As the author of a book that helps writers get the details about the legal world right, I’m sometimes asked why getting it right matters. “It’s fiction,” writers say. “Why does it matter whether I’ve called the crime first-degree murder instead of deliberate homicide, or put a silencer on a revolver?”
Because as writers, we build our fictional worlds one detail at a time. If we get the details 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 “built of cinder block.” You were born in that hospital, been a patient and a visitor, and you know there’s no visible cinder block. Your forehead wrinkles. When he gets in the 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 writer has on you. “The fictive dream,” in John Gardner’s phrase. You may stick with the book if the characters, premise, and writing satisfy you, but if any of those is problematic, you move on. And a 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, the less the details matter. If your cozy mystery sleuth 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 to and from her job in the crime lab. Then, your mistake may mean she chooses another author for tomorrow’s commute.
But I’m persuaded by the flip side of the argument: the further your story ventures from daily reality, the more the details matter. Consider science fiction and fantasy, where 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.
And it isn’t only readers who care about the details. Agents and editors often cite errors in facts and inconsistent character behavior high on the list of what makes them stop reading.
Still, you can kill yourself–and your story– trying to get everything right. What should you research and what can you let go?
• Check out facts related to major plot elements. If your villain kills 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 over whether a captain or a lieutenant would take charge of an investigation. But 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 bothered her, bored or intrigued her? What were courthouse security measures? 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 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 love telling 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 characters to life.
Do a “facts” draft: Read your ms. with your reader’s hat on. What might the typical reader question? Ask your critique partners to note anything that creases their brow.
And accept that you’ll make mistakes. Don’t let 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’s first book, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books) won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. A practicing lawyer, she blogs about ways writers can use the law in their fiction at www.LawandFiction.com .
Leslie’s cozy series, The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Jewel Bay, Montana, a small lakeside resort community on the way to Glacier Park that calls itself “a Food Lover’s Village,” will debut from Berkley Prime Crime in 2013. She lives in northwest Montana with her husband, a doctor of natural medicine, and their Burmese cat Ruff, an avid birdwatcher. http://www.lawandfiction.com