Thursday, January 19, 2012

The facts about my fiction

By Gayle Carline

When I look around at the writers in this blog, I am impressed by their professionalism and dedication to their writing. They do their homework, research carefully, and craft books that tell exciting stories in the most authentic way possible.

They make me feel puny in comparison.

When I was writing Freezer Burn, I turned to my cop friends for advice and opinions, which they were happy to provide. As I wrote my outline, I kept notes on what I needed to know. For example, could I go down to the Coroner's Office and interview anyone? My protagonist's BFF is an assistant coroner, so I might want to have a scene there.

And I should at least visit my local Placentia Police Department. It's in the courtyard with City Hall and the Library, so I've walked past their door a bunch of times, but never even wandered in.

While I mulled all this over, I was reading Joe Konrath's blog, or maybe it was his discussion group, and someone asked him how he got access to the Chicago police department in order to write his Lt. Jack Daniels series. His answer floored me.

"I make it all up."

Butbutbut - his scenes seem so real. I can see the police station and Jack's office and feel the bad ventilation and smell the staleness of the old building and…

So I made two decisions:

1. I was not going to get cozy with the PPD. For one thing, I didn't want any of the police officers to point to a character in the book and ask if that was them. It probably wouldn't be, since I don't write that way, and it would just be awkward. For another thing, I was afraid, if I tried to make the book too realistic and got one pencil holder out of place, there'd be someone to call me on it. Better to just imagine what it looks like and claim ignorance.

2. I was not going to try to tour the Coroner's Office. I just wouldn't set any scenes there.

I still consulted my friends, and even emailed D.P. Lyle about some forensic details, but mostly I went on my merry way, just like Joe, making stuff up.

The results were interesting. One of my friends questioned every move my fictional police did, claiming they would not have done it that way in real life. One of my friends said they had gone on patrol with their local police and they were surprised at how realistic I had made everything look. That surprised me.

One of my friends thought I painted the police in a very bad light, which alarmed me since that was NOT my intent at all. I tried to show them as professional, thorough, and process-driven, but often without resources to take things as far as one stubborn private investigator who is being paid to do nothing but solve this case.

I guess people can read the same words and still understand them differently.

Sometimes I want to walk down LJ's path and interview cops and go to crime-and-forensic seminars and be able to write more police procedurally. Then I would be a serious writer.

But who am I kidding? While I'm writing my stories, I picture them as a TV show, specifically on USA, where characters are welcome (if you ask them). Show of hands: who think Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, etc, could ever happen in real life?

(You, in the back, we need to talk.)

Last Sunday, I went to our monthly Sisters in Crime meeting (the Orange County chapter, for those of you who are mildly interested) and heard a wonderful presentation by Gary Bale, a former investigative homicide specialist, about the differences between reality forensics and TV forensics.

As we talked about the role forensics plays in current mystery books, one of the members said that if you are going to write a mystery set any time after 1990, you must include forensic science. It is used to solve cases nowadays, so the old Sherlock Holmes Deductive Theory solutions wouldn't work.

Another member said it's probably why she tends to like historical fiction better, because she really doesn't like a lot of procedure and forensic description in her mysteries as a reader. She just wants a good story.

I've long thought there are two camps of readers: those who want their entertainment as close to the facts as possible, and those who will accept an entertaining fictional world, whether it's fantasy, history, or yesterday.

You can find my tent in the fictional camp. You can't miss it - it's really big.

What camp are you in?


  1. What a great post! You started my day off making me feel so good . . .

    My camp is firmly in the middle. A fictional town filled with fictional people doing fictional things in what I hope are ficionally factual ways.

    By the way, love what you've done with the place.

  2. Thanks, Peg. That is, by the way, the only way I'd camp. Oh, and I'd need room service.

  3. You bring up some really good points Gayle. I think there is a point where the storytelling is more important than accuracy. All fiction depends upon the reader's ability to suspecnd disbelief. Even in the professional world of forensics you'll find a lot of variety in thought and procedure. What passes for "acceptable procedure" in one laboratory would be looked down upon in another (and that's just in the US). That's not to say that glaring errors won't be noticed and may be so extreme that they may turn off some readers but, truthfully, some readers are hyper-sensitive to their pet-peeves (i.e. the hyphens I just used) and I don't think authors should feel enslaved to thise few. I guess my point is that a good story is a good story and most readers know it when they read it. I don't consider myself a good writer. I'm just beginning my career nad it may take 20 nyears before I feel comfortable in my writing. But...I'd like to think that I'm a good storyteller and that is what I value most. Does that put me in a camp?

  4. Even though I interview detectives, crime scene technicians, and medical examiners to get the procedural details right, I also "cheat" to keep the story moving. Because it's fiction, and readers don't want to spend five hours at a crime scene or wait two weeks for the DNA analysis to come back from the state lab. So you can't make it too real. But I've had readers who work in law enforcement tell me I do a great job of finding the right balance.

  5. LJ - That's probably my main crime against reality - I speed things up. It's possible that I'm too lazy to find a way to write in those two weeks' passage for a DNA test, but truly, I'm just more interested in the results as a way to add one more piece to the mystery puzzle.

    And Tom - I'd say if you cringe every time you're forced to watch CSI, you're probably in the other camp. If you don't care that real CSIs don't interview people or have car chases with guns, come on over to my side of the stream.

  6. I don't cringe when I watch CSI (I actually consulted with the writers during season 1 of CSI:Vegas) because it's fiction and I recognize how and where they get their stories from. However, my point about "facts" is that they are sometimes subjective. For example, I was a real CSI and I both carried a gun and interviewed witnesses and suspects (as do others) although I did not interrogate. Forensic professionals can be as varied as writers (or any other profession) which is why I'm comfortable saying that the story is more important than the "facts" unless the errors are so extreme that they take away from the story. It's a balance I guess. Does that make sense? Maybe I travel between camps? What do I know. Great post to get you thinking though.

  7. Feel free to wander among all the camps, Tom. We have coffee and some darn tasty cookies in ours. (And a good bottle of wine in the evenings!)

  8. I don't know if it was the cookies or the wine that sealed the deal but count me in!

  9. I'm with the 'make it up' camp. I'm a newbie writer but already I've had friends ask if certain characters were people I knew. It's easier to make up my cops than have real cops pissed because they saw themselves in one or another of mine. I may get details of investigation wrong, but I hope they sound right. I worrry about the tendency to confuse fiction with non-fiction. Fiction is made up and for me at least, doesn't have to be exactly factual. Just to feel that way.


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