by Leslie Budewitz
As I venture out with a book aimed at helping fiction writers get the details about the legal world right, I find myself asking why getting it right matters. Actually, I hear other writers asking that. “It’s fiction,” they say. “Why does it matter whether I’ve called the crime first-degree murder instead of deliberate homicide, put a silencer on a revolver, or allowed the county sheriff to investigate a murder on an Indian reservation where the feds have felony jurisdiction?”
Because as writers, we build our fictional worlds one detail at a time. If we get one wrong–whether it’s foundation or frosting–our readers’ ability to live in that world for a few hours crumbles.
You know what I’m talking about: On page ten, the protagonist describes a hospital as built of cinder block. You were born in that hospital, been a patient and a visitor, and you know there’s no cinder block to be seen. Your forehead wrinkles. When he leaves and gets in the same model car you drive, in a color it didn’t come in, you squint and tilt your head.
The author’s losing you. Your knowledge of the details breaks the fragile hold “the fictive dream,” in John Gardner’s phrase, has on you. You may stick with the book if the characters, premise, and writing satisfy you, but if any of those is problematic, you may move on. And a really serious error may nag at you long afterwards.
The problem is that while the devil may be in the details, so is the magic. A character comes alive by the details used to portray her actions, thoughts, and feelings. The trick, I think, is plausibility. Make the setting and the character action feel real. Like it could have happened that way. Use enough of the right details accurately that the reader trusts you.
Do different stories require a different level of accuracy? There’s a good argument that the greater the suspension of disbelief required by the story, the less the details matter. If the protagonist of your cozy mystery is a caterer, your readers may care more that you proofed the recipes than whether you accurately described the fingerprinting process. Unless your trusty–and trusting–reader devours cozies on the bus on the way home from her job in the crime lab. Your mistake may mean she chooses another author for tomorrow’s commute.
But the flip side of that argument may be equally valid: the further your story lies from daily reality, the more the details matter. Consider science fiction and fantasy, where the worldly details are essential. If you accurately describe something the reader knows well–say, the effects of gravity–she’s more likely to believe your description of the mental powers one acquires stepping through the auric atmosphere of Genicia, third planet in the solar system Sapphire. When she closes the book, she knows–logically–that Sapphire and Genicia don’t exist. But if they did, this is what they would be like.
It isn’t only readers who care about the details. Agents and editors on a panel at Killer Nashville were asked what made them stop reading a submission. Errors in facts and character behavior scored high. (See the full list at http://carolynmulford.com/uncategorized/why-agents-and-editors-stop-reading .) Mistakes may matter more in the early chapters, when you’re still trying to set the hook. Once the reader–or agent or editor–is engaged in the story, she’s likely to be more forgiving–or to believe you, if she’s uncertain about a detail.
Still, you can kill yourself–and your story– trying to get everything right. What should you check and what can you let go?
- Check out facts related to major plot elements. If your villain intends to kill his wife with an overdose of insulin, make sure you know it can be done–and how.
- Focus on the dog, not the fleas. Don’t worry about whether a captain or a lieutenant would take charge of the investigation. But make sure you get the basic procedures right.
- Verify widely known facts outside your experience. If you’ve never been on a jury, talk with your neighbor who has. What surprised or upset her about the process? What were courthouse security measures? Was she bored or intrigued? Where did she park? Did the bailiff bring donuts?
- Don’t risk a mistake in things easily confirmed. If you’ve never seen a purple Subaru, chances are they weren’t made.
- We often make mistakes in the things we think we know. If it matters to the story, check it out–or leave it out.
- Historicals attract readers who love history. And some readers love to tell writers where they goofed. Does that mean you can’t write about 14th century England because you weren’t born until 1970, or that you need an MA in the period? No. You need reliable references and an eye for the details that set the scene and bring the characters to life.
- Read through your ms. with your reader’s hat on. What might the typical reader question? Ask your critique partners to note anything that creases their brows.
- Accept that you’ll make mistakes. Don’t let that fear paralyze you.
Leslie Budewitz is the author of Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), to be released October 1. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, The Whitefish Review, and elsewhere. For an excerpt, articles for writers, and information on her research services, visit her at www.lawandfiction.com.