How Important is Research and Authenticity in Fiction?

Our own Clare Langley-Hawthorne recently posted about getting professional (especially military) details right. She wrote a seemingly self-evident bit of wisdom:
In mysteries and thrillers we often have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background and, given that many of our readers will have similar backgrounds, we need to get the details right. As writers we have an obligation to do our research and try and paint as accurate a picture as possible.
And yet . . .
One of my favorite shows of all time is Law & Order, especially when Michael Moriarty was on it. As pure storytelling, it was an amazing achievement week after week. Using the same structural template, it managed to create compelling characterizations and unique plot details so that each episode seemed fresh.
But there is one thing about the show that drives me nuts. Well, two.
The first is when the detectives slap cuffs on a suspect. It may be on the street or in the workplace, but immediately they begin with their Miranda warnings: “You have the right to remain silent . . .anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law . . .you have the right to an attorney . . .” etc.
The only problem is that no detective (at least, no detective who knows what he’s doing) Mirandizes a suspect at the point of arrest. That’s because he wants the suspect to talk, to babble, to make statements, which they often do. And yes, those statements are admissible evidence, so long as they have not come as a result of accusatoryquestioning.   
Yet it is now a virtual clichรฉ on cop shows and in fiction that at the moment of arrest the cops give the rights admonition. And because of that, the public largely believes that’s the way it should be done every time.
So you have the ironic situation that a reader could write to tell you your cop forgot to Mirandize a suspect, and why don’t you do simple research, fella?
Another item from Law & Order. They usually sit the suspect down in an interview room, separated by a table. Now thatis when you’d Mirandize, and have the suspect sign a written waiver.
Anyway, the questioning begins and it isn’t long before one of the cops (usually Chris Noth) loses his temper and starts screaming at or threatening the suspect.
But as my friend, interrogation expert and fellow author Paul Bishop, says, being aggressive like that only gets a suspect to clam up. Paul, a 35-year LAPD vet (30 of them in sex crimes) now teaches interrogation nationwide to law enforcement agencies. He says he raised his voice during an interrogation maybe five times in his career.
Another thing: Paul doesn’t want a table separating him and the suspect. The table cuts off his view of half the body language. Recently Paul gave a talk to some local SoCal writers on interrogation. He showed the way he did it, by putting his chair directly in front of the suspect, sitting so close their knees touched. He speaks calmly, asking strategic questions in order to get the suspect’s body to betray signs of anxiety.
I tell you, I was sitting in the audience as Paul demonstrated with the moderator, and I was ready to jump out of my seat and confess to something. It was awesome.
But is this ever shown in cop shows or fiction? More dramatic to have a cop throw a chair.
Which is why many writers, even longtime and bestselling veterans, choose the more dramatic alternative, even when it flouts real life. It is also well known that certain A-list writers donโ€™t care much at all about research and flatly make up as much of it as they can.
Is anyone going to arrest them for it? Read them their rights?
So there may be a continuum here. For example, if you’re going to write about weapons, it’s my experience you better get that right, because there are too many gun aficionados out there who will rake you over the coals if you get a detail wrong.
But on the other side of the range, perhaps it’s not as crucial. I recall Lee Child talking about one of his books where Reacher is going through Georgia, a place Child has never  himself been. He received a detailed rejoinder about the impossibility of Reacher’s itinerary from someone who knew the particular roads in that part of the state. But as this error did not seem to impact sales, Child was more sanguine than disturbed by it.
Harlan Coben has also said he is of the “make it up” school of research. Doesn’t seem to have slowed down his sales, either.
Personally, I like to get things right. I’ll do on-site research here in LA, take pictures, walk the streets I’m writing about, feel the vibe of the neighborhood. When it comes to procedures and professional details, I also want to be accurate.
But I also recall something Lawrence Block wrote in the first book I ever read on the craft: Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. Discussing research in general, and his Evan Tanner books (which take place in settings all over the world) in particular, Larry wrote, “Equipped with a decent atlas and a library of travel guides, it’s not all that difficult to do an acceptable job of faking a location. A few details and deft touches in the right places can do more to make your book appear authentic then you might manage via months of expensive and painstaking on-the-spot research.”
That’s really the point in fiction, isn’t it? We are all faking it, so the appearanceof authenticity is what we’re after. If a made-up detail can suffice for effect, why not?
Just don’t have your cops give Miranda warnings to your arrestees on the street, or I’ll send you an email.
So what’s your take on research in fiction? Are you a stickler? How important is it to you that bestselling writers get all the details right? (Note: I’m flying home today from Denver, so won’t be able to comment for a bit. Meanwhile, have at it!)

