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…