Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Real, Right, or Good?

Thanks, Betina for being my guest. Remember, there's still time to win a copy of her newest book. Scroll down and leave a comment on yesterday's post. I'll announce the winner on Christmas.

My first crit group used to quote one of their writing professors. "Just because it's right, doesn't make it good." We often incorporate real-life happenstances in our writing, but if they don't come across as "normal" to readers, they're likely to assume we're making something up for the sake of the story. And "contrived" is NOT something we want in our work.

I strive for accuracy in my writing, but if there's a conflict with what a reader considers truth, it's a stumbling block. One very common instance is the CSI effect, where readers assume the police and forensic procedures they see on TV are the way it works in real life.

Or maybe it's simple terminology. How many times have you read a crime novel where the characters smells "cordite" indicating gunshots have been fired. WRONG. Cordite manufacture ceased at the end of the last century. Lee Lofland gives his feelings on this on The Graveyard Shift. And I just read a modern-day novel written by a prolific mystery writer who made the same error.

Then there's "APB". This is another term that's rarely used anymore. The current usage is "BOLO" (Be On the LookOut). But readers (and tv viewers) are familiar with APB. Until BOLO is common enough, the writer might feel obligated to explain, which can be tricky without getting into author intrusion territory.

I've been rewriting my final scene for more tension, and thought I'd done a fair job. However, when the hubster read the draft of the revised scene, he had 2 questions. The first: Should it be "German shepherd" or "German Shepherd"? I looked it up at various websites and found that although the dictionary went with shepherd, almost all of the dog sites wrote it as Shepherd. I can leave it for an editor to change, but I figure about half the readers will think it's wrong. Not much I can do about that.

His other question dealt with how my cops couldn't communicate with each other via their radios. I'm not much on technology, so I merely carried over what we'd experienced in similar terrain in Colorado to the scene. We had 2 GPS units, a map, and directions from Realtors, yet over half the houses we wanted to see were next to impossible to find. And our cell phones didn't pick up signals. But since we didn't have normal cop radios, that option wasn't up for testing.

I'm confident enough that the cop's radios in my scene won't be able to reach their dispatcher back at the station. But if their cars are less than a mile apart, even in the mountains, is it likely that the radio signals would still work car to car? Or cop to cop, if they're using their handhelds? I've posed that question to a couple of specialty writing groups, and have received a variety of answers. Based on what they've said, I could probably write it the way I have it, but would readers believe it? Do they think radios are magic and always work because they're police equipment?

And for the past two days, I donated some time at our local Sheriff's Office helping with backlogged filing. I confess that I've never been in a pawn shop and was totally unaware of the system.

I learned a few things, the most notable was that every time anyone pawns an item, a copy of the information, including a thumb print, goes to the Sheriff's Office. Given the state of the economy, plus the holiday season, people are pawning much more than usual. All the reports have to be computerized, and for a lot of the smaller shops, that means manual entry at the Sheriff's Office.

Writing thought: police are looking for a stolen item which they think has been pawned, but until it gets into the computer system, they can't follow up.

But here's where it might push credibility a bit. One of the primary reasons for the backlog of filing wasn't the increased number of reports. It was a budget issue. The department didn't have the money to buy the file folders, so the paperwork got stacked in piles in the filing room (where I spent my time, all alone with my iPod shuffle, putting papers into numerical sequence.)

The thumbprints aren't digitized, so the police need to be able to get a hard copy of the report. Would a reader believe that a lack of funding for file folders would have created a snag in the investigation, or would they think I was crossing into 'contrived' territory to throw artificial conflict into my plot?

What do you think? Any real-life examples to share? Or any similar problems in balancing reality with credibility?


Unknown said...

I always find it a bit "contrived" when the CSI agents are explaining to one another why they are doing something - (shouldn't they know?) - but if they didn't - we'd have no clue.
In books, an author can do something similar, but to a character who wouldn't know. For example, with your German S(s)hepherd - you could have the owner have a sign with a big "S", and have someone ask why... Same with APB/BOLO - if someone is near the official who is going to call in a BOLO - the witness could say first - "guess you'll be calling in a APB", and the official could explain that term isn't used. I'd rather learn the correct terminology, than continue to read incorrect.
Just my opinion. Interesting Blog!

Terry Odell said...

Kat - Yes, writers need to avoid the "maid-butler" or "As You Know, Bob" bits in the writing. It's a lot easier when there's someone in the scene who doesn't know the drill, but two cops don't need to explain to each other.

I've done all sorts of things to convey terminology to the reader in what I hope is a logical and seamless manner.

And I agree, the CSI folks spend a lot of dialogue explaining their procedures to each other, when it's really for the audience's benefit.

