm constantly coming up against the boundaries of my limited knowledge, and it's very difficult, living in Wales, to pop into an Edinburgh police station to have a quick chat with the desk sergeant. Fortunately there is enough information out there to get the basics right, and the rest I can (hopefully) find out about when the first draft is done and I've got a comprehensive list.

As a reader, though, I can't think of any incidences where I've noticed a detail howler so bad I remember it beyond the next page. As long as the story is still engaging, I don't much care if the hospital mentioned had actually been closed several years earlier. It's fiction, after all. Maybe in that parallel universe things happened a little differently.

What is annoying is when characters do something against type, and that's not bad research so much as bad writing.

I suspect that most readers miss ninety percent of the mistakes their favourite authors make, because they are caught up in the story. When something jars enough to make you give up reading a book, it's likely that you were losing interest in it already anyway.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Steve, I do lean personally on the believability side over realism... but as an author you know that when someone comes up to you and says they read your book and then points out a technical mistake, you can't tell them to get over themselves. You've still got to own it, no matter what.

Eileen, I do think we're more forgiving with TV, even movies. There was an error in The Departed that, had it been in a book, the book would have been shredded. But in a movie? Most people (myself included) were willing to overlook it.

James - that's it. If it jars you out, you weren't that engaged already.

And falling out of 'character' is another issue entirely, something I've often seen writers criticized for as well.