39 thoughts on “How Important is Research and Authenticity in Fiction?

  1. A policeman once told me he never read the Miranda rights. He caught his suspects “dirty” — possessing a controlled substance. He didn’t need a confession. However, he would listen if they wanted to nark out somebody.

    However, some writers make up stuff that just plain isn’t true. I recall a popular author who based a bestseller on the premise in America you can’t take a child away from its mother. Simply not true, and as a former social worker, author must have known it wasn’t. State services must investigate all alleged child abuse, and will immediately remove children from household if they appear to be in danger.

  2. Great post James—

    I have not yet finished my rough draft—then the real work begins

    Research—it totally scares hell out of me.

    I have a request in to the military freedom of information acts archives, and a request from an Army, Ranger friend of mine now stationed at the Pentagon. I will need specific location information, and too much other stuff to think of.

    Performing research is both exciting and scary at the same time, and I wonder how you pro’s have become so adept at it … when there was no internet.

  3. I haven’t the nerve to ask experts the things I need to know. Silly, I know, especially since I have three cops living on the same street, one of them right beside me. But until I’m published, I don’t think they’ll take me seriously.

    I am more worried about the weapons and method being factual than the location. I wrote a story for a class one time and was told guns don’t jam anymore. Pretty much ruined that story and made me feel incredibly stupid. I now research on the net as much as possible.

    • Amanda — I’m currently working on a project with a retired homicide detective, helping him create ebook versions of three paperbacks he’s already published. I met him when he spoke at a Mystery Writers of America meeting. My limited experience is that cops are quite happy to help authors and don’t require a published list for credibility. I haven’t yet published fiction, but I reached out to a private investigator and he was more than happy to sit and talk to me. I’d encourage you to go ahead and ask. As long as you present yourself in a professional manner, I’ve found “experts” quite agreeable and helpful.

      And, if you need help with weapons, let me know. After three ebook conversions, my cop friend and I are pretty tight, and he’s definitely a man who knows his guns. In addition to that, I have a family full of hard-core gun people (and a son-in-law in the Army’s Special Forces). And, I’m in Texas. We do know our guns here in Texas. And Mexican food — we’re good at that too.

    • Thanks, Diane, I may very well take you up on that offer. Never occurred to me to seek out a PI. Not sure we have any in town. And if we do, I bet he’s not that busy. And a retired cop would probably be happy to talk about his experiences. Think I’ll look into that right now. Cheers!

    • Amanda, I assure you that guns still jam. A semi-automatic pistol or rifle can jam for all kinds of reasons, from bad or incompatible ammo to a worn-out magazine spring to simply a dirty weapon. Plus more.

      My take on research leans more to the Coben model than the Clancy model. I make a lot of stuff up, but I base it on sound knowledge. Guns, explosives, hazardous materials in general and the emergency responder mentality are hard-wired because of work experience, but sometimes I still need to run certain scenes past people whose expertise is more recent than mine.

      In many cases, for me, it’s easier to write around holes in my knowledge than it would be to do more research. My recurring character Jonathan Grave employs some pretty high tech computer tricks in his adventures, but I’ve constructed him in such a way to make it clear that he’s not a technical guy, and is therefore dependent on others to tickle the one and zeroes that make technology sing. By writing him in that way, I never have to be smarter about technology I don’t understand than he does.

      At the end of the day, this fiction stuff is largely sleight of hand.

