Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reality: What a Concept!

Sandra Parshall

In a column in the July 13 issue of Publishers Weekly, children’s book author Peter Mandel deplores the current emphasis on getting the facts correct in fiction. He doesn’t understand why anyone cares whether the hair styles, clothing, and settings in the John Adams miniseries or in Mad Men accurately reflect the eras in which the dramas are set. He has personally received complaints that his new children’s picture book “wasn’t fully researched” and that one character was unfairly portrayed.

Oh, Mr. Mandel, you should come on over to the world of crime fiction if you want to witness a true mania for getting the details right. An entire branch of reference book publishing is devoted to guides for writers of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Behind me as I type this are bookshelves loaded down with such titles as The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide, How to Try a Murder, Cause of Death, Bones, The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide, Hidden Evidence, Corpse, Crime Scene, Death Investigator’s Handbook, Howdunit, Deadly Doses, Crime Classification Manual, The Criminal Law Handbook... Well, you get the point. I have at least 100 books covering various aspects of crime, police work, criminal thinking and behavior, and the workings of the US legal system, and I still have to go online sometimes to find answers to vexing questions.

Online sources of information are even more numerous than the books on my shelves. The Crime Scene Writers list on Yahoo and Dr. Doug Lyle’s blog and website are among the most popular internet sources for those of us who dream up ways to commit murder and get away with it for 300 pages or so. The national Sisters in Crime listserv has a feature called Mentor Monday that allows members all-day access to experts in various fields.

Why do we bother, if as Mr. Mandel contends in PW, the purpose of fiction is to divert and entertain us, to take us to an alternate reality, not to painstakingly recreate reality itself? Why are so many readers unable to enjoy a mystery if it gets a single fact wrong, and why do writers themselves jeer at CSI and Without a Trace for being more fantasy than reality? (Five-minute DNA tests? Don’t we wish! Thirty-second fingerprint matching done entirely by computer? Ha! We all know it takes hours, days, even a week, and a human, not a machine, must make the final match. The FBI rushing to launch a search when some guy doesn’t come home for dinner? Give me a break!)

The blame for our make-it-real mania may rest with the medium through which you are reading these words. Anybody with a computer and an internet connection can find out almost anything these days, verify any statement or prove it false. Readers who spotted bloopers have never hesitated to point them out to the authors, but those knowledgeable readers were once far fewer – and they sent their complaints on paper through the mail.

I don’t think our educational system is such a grand success these days that every student emerges with encyclopedic knowledge of the world – quite the contrary, unfortunately. And I don’t think television has enlightened anyone. After all, TV is what gives us those ridiculous scenarios on CSI and Without a Trace. Newspapers are teetering on the brink of extinction. So where are ordinary people picking up knowledge about crime and crime-solving? The same place I go for it, apparently – the internet. And once in possession of proof that an author has erred, the reader (chortling with vengeful delight, I’m sure) immediately taps out a withering digital letter to the writer and hits Send.

But am I complaining? No. I am one of those readers who demand accuracy. I don’t point out mistakes to authors because I’m a crime fiction writer too and the last thing I want to do is embarrass another of my species. I take notice, though, and I remember. And I remind myself yet again to check my facts when I’m writing.

To get back to Mr. Mandel’s “So what?” question about the effect of inaccuracies in fiction, I can only answer for myself, but I suspect my attitude is shared by many. I don’t choose accuracy over good writing and entertainment. I want accuracy and good writing and an entertaining story. I can find CSI entertaining as is, but I believe it would be more enjoyable if I weren’t rolling my eyes in disbelief every few minutes. I won’t throw a mystery novel against a wall if the author gets a fact wrong, and I can suspend disbelief and enjoy an amateur sleuth story, but the more realistic the novel is, the more I enjoy it. This is probably why I prefer the darker stuff. Murder is evil. Don’t try to make me believe it isn’t.

I’m also put off by inaccuracy in science fiction. I love Star Trek, and because it’s set in the future, I can accept whatever is presented. Who am I to say whether this or that amazing feat will or won’t be possible in a couple hundred years? Did Ben Franklin ever imagine such a thing as a computer, let alone the internet? The distant future no doubt holds technological wonders we can’t even dream of now. But SF stories set in the near future, in a universe that looks pretty much like the current one, have to be plausible or I’ll lose interest. (Egregious example: the new movie Moon. Don’t get me started.)

Returning to crime fiction, the genre in which I read most often, accurate facts don’t intrude on my reading experience or distract me from the story. They provide a solid foundation for the story, they make me trust the author. So my message to other writers is simply this: Get the facts straight while telling me a good story and I will happily follow you deep into your book’s fictional world.

How do you feel about factual errors in novels? Do you think the demand for accuracy is a good thing or a bad thing?


Paul Lamb said...

