Friday, July 15, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

As a mystery writer, I have to do a certain amount of research.  That's fine with me, because once I aspired to be an academic art historian, and that requires a lot of research (including taking those terrible trips to peculiar foreign countries and struggling through dusty old museums and crumbling cathedrals--poor me). I love learning new things, whether or not I ever use them in a book.

The Roman Forum

But how do you know how much you need to know?  How do you know when to stop?

Let me tell you a true story.  Many years ago (twenty-six, to be exact), when my husband and I lived in California, I was enrolled in a University of California evening MBA program.  I was also working full-time, and I was pregnant and then gave birth my daughter, when I took a generous (ha!) eight-week maternity leave.  Let me say that I missed only one class, and took the make-up exam a week later (bringing along my own pillow).

In any case, one of my classes required a research paper, and I had an infant at home and no babysitter.  (This was before the Internet, remember.) There was no way I was going to be able to get to a library to do the research I needed. But...this was California, and we were much into recycling even then, so I had a three-foot stack of newspapers in the garage waiting to be bundled up and disposed of responsibly.  And that's where I did my research.  In the garage.

As I dimly remember it, the paper involved analyzing the inconsistent public positions regarding federal strategies for the regulation of the oil industry, or something like that.  And I pulled enough information from articles in that stack of newspapers to write a paper that received an A+ (the only one in my long academic career) and  enthusiatic personal comments from the dean of the business school.

There's a lesson in here somewhere:  you need to know only enough to be able to discuss something intelligently,  and you need to know the expectations of your audience.  You do not have to become an instant expert about Chinese porcelains of the early 17th century (leave that kind of thing to the academics); you need to be able to say that the blue-and-white piece lying in shards around the murder victim was most likely old and Chinese in origin.

That's not to say that you should skimp on research, especially if you enjoy it.  Since firearms figure consistently in mysteries (although I've yet to shoot anyone in my books), I have taken a few classes in handling and shooting weapons.  I found that I liked it (what can I say?  I cut my teeth on TV Westerns, and had a cap gun at the age of four), and now I have a carry permit (more research--what are the firearms regulations in a variety of states?  Massachusetts:  strict; adjacent Vermont:  nil), although I haven't gone as far as purchasing a weapon (although my husband has a couple). 

In another case, in a book coming out next year (Fire Engine Dead), I needed information on the psychological profile of arsonists.  We probably all think we know something about firebugs (courtesy of television again), but I wanted to get more details and make sure that what I wrote was accurate.  I discovered that there is a forensic psychologist who specializes in arsonists--and she lives and works in Pennsylvania, only a few miles from where my fictional protagonist lives.  Serendipity, obviously!  I've talked with her, I've read her publications, and she will get credit in the book (and appear under a pseudonym).

I believe we have an unwritten contract with our readers.  They expect us to get the details right, so they can concentrate on trying to figure out whodunnit before we reveal it.  If we don't, they write to complain.  But if we get too absorbed in trying to get everything just right, the book will never get written.  We've got to find the happy middle ground.

Have you ever written to an author to complain about a mistake?


Sandra Parshall said...

Some writers have disclaimers in the front of their books: The setting is fictional; I've moved real places around; I've taken liberties with reality. Maybe we should all do that, to cover any mistakes we *might* make. Then readers will comb through the book, hoping to spot the "liberty" we've taken, and will complain if they can't find one. :-)

lil Gluckstern said...

I recently wrote about a mistake, not because I was looking for errors, but this was an error of fact that struck me while I was reading it. I find it amazing that you all balance truth and fiction as well as you do, and I have no problem with bending truths.
Nor does it particularly ruin the book for me. I open a book with the desire to be entertained so things that are "wrong" don't usually bother me. What I love is all the things that are right, that teach me and increase my knowledge.

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