      John Gilstrap

    • Amanda, My WIP involves a small county sheriff’s office in central Missouri. I just wrote to the sheriff there explaining I was a writer working on a novel and asked for an interview at his convenience. He responded by email to just call him when I was in town. (It’s a hundred miles from my home.) He gave me an hour, seemed happy to answer my questions and explain procedures, and gave me a tour of the building and jail. I was nervous about it too, but this experience made it much easier to ask for help.

    • Thank you, everybody, for the advice. I have been given two names of retired policemen by the friend of a friend who has a friend working somewhere near the police station. Good enough.

    • Yup…guns definitely do jam, especially when one puts one’s thumb knuckle into the slide while firing. Why just a couple weeks ago I got a…uh…my friend got a nice inch long bone deep scar to attest to that.

      Jams, indeed.

  4. If the story is good, I can give it a pass. I was once annoyed with T. Jefferson Parker for referring to the “battlehsips” under the Coronado Bridge in San Diego. Since the novel was set in current day, I wanted to send him a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships and inform him that a battlehsip hasn’t been active in twenty years (and those were relics). The rest of his novel, of course, was fantastic, and I’m not mad at him. Since I’m one of those guys who gets about an hour a day to write, I have to rely on the internet for most of my research. Thank goodness for people who put every aspect of their lives on YouTube. Now if the tech geeks can find a way to add smell…

  5. Jim, since I have more than a third of a century in the practice of medicine, I try to get those details right in my books. Yet I’ve seen a couple of egregious errors about medication and medicine in books by a best-selling author of legal thrillers, and they don’t seem to have hurt his sales. (No, not yours–you’re meticulous in your research, while Mr. G. admits that he hates it).

    Goes to show that good writing can even trump good research. Thanks for sharing, and hope your flight back is smooth.

  6. I’m not bothered by little things — “Oh, c’mon, you can’t get from La Cienega to the 405 like that” — but screwing up scientific or historical facts does annoy the heck out of me. Don’t pile up snowdrifts in a story set in San Diego or have the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor in 1942, that sort of thing.

  7. Jim,

    Great post.

    I remember in some of your books reading about the cherishing and rewarding of beta readers. I guess that goes as well for “experts” we use to get the details right. I have a friend who is an ex Navy SEAL, an explosives expert. Needless to say I keep him updated on my WIP with promises of having the first look at my rough draft, being credited in the book, a free copy, and dinner.

    Funny how most of us don’t get too uptight about the details unless it’s in an area where we have expertise. I, like Richard, have thirty some years in medicine. I remember reading a best selling suspense and being aghast that the author inserted the IV tubing into the vein (never mind the needle that goes into the vein, and to which the tubing is connected). I almost emailed him to offer free medical advice in the future.

    And that leads to my last thought. Is there a writers’ exchange where writers can register their expertise (past and present occupations, hobbies, subjects that have been researched, etc) and offer to share that knowledge in exchange for the right to request information? If there isn’t, I wish someone would create one.

    Thanks for another great post, Jim. By the way, I was able to get registered for your Quantum Story workshop at the ACFW conference in Indianapolis, in September.

  8. “We are all faking it, so the appearance of authenticity is what we’re after.”

    I think that says it all. Verisimilitude, not technical accuracy, is what it’s all about.

  9. This is always an interesting topic to me because I have a foot in both research camps. On one hand, I really think we have an obligation to get some things right — guns, forensic protocol and medical stuff. (I had to check with my niece-nurse on the question of how easy it is for a patient to pull out their own IV. Answer: Happens all the time with minimal bleeding).

    But I am with John and others who say that when it comes to conjuring up a place, if you get the telling details right — the feel of the place — you can get away with a lot. Yeah there are readers who take great delight in finding errors (just had one claim we got all our Michigan geography wrong…hello, born and raised in the mitten state here!) But I think most readers forgive us the small slights if we are successful in pulling them into a fictional world.

