Monday, July 02, 2007

Getting it right

People seem to think authors sit in front of the computer and, in a couple of weeks, maybe a month, their book is complete from beginning to end. If only it was that easy. There's a lot more to creating a story than typing words onto paper. For example, there's the research.

When I've mentioned research to non-writing friends, a few have said, "Just make it up. You're writing fiction." Once I'd recovered from the shock of their response, I pointed out instances in which they'd been annoyed by books, movies or television shows that were inaccurate.

Most authors I know - published as well as aspiring, regardless of genre - require some research to complete their story. Once an author captures a reader's attention, she doesn't want to lose her reader because of faulty details. A fire investigator doing a walk-through in a recently burnt building without protective gear. A police officer not securing a scene before the criminologists arrive. Mistakes like that will bump a reader right out of the story.

Some authors love research. While it's not high on my list of favorite things, I appreciate its value. While writing You Belong to Me, I read several books regarding independent film companies and movie production. For On Fire, I did a lot of research on fires and fire investigations. In fact, the research caused me to completely change two scenes from the original draft. Although that was a pain in the neck, I actually preferred the revised scenes.

My local writing chapter recently had the good fortune of hosting a presentation by a S.W.A.T. team leader. It was a very thorough, informative seminar that dispelled several myths and provided valuable insight into their personalities and private lives.

I've always had a fondness for the old S.W.A.T. TV series. I don't know whether it was the cool theme music, the action or the actors. I didn't like the movie as much, but I'd watch it again just to see LL Cool J.

Well, one of the myths the S.W.A.T. team leader dispelled was the average age of the officers. They aren't the youthful characters portrayed on film and TV. They're in their mid- to late 40s, and for a very good reason. The police departments want seasoned officers handling those volatile situations. Isn't that interesting?

As a reader, how important to you is accuracy in fiction novels? As a writer, have you come across any myth busters in your research?



Gwyneth Bolton said...

Great post, Patricia! A lot of writers don't realize what a biggie this one is with readers. I've heard so many readers in various discussion groups mention that they enjoyed a book until they came across an incorrect fact or inaccurate portrayal and it took her right out of the book. And I'm sure we've all experienced the same thing as readers ourselves. Suspending belief only goes so far... LOL.


Angela Henry said...


Research isn't one of my favorite things to do, and I work in a library ; ). In fact, one of the reasons why I set my series in a fictional town was so I wouldn't have to do a lot of research. I could make everything up. But even that has it's drawbacks because now I have to remember the facts I made up to keep everything consistant. And you are so right, as a reader I find it a big turn off to read a poorly researched book.


patricia sargeant said...

Hi, Gwyneth! I really appreciate your stopping by. I agree that a lot of writers don't realize the importance of factual accuracy even in fiction novels. Some writers believe the only thing that matters is a good story. Well, part of the definition of a "good" story is factual accuracy.

Angela, I got a chuckle out of your saying research isn't one of your favorite things although you work in a library. LOL! Even with the research, I'm still afraid I'll get something wrong and a reader will bust my chops over it. :(

Felicia Donovan said...

Patricia, as an author who also has ten years of law enforcement experience under her belt, you've touched a nerve with this post. Accuracy and research do count for me if I want a story (mine or others') to sound realistic. Hence why I find it extremely difficult to watch police shows on TV. My agency does not have the luxury of getting DNA results back in 30 minutes (try several years) nor latent fingerprints in five minutes (if only - try two years at the State Lab). One would think "real" police shows like COPS would get it right and while the events may be unscripted, I've cringed many times at the policy and procedural violations some of those officers commit. An officer should never do a motor vehicle stop without calling in their whereabouts and the plate of the car, yet almost every episode shows someone doing just that. Very dangerous for officer safety.

Research takes time but most law enforcement agencies I know are more than happy to accommodate someone with a legitimate interest. It's fun to introduce the outside world to the behind the crime scene world. What officers can't speak about are specific facts of an on-going investigation. They can talk about their work and how an investigation is handled, how a crime scene is processed and most are more than willing to do that.

patricia sargeant said...

Felicia, thank you so much for visiting us and posting a comment. I'm really surprised and disappointed that a show like COPS wouldn't portray law enforcement accurately. I've never watched that show, but I am a Court TV fan. Now I'm wondering about the accuracy of other "true crime" shows. Drat.

Felicia Donovan said...

Just to clarify, I'm a civilian supervisor, but I'm still bound by the same "SOPs" (Standard Operating Procedures) as any sworn personnel. These SOPs are in place for everyone's safety and to limit liability. When I watch "reality" shows like COPS, I sometimes have to wonder what kind of training these officers received. Or maybe my department and other departments I'm familiar with are sticklers. When six officers are already on-scene and the one officer with the camera crew shows up and goes bursting through the door while the others have already been there for a while, you know it's a setup. When three units are in pursuit and the cruiser with the camera crew pulls up from behind like a racehorse and is suddenly the lead unit behind the bad guy, you know it's a setup. Maybe that's okay for TV, but if I'm reading a book, I want the details right.

patricia sargeant said...

Felicia, in your experience, do any shows get it right?

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