Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Writer Walks Into a Strip Bar. . .

Joining us on Thursdays is Teresa Burrell: author, attorney, and child advocate. We all know her from a previous publisher, crime fiction conferences, or geographical proximity. She's smart, funny, charming, and one of the hardest working authors we know. And her passion is evident in the mysteries she writes. Here's Teresa in her own words:

Do you ever get irritated when you're reading a novel and something strikes you as just plain wrong? It could be a fact, or a scene, or a behavior. I don't know about you, but it throws me right out of the book. While my mind is struggling with what the scene should really be, I lose track of the story line.

I recently read two different books by very good writers and the legal scenarios were incorrect. One was a courtroom scene that wasn't at all like real life. The other, even more painful, was where the legal premise was incorrect. That's just unfair to the reader because the recipient of this information will often walk away thinking what he or she read is "the law." Sure, we're writing fiction, but I believe we have a responsibility to make our facts, our scenes, our characters both realistic and accurate.

This is not to say you have to know everything there is to know about what you write. You do not need to be a lawyer to write legal fiction, a doctor to write medical fiction, or in law enforcement to write a police procedural. But if something is crucial to your story, you do need to have an expert consultant.

I believe this to be true of every part of your novel. For example, my latest manuscript has a scene in a strip bar with a lap dance. It's not meant to be graphic, so I don't need a lot of detail, but I feel like I need to set the scene correctly. Now, I've never had a lap dance but I did go to a male strip bar once for a bachelorette party so I have some knowledge beyond what I've seen on television. I started calling my male friends, the ones I knew had received lap dances, and I've gained a whole lot of insight--much more than I cared to know. Research can be a lot of fun.

As a reader, what happens to you when you come across something in a novel that you know to be incorrect? Does it ruin the story for you? Do you ignore it and go on? Do you think the author has a responsibility to be accurate? Does it keep you from reading books by that author again?

As a writer, you often hear, "Write what you know." This is the reason I write legal suspense and not romance novels. . .


  1. First of all, welcome to CFC! We're thrilled to include you in the lineup!

    I recently did an audio interview for The MIssings, and the interviewer asked if I had a law enforcement background because the police procedural part of The Missings seemed so accurate. The truth is, it is pretty accurate—but only because I consulted with CSIs and police chiefs to get the facts right.

    As far as what happens when I find incorrect information in a novel, the answer is it depends on how bad it is. Usually I can move on and enjoy the story anyway, but my confidence in the validity of any research is nil.

  2. Thanks for blogging with us, Teresa. Incorrect or unrealistic situations do pull me out of a story, but they may not ruin it. In doing research, I've come to realize that laws, police procedure, and cultural norms vary so much from place to place that I have to cut writers a lot of slack. But like you, I strive for accuracy.

    Unlike you, I've never been in a strip bar. But I have attended a male strip-dancers show. My sisters and I took our mother on her 70th a surprise. But I haven't found a way to write it off as research yet.

  3. Thank you. I'm thrilled to be included here with such a wonderful group of writers.

  4. Welcome to CFC, Teresa!

    I, too am annoyed by incorrect details in novels, especially pertaining to libraries and librarians!

  5. Welcome to CFC, Teresa! It's great to have you onboard! And I enjoyed getting to know you a little better at Left Coast Crime last month.

    I don't know a lot about legal or police or hospital/medical procedures, so it's unlikely I'd notice minor inaccuracies or be jolted out of the story. But one thing I do notice is if the author has suddenly stopped the story to explain details to the readers. That jolts me right out of the fictive dream and to me is a huge no-no. As I discussed in my recent blog post on The Kill Zone, "Info with Attitude - Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy" (, it's important to sneak in technical info in a way that is natural and organic to the story, in dialogue or colored by the attitudes of the POV character for the scene, not as the author stepping in to fill in the readers about something.