Cate Masters said...

Great post, Terry. I've critiqued a few stories where the author insisted, "But it really happened!" yet it didn't come across as quite real on the page. So I avoid basing stories on real events or people. If anything, I use a real event as a jumping-off point for fiction.
Funny about the terminology, though NCIS uses BOLO, and it caught my attention the first time. Now I just expect it. I'd rather read a story with correct terminology, too. Once readers become familiar with it, then it's second nature.
Happy holidays!

Terry Odell said...

Cate - the editors I've dealt with always want to see things explained the first time they're used. However, as we've mentioned here, that can sound contrived. I don't mind figuring some things out on my own as a reader (and usually feel very smart when I do!).

And sometimes we take for granted that people will know what we do. I've had editors ask me to clarify what a "Glock" was. It never occurred to me that I'd need to add context for that one.

Joe Prentis said...


When I was growing up, my grandmother insisted that if I didn't know something, I should look it up. I became a research nut at a very early age, keeping books and magazines that answered my questions. I spend a lot of time today looking up anything of interest that I don't know about. As a results, I have a problem with writers who seem to not do any research -- there are also a few editors who are just as bad. Our stories should entertain, but they should also be accurate. A few months ago, an editor responded (and rejected) a manuscript of mine because 'a police officer would never do anything wrong, they take an oath.' A story worth reading involves details both great and small. CSI and a lot of other sources continue to spread misinformation.

Joe Prentis

Sam said...

"The smell of cordite" is one of my great pet peeves when reading crime fiction set any time after the 1940s. Even if someone in the 21st century happened to be using legacy ammo manufactured with cordite, the 21st century narrator wouldn't know what cordite smelled like. Another pet peeve is when writers use "gunsel" to mean "gunman," but I'll rein in that rant since it's off topic.

For a short story I'm writing now, I'm tying myself in knots trying to decide how realistic the safe cracking scene needs to be. I've done a lot of research into how it really works. Turns out that cracking a safe is a fairly tedious process. I don't think any reader wants THAT much realism.

Hart Johnson said...

I find all this totally fascinating! My crime stuff so far has been from criminal or victim perspective, not anyone 'knowledgeable' but I love all these real life details you have picked up!

I'm with Kat on having a person who might be asking (involved, but short on info--a volunteer or reporter maybe) there. it's one of the reasons I love 'Castle'--you have an author who has assumptions following a cop and arguing when it isn't like he thinks, but then she can explain. Works brilliantly in my opinion (then again I could watch Nathan Fillion fold socks and be happy)

I also like the 'beat cop' talking to the experts angle (Silence of the Lambs comes to mind with Clarisse's science geed friends)

Linda Poitevin said...

While CSI is definitely on the contrived side, I do think it's possible (and necessary) for writers to give a bit of background either through internal or external dialogue. Done right (and kept short!), it can feel quite natural and provide the reader with an aha moment rather than taking them out of the story. Great blog, Terry -- I love when writers pose questions that make the rest of us stop and think!

Happy holidays!

Terry Odell said...

Joe, Sam - I think the secret is learning how to distill what you've researched into what's crucial for the reader. It's a read-stopper when your writing comes across as, "I did all this research, and you're going to have to read about it!"

I asked my son-in-law a question about revolvers. He wrote 2 pages. It ended up as 2 sentences. There were things I needed to understand, but my POV character would know it. A minimum of 'show' often works fine.

Terry Odell said...

WT - when I wrote Finding Sarah, the scenes with Sarah & Randy were very easy to use for exposition, because she knew nothing about cop stuff.

But when Randy was talking with other cops, getting the information across was a lot tougher. Randy and his partner were equals.

Terry Odell said...

Linda - thanks. Glad I've provided some information worth thinking about.

And you've hit it perfectly. done right and done short

Amy said...

I agree. I recently read a manuscript where the cops took a door, leaving the house open to the world, just to lift fingerprints. The author had researched this and indicated a similar event in Florida. But it was so bizarre that I just couldn't accept it as a reader. I mean, just to get fingerprints they take the ENTIRE DOOR off the hinges and cart it away?
Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that you *can* include such bizarre--and real--things, but ONLY if you provide a compelling and believable justification. Readers will accept anything if you explain it. They won't accept the weird and wacky--even if real--if there is no compelling reason.
Or at least that's my conclusion. :-)

Terry Odell said...

Amy - funny you should mention that. When we toured the evidence facility as part of our Civilian Police Academy for the Sheriff's Office (in Florida) there was an entire wall of doors. If they couldn't get prints in the field (or blood evidence, toolmarks, or whatever), they did take the entire door.

Again -- just because it's 'right' doesn't make it 'good' -- for all the reasons you mentioned.