    That said, I just read a thriller set in Paris and the guy said the Eiffel was on the RIGHT bank. C’mon…Google street view, dude!

  10. Terrific post. And it’s very timely for me.

    I write nautical thrillers and it seems there are some male readers who feel challenged by that. Boats are supposed to be a man’s world. In my latest novel Circle of Bones, I wrote about a real submarine , the SURCOUF, that disappeared in WWII. I knew that I was moving into territory very unfamiliar to me so I did tons of research on this sub. A fella wrote me just yesterday that it was ridiculous to have a large hold aboard a submarine – he’d never heard of such a thing. In fact, it is one of the interesting oddities about this boat and I say as much in the book. It reminded me of your comment about folks “thinking” they know about the timing for Mirandizing.

    This guy also went on to say my final scene where the pro tag dives alone and without any recon into the sub is unrealistic because it flouts all safety precautions.

    In this case he’s right, but this is where I side with Lee Childs and Harlan Coban. Sometimes the authentic scenario just wouldn’t make good fiction. Authenticy is important, but good storytelling takes precedence.

  11. James —
    You must understand that policy and procedure varies from L/E agency to L/E agency, and not every officer follows his agency’s policy. As a retired federal law officer I was involved in hundreds of arrests everywhere from Philadelphia to Seattle. I can tell you that the FIRST thing we did after ‘cuffing the defendant was to read him/her his rights. SOP. And in every arrest I was present for in which another federal, state or local agency was responsible, the rights were read immediately by a representative of that agency.

  12. My rule of thumb–both as writer and reader–is to do as much research and provide as much detail as is necessary, and no more. I recently put down a book that was pretty good, and clearly had been meticulously researched. All that research got put on the page, and it slowed things down. If I’d wanted to read non-fiction on that topic, I would have. A writer who feels so strongly about what he has learned should inspire the reader to read more, not shove it down his throat. On the other hand, if a character is facing a thousand foot drop in Chicago, he’d better be on the Sears Tower, and he’d better have a plausible reason for being outside.

    As a writer, it’s how much do I need? Weapons and places are always the big bug-a -boo. I provide as much detail as necessary for the weapons. (Automatic vs. revolver. Shotgun vs. rifle. Relative accurate ranges. Some basic characteristics.) Or I’ll just say he has a gun and leave it at that. As for places, if I need a place that isn’t there, I’ll make one up, but it has to be congruent with the facts of the area. No glaciers in Florida.

  13. I teach writing. I tell students that a reader gives you a dollar’s worth of trust by reading your book.

    That trust means she expects you to give her certain things like a good story, interesting characters, decent research, and competent craft, among other things.

    Every time your story fails in one of these elements, the reader takes away a bit of that money, and when there is no money left, the reader tosses the book without finishing it and will no longer trust you enough to buy the next book.

    When the reader spots a factual error, she may take a nickel out of that dollar, or if she really hates that type of mistake, that error may cost you a quarter or the whole dollar.

    Sloppy errors are simply not worth that much risk.

  14. Oh, my goodness. Is there really an actual concrete barrier all scared up at the dead end of Raymer Street? I’ll get on Google Earth and check. Otherwise, it’s time to rewrite.

  15. I think it’s important to be as accurate as possible in our work. We all know TV shows are fictional examples of real life. But readers are more discerning and expect details to be well researched.

  16. This is a very timely topic as I have recently spent many an hour on research for my current novel. OK, make that DAYS ๐Ÿ˜€

    As a writer, I feel that good research and authenticity are crucial factors in my ability to deliver an excellent story. I want to know that I didn’t cheat my readers. I want to know that I did the best that I could to make it ‘real’. Yes, it’s a made up story of fiction. But unless I’m writing pure, high fantasy where I’ve invented the entire world, its fauna, its flora, its civilised societies, its religions, its political structure, and maybe even a different gravity that allows for flying pork chops, then I like to make the non-fiction stuff as genuine as possible.

