Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why does getting it right matter?

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 .) 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.

So, when it comes to facts in fiction, where do you draw the line, as a writer–or as a reader? 

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


Ramona said...

Leslie, terrific post. The "fictive dream" quote says it all. When a reader catches a factual error, it plants a seed of doubt--Should I trust this writer?--and pulls you out of the story. Not good.

Congratulations on the book! You have been generous in sharing your expertise with your fellow authors, so it's great to see it in book form, too. I'm looking forward to buying a copy.

Coco Ihle said...

Leslie, I loved your post. I totally agree with you that getting the facts right is an important issue. I had an instance where I wrote a fact that I thought was correct, only to find a critique member disagreed. I double checked, and she was right. I was so glad I had a critique group. Sometimes the Internet isn't correct, too, so double checking is a good idea.

Sheila Connolly said...

One reason I've stayed away from writing historical fiction is that as a former academic it was beaten into me that the facts had to be accurate--and with footnotes, more than one if possible. In fiction you can make up what you need to serve your plot, but you make a good point: if one detail is wrong, can you trust the other ones?

I just finished reading the sixth book in Jessica Andersen's Nightkeepers series (which I'm having rrouble defining in one sentence, but it's about a group of mages who are fighting evil forces, in a conflict that will reach its climax with the Mayan doomsday). This is far, far out of my usual reading zone, but Andersen has created a world that, while fantastic, is entirely consistent and convincing. I have great admiration for her--and I know I couldn't do it. (I think my head would explode, trying to keep all the details straight).

See you this week, Leslie!

Terry Odell said...

So true. If you catch one mistake, then everything else becomes suspect. I've been reading manuscripts for a contest and the author had enough errors that it made it very hard for me to get past them to judge the actual writing.

Of course, putting in TOO much detail is just as troublesome, even if it's right, if it slows the pace.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Sandra Parshall said...

Leslie, I know the publication of this book is a dream come true for you -- and it's a boon to writers too. I think writers will be buying it for years to come.

Those of us who are attending Bouchercon will be able to buy it there and get Leslie to sign it for us.

Msmstry said...

Wonderful column, Leslie! As a mystery reviewer for more than 20 years, I have often stopped reading a book when it had mistakes about something that should have been checked.

In fact, I moderated a panel where an author complained about having been corrected about referencing "Canadian geese" rather than "Canada geese." She threw off the reader's criticism with a snarly, "Who knew?" I nearly had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from blurting, "I knew, and so did my elderly, first-grade-teacher mother!"

Authors can never know the extent of the expertise of their readers. Thank you for emphasizing this point!

I'm ordering BOOKS, CROOKS, AND COUNSELORS from my Indie bookseller as soon as I hit "publish."

See you in St. Louis!


Gigi Pandian said...

Great points about why getting a fact right matters.

I once interviewed a professor of history to see if the scenario I was creating was too far-fetched. After answering my questions, she pointed to a beaten up paperback sticking out of her bag and said when she read for pleasure she wanted it to be fun. I took from that experience that it's really important to get the set-up facts right, but from there we should use our imaginations to tell a great story.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Leslie, and I'm so delighted your book is finally out. I made a mistake that nobody's ever called me on in a widely circulated story as a result of trusting Wikipedia. I could have concluded it doesn't matter--but since then, if I start with Wikipedia, I cross-check against another source. :) If it bothers no one else, it bothers me.

Polly Iyer said...

Excellent post, Leslie. Amazon informed me your book is on the way. I'm sure I'll get plenty of use out of it. Congratulations on your release.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Wow -- surprised to see so many great comments! Thanks so much!

Sheila, at first glance, I thought you were describing a book about mangoes fighting evil forces. I guess I shouldn't skip the coffee today! You write that "Andersen has created a world that, while fantastic, is entirely consistent and convincing." That's the key, isn't it?

Gigi, you're right: fiction should be fun. Of course, we all have different ideas of fun -- which means more opportunities for writers!

Liz, the last chapter in my book is about research. Wikipedia's an ok place to start your research -- just keep going!

Do I dare admit in advance that I know there are mistakes in my book? Ah well, to err is human and all that!

LD Masterson said...

I don't have much time to read blogs on Saturday, so I do a quick scan and bookmark the ones I want to go back to. This one just got bookmarked.

Jeri Westerson said...

It is the single most aggravating factor in writing historicals, getting the facts right, or as right as I can get them. Equally frustrating when a reader reviews and reviles a fact they know to be wrong. Except that *I* spent some months finding that little known fact while this discerning reader only "knew what they knew."

Leslie, I'm looking forward to getting my paws on your book because it is full of the stuff we "knew what we knew" only to discover we were wrong! Thanks for writing it.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent post! I'll definitely look forward to reading this book.


Leslie Budewitz said...

So, Jeri, how do you respond to the readers who think they know better? Is the best response a closed mouth? How do you make sure you get the facts as right as you can?

Thanks, Linda, Brenda, and all!

Holli Castillo said...

This is particularly true when it comes to legal issues. Some writers get their legal knowledge from t.v. shows, which is an exceptionally bad idea. Most t.v. shows absolutely slaughter constitutional law issues.

For crimes charged in state court, where the majority of criminal law cases are prosecuted, each state has its own requirements, sentencing schemes, and names for crimes. It's important to know the law of the state you're writing about, not the law of New York from Law and Order or SVU.

I once read a novel set in my home town of New Orleans--where I was once a prosecutor--and the writer kept referring to the police districts with the title district first and the number after, such as "District Five" when everyone here, even those not in law enforcement, know our districts are named the opposite, such as "Fifth District." It was a little thing, but it let me, and anyone else from down here, know the writer had not done the necessary research.

And not to belabor the point, but a very famous NY Times Bestseller author put an airport in her book in the middle of a suburban neighborhood in a nearby area, so she could call it a "very private airport." The offensive part is that there are two real-life relatively small, private airports she could have used so her airport wouldn't have ended up in someone's back yard had she done even the smallest amount of research. It ruined the book for me and it's the only thing I now remember about it.

Facts absolutely do matter.

Holli Castillo
Jambalaya Justice
Gumbo Justice

Leslie Budewitz said...

Holli, your example of the district names is a good one. It's very easily checked. For local readers -- and don't we want to satisfy them? -- it tells them we know and respect their community. For nonlocals, it contributes to an authentic sense of place--a bit of armchair travel.

I have a similar peeve: referring to all prosecutors as DAs--because that's what they are on Law & Order! In fact, they may be DAs, county attys, county prosecutors, peoples' attys, and other terms--again easily checked.

Sandra Parshall said...

In Virginia (and in Massachusetts, I think), prosecutors are called Commonwealth's Attorneys. It's a mouthful, but a writer can get away with referring to them as prosecutors.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sandy, good example. Despite the formal term, "prosecutor" works locally -- but I bet a reference to "the DA" wouldn't fly very far!

P.I. Barrington said...

Leslie, you nailed me on this one. That is exactly why I write futuristic, sci-fi and the odd tongue-in-cheek stories. You can play fast and loose with the details or make them up yourself (as long as they make sense in your world) and create an entirely new set of laws, rules, traditions, taboos. My main guideline for myself is one word: verisimilitude.
One problem I have is that I'm too impatient to get the novel done and that can lead to blatant mistakes that otherwise might be caught in the revisions/editing or beta readers.
An absolutely great post, one that hits on pretty much all the points!

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