I think as long as a story has internal consistency I won't be bothered too much about things like factual "accuracy." Good writing comes first, followed by credible characters. If someone objects to the brand of toothpaste a character uses because it didn't exist back in the day, then I think they are probably missing the point of the story. It is, after all, the willing suspension of disbelief.

Sheila Connolly said...

As you said, with the advent of the internet there is no excuse not to check a simple fact, with only a couple of clicks of your mouse. Details about who has jurisdiction in crimes is more arcane and varies widely by locale, and may be less well known by readers, but how hard is it to look it up?

Think of it this way: if you put the wrong letter in a crossword puzzle, does it still work? Maybe--or maybe not. Why not get it right?

Notice that I assume the good writing and credible characters are already there. Certainly bad writing and cardboard characters are greater sins than the wrong toothpaste or the direction of a one-way street.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I know an awful lot of readers say inaccuracy yanks them out of the story, wondering if "that" is wrong, what else might be wrong. I suppose it's a bit of a trust issue. I like accuracy when I read and try to write that way. Great post, Sandy.

Sandra Parshall said...

I find factual errors distracting. I see one and start looking for more. I can't enjoy the story fully anymore. And serious errors regarding police procedure or the courts are likely to inspire a flurry of sneering comments online from law enforcement and legal professionals. What writer needs that kind of negative publicity?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Your comments about Star Trek and near-future stories set my mind ticking. In the early days of Star Trek, the doors that opened without a human hand pushing them and the pin-on sized communicating devices that worked anywhere were science fiction. And many far-future stories written in the 80s and 90s date themselves by such details as giant computers.

Terry Odell said...

I feel an author owes it to the reader to try to be as accurate as possible. I notice mistakes when I already know something, and it does create that "can I trust this author on the rest of the details" feel. Will I stop reading? No. I finish every book I start, although I admit to skimming if thing seem too far-fetched.

Example: most common mistake: character thumbs the safety of his Glock. I know Glocks don't have that kind of safety. I snicker and move on.

Sometimes I'll get irritated when an author can't take the time to verify what color a prescription drug is, but I'd only notice that if it were a med I'd taken.

Or having a character decide the best way to spot counterfeit money is to try to pass a suspect bill at a gambling casino. Hello! There are pens around that change color on fake money (at least there were when that book was written).

I'm anal about doing my homework when I write, but as Paul sid, the bottom line is a good story, with characters I care about.

And sometimes, the technology just plain races ahead faster than the book can hit the shelves.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

When I come across errors, it pulls me out of the story. That's not a good thing, since I'm reading for the escape...

Great post! I didn't know about SINC's listserv, somehow. I'll check it out, thanks!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

The new movie MOON, which I mentioned above, is a perfect example of the nonsense that results when the logical progress of technology is ignored. I won't say more about the plot, in case some of you want to waste your money to see the film and don't welcome spoilers, but I will say that absolutely nothing in it makes sense.

Suzanne Adair said...

I spot errors in novels all the time. If the errors aren't humongous, and the writing is very good, I continue reading. I want to be entertained by a novel. I don't want to count goofs. Huge goofs and poor writing encourage me to drop out of the story flow and count goofs.

Honest errors happen often enough, and for a number of reasons, mistakes wind up in manuscripts. But there's no excuse for sloppy research. As a novelist, you owe it to your readers to deliver as accurate and smooth a fictional world as possible.

Suzanne Adair

Sandra Parshall said...

Do y'all think writers in other genres are as obsessed with accuracy as crime fiction writers are? Sometimes I think all of our mothers watched too much Dragnet while we were in the womb and we can't rid ourselves of that voice saying, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Terry Odell said...

I've been told that if you're going to write Regency romance, they'll come out for blood if you make the slightest error.

Suzanne Adair said...

Sandy: Many readers of historical mysteries are *very* persnickety about accuracy. Check out the Crime Thru Time discussion list for the level of details that readers and writers debate.

Terry: I read a Regency romance that I considered to be "Regency fantasy," such was the inaccuracy. I wonder, are historical romance readers more keen on the fulfillment of the romance and an HEA than accuracy?

Suzanne Adair

Terry Odell said...

I know absolutely nothing about history, Regency or anything that happened prior to this morning.

I wouldn't know a mistake if the entire book was filled with them, but the true Regency fans are very quick to flog any author who makes the most minor error. Doesn't mean they're not there; only that a true Regency reader would have dismissed that author.

Susan Breen said...

As someone who has written a traditional novel, if that's the right adjective, and is now working on a mystery, I find myself much more concerned about factual accuracy this time around. I feel as though an error will undercut the authority of my writing much more with my mystery than it would have done with my novel. Thank heavens for Mentor Mondays!

Pen N. Hand said...

An old librarian trick when a new subject or technology appeared was to first read a children's book. What will we do now to acquire enough vocabulary expertise to understand adult tomes when writers for children don't find accuracy important. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn't matter accuracy is relevant for children.
More so than adults because adults have a background of knowledge and experience to question.