Denise Patrick said...

As a writer of historicals, don't get me started on this subject. I have incorporated stuff that I KNOW is wrong because as also a reader of historicals, I know many readers think of it as right. Usually, I try to just avoid it altogether, but sometimes I just can't. Case in point: reticule vs ridicule.

Terry Odell said...

Denise, I'm the ideal historical reader because I know NOTHING. I accept whatever the author presents as true, and don't look stuff up. I grasp most of the basics from context and don't care beyond "that's an article of clothing" or "that's a vehicle"

But I'd never use fiction as my own research. Should I (gasp) have to refer to a pelisse or phaeton, I'd look them up for myself.

Carol Kilgore said...

Two things to share.

1. If you build in early enough about the budget problems, the readers will believe the lack of funds to purchase file folders that then snags the investigation. But you need to plant the seed from the beginning. Maybe they can't afford to change oil in the patrol cars, someone complains because their time is limited at the firing range because of the cost of bullets. Two cops talk that the chief should free up some money by taking a pay cut. That sort of thing.

2. Call a small mountain town police force and ask about radios. Probably the person answering the phone will know. If not, he/she will know who you need to talk to. We lived in the mountains for a few years and often a few feet one way or another made all the difference in the world. Someone told me it was because the signals travel in a straight line and nothing in the mountains is straight. Technology has come a long way since then, though, so check.

Terry Odell said...

Carol, excellent advice (which I've frequently mentioned: "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit" from Johnny Carson. What works in comedy works in fiction.

I've been waiting to hear from my on-line groups about radios but might have to contact a force in that area as well. My local Florida contacts don't have that problem!

Jemi Fraser said...

Terminology goes in and out of fashion just like clothes! It's important to use the right words to avoid being dated :) Good info - thanks!

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - thanks for stopping by. You're absolutely right about vocabulary dating your books as much as references to current movie stars, music, and television shows.

GunDiva said...

The radios don't work in the mountains, Carole's right. I've had to rely on radio communication and it's always iffy. Rather like the Keystone Kops, running from one place to another to find the sweet spot to send and receive from. I think that anyone who has lost cell reception while driving through the mountains, will believe your story. Though there are a few who believe that all things cop are magic.

I love learning everything you post here - thank you so much!

GunDiva said...

Oh, and I can't watch CSI because they spend so much time explaining to each other what they're doing. If they're all pros, they should know what they're doing. ER could have run into the same problem, but skirted it by always having medical students around who didn't know what they were doing.

Terry Odell said...

GD - Hubby watches CSI for the nifty photography (and the improperly clad techs, of course).

In a novel, it's tough to have a naive sidekick throughout every book. Good writers will work the info in so you don't notice you're being dumped on.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I made up my own itinerary for Killer Knots, my recent cruise ship mystery. It's a blend of Eastern and Western Caribbean routes which I have sailed. I researched the ports by taking detailed notes and photos during my visits. Thus I made the itinerary logical even if unreal. No one has chided me for it so hopefully readers are too engaged by the story to care about the variation.

Terry Odell said...

Hi Nancy - I try to set my books in "close but not real" settings. Nowhere To Hide, my next romantic suspense is the only exception, and I did a lot of research to get it right, since it's set in a real place. But I still took some liberties for the sake of the story.

Kathy said...

I agree with Kat1reader that if a character can explain something to somebody not in the know it slides right in very nicely.

In my current story I ran into a couple of snags. I'm rethinking and reworking it but then wondering if I'm over thinking it. Sigh! And I lucked into a good loop because I asked on another one about something and couldn't get an answer that gave enough informaiton. I tryt o research and ask to have my writing make sense. I think you're right it has to work it's way in and not reach out and slap us when we are reading.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I try to make the incidents and detail in my story as real as possible. Lots of research, even cataloging where I found the information…sorta term paper style, but not as elaborate. Even given that, there are probably errors. My hope is that most readers are reading for story and won’t notice, for example, that even though my protag is using gadget X in 1990, it wasn’t introduced until 1991. So far, I’ve not had a reader call me on a factual error…now that I’ve said that, the complaints will come pouring in. Ha!

Best Regards, Galen.

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Terry Odell said...

Kathy, nobody said this was easy!

Galen, I'm sure your readers figured your character had a prototype if they noticed at all. When it comes to dates, I'm hard pressed to remember the year my kids were born, much less the introduction of gizmos.

Sometimes those crit partners are golden, like the time one caught me giving a car a manual transmission when it didn't have that option. Whoda thunkit? I thought all cars came with that choice.

Skhye said...

Yes, this problem can make a writer pull his/her hair out. I just chant "I can't please everyone all of the time." Happy Holidays!

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