    As a reader, I am willing to accept a certain degree of bullshit ๐Ÿ˜‰ There will be a limit on the bull-shit-o-meter though. It’s around the time some idiot inserts the IV tubing into the vein ๐Ÿ˜‰ (yes, I’m a doctor and I avoid watching medical series as, too often, I sit there going, ‘That’s not the way you do it, you dumb ass!’)

    The best compliment I’ve been paid on my two novels so far have been from readers who said they felt as if ‘they were there’, that they could ‘see, smell, and hear’ the different locations the stories took place in. They also appreciated that the technologies and science featured were current and accurate.

    The next best compliment was being told by readers that they ‘forgot to breathe’ when they were reading the books ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. I sort of straddle the real and the fictitious to create something that is BELIEVABLE. Is it really true? Who knows. Does it sound true? Bingo. ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. I think the sales of people like Dan Brown make it pretty clear that accurate research and attention to factual detail aren’t really necessary for huge success. Lots of best sellers have in-your-face poor errors like cordite in guns (just read that one again today, sigh) or walking from Bloomingdales to the Statue of Liberty or a single scientist running an accelerator experiment at the LHC. I’m not sure why it doesn’t affect sales. It affects my reading habits; I don’t read Dan Brown any more, for example. At a guess, I’d say about half the readers don’t notice and half the readers don’t care. But that’s a guess.

    So I don’t think research is important for sales at all – assuming you have a cracking good story and everything else to trump it. But I think it can be important as far as being taken seriously by the critics (whether or not that sort of thing matters to you) and by the hard-core niche fans.

  19. Awesome post! I also straddle the line. In my WIP, the MC is a lawyer, but of the high-dollar silk-stocking ilk. I base her on not only my own knowledge, but also on how I’ve seen high-end attorneys act in court.

    She had to go to Beaumont Texas to meet someone. I haven’t been to Beaumont in 20 years, so I pulled up Google Maps and “walked” the streets until I found the right type of neighborhood for her destination.

    On the subject of Miranda, years ago, when I was an intern, I watched a prelim of a case involving a brutal murder. Just brutal. And the child was still missing. They nabbed the guy on a bus at the state line. For the 3-hour drive back, they didn’t Mirandize, but the duct-taped his ankles together (for safety – of course). They worked on him all the way back to give up where the child (presumably his body) was located, using the old “Christian Burial” trope.

    The defense worked it and gnawed at it. It dawned on me that he was setting up the appeal. Creating a monster record in prelim that he could rely on in appeal of the almost certain death penalty ruling.

    Very thrilling case, the stuff TV shows are made of. BUT, the lawyer’s work was dry, precise, and deadly serious. To make it work in fiction, there would have to be some liberties taken. It would have to taste true while being not nearly as chewy as reality.

    I saw a review on a medical thriller written by an MD where she ranted that she was a nurse, “in the ER the patient would have been given plasma not whole blood!” (or maybe the opposite, I forget) and therefore, the entire book, which featured genetically-engineered mosquitoes as a plague vector, was “just ruined.”

    Okay, whatever. Unless that pint of fluid is the crux of the story, what I want out of an ER scene is tension and action with just enough technical details and tang of reality to make me do duckface while I flip the pages to find out what happens next.

    One awesome writers’ con presenter gave us a quote along the lines of “the key to research is to put it in and leave it out at the same time.” Enough research to write authentically without writing a manual rather than a novel.

    (Oh, and duct-tape dude? They found the child, alive, but horribly injured). He ended up getting the death penalty for killing his girlfriend and trying to burn down the house to cover it up. It was overturned on appeal. The key phrase is “custodial interrogation.”)


  20. Okay, since you asked, my pet peeve is when historical fiction writers use modern day expressions, styles of speaking, and mannerisms for their characters. People didn’t talk that way back then, and it irks me that the writer spent all his time researching setting, historical facts, and clothing, but missed that one simple thing. It irks me so much that I’ll lay the book down and won’t go back to the author. Akin to this would be cultural mannerisms, which writers commonly ignore. It reminds me a little of the movie ‘Somewhere in Time’ with Christopher Reeves