  6. Teresa, thanks for this post. One very well-respected author of legal thrillers readily admits that he hates research. I believe it, since I've found errors of a medical nature in two of his thrillers. I'm disappointed that he failed to do the very minimal research--probably five minutes on Google--necessary to avoid these mistakes. But his writing is otherwise so good that I continue to read his work.
    Bottom line, good research helps, but good writing is even better.
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Nice to see you here, T. I read fiction mostly for entertainment. Unless the inaccuracies are so glaring they strain my credulity, I don't worry too much about them. I see them all the time in movies where you know something shown just couldn't happen. If the plot is strong and the writing good, I'll likely enjoy it anyway.

  8. One mistake I'll chalk up to something overlooked in editing. Two make me wary. Three and the strings suspending my disbelief start unraveling quickly. Any more than that are likely to really piss me off because they indicate the author's a lazy researcher, and I'll likely never read that author again.

  9. Welcome aboard, Teresa!

    I do my best to strive for accuracy and do a decent amount of research for my books. At the same time, one thing I try to keep in mind is my audience. For example, my new release has several hospital scenes. Knowing that a lot of nurses out there may read it, I was diligent in my research. I know it would bother them or bump them out of the story if I made an obvious mistake. Another thing that influences how much research I do is whether I can achieve a realistic tone or mood in the scene without it. If it feels flat, I try to go out and experience it first hand for the sensory details.

  10. Good to see you here, Teresa! It does ruin a story for me if I see something that is incorrect. I will continue, but if I see more inaccuracies, I'll stop and most likely won't read the author again. In my opinion, there's really no excuse for it. There are a lot of experts out there to ask and even folks who are not experts. Me, for example. I'm not an expert on everything, obviously, but I do know a lot of them and I'm more than happy to ask. I've done this for authors who don't have the time to do all the research themselves.

  11. First, welcome to the hallowed ranks of CFC Contributors. (Hmm, a new tongue twister has emerged.)

    It depends on how big the inaccuracy, and how important it is to the plot. Minor misteps, we all commit. But a pothole or tire-buster - lazy or a bad editor. And the writer doesn't care to send the very best...

    For my first novel I spent countless hours with a lawyer and studying aspects of the Louisiana legal code, just to get a few loints of paw correct. (5 points or a glass of single malt Scotch if you get the reference.)

    But then, misplaced commas irritate me. Especially, my own.

    1. David, back in the day when I had a corporate life, I ran a mortgage company whose investors bought a ton of loans from Louisiana. Napoleanic Law flowed through my knowledge base like a sledge hammer through a bit of Feta cheese. I will never think of Louisiana in the same way. Just sayin'.

  12. I think you've made a valid point, Teresa.

    Coincidentally, I came upon an error like this in a book I read last week. This was a recent novel by an established, award-winning author who had done extensive research for that (and earlier) novels. Some of his forensic details were amazing.

    But then he stumbled on what should have been a minor point. Unfortunately, the factual error happened in a pivotal scene. The author had his protagonist attempt to make a fairly basic home repair in an entirely incorrect (and impossible) manner. I actually stopped reading, closed my Kindle, and said, "humph!"

    I'm a carpenter by trade, but I'm sure plenty of other DIY-types know enough to find this author's error humorous. The writer could have "researched" this scene in his own home, with a couple of cheap tools, in a matter of minutes -- and gotten it all correct.

    Did that scene ruin the whole book for me? Nope. It did make me question ALL of the other facts the author included. But I'll buy at least one more of his books. He's a fine writer.

    Do you have to get EVERYTHING right? Probably not. But I believe you should try to do so. Maybe one more Beta Reader would have caught that little scene-crasher.

    1. I always try to get it right. Do I always? Probably not.

      But on the other end of the "ruin the book" spectrum, I read a book that I knew, I just knew, a friend of mine would love. It was right up her alley. Everything she always talked about loving. In the first or second scene, there was something that made her question the details. She actually asked her husband if it was possible and when he said no, she said no to the book.

      I felt bad for the author, but mostly I felt bad for the reader.

  13. I had a scene in my second book where my character had his hands cuffed behind his back and had to get out of them. I spoke with a law enforcement friend beforehand and he gave me a couple of pointers. Then I went through the experience myself. It was quite a struggle and physical maneuver getting my body so my hands were in front. Lots of twisting and turning and rolling on the floor. But I did it...and then wrote about it.

    Thank you all for your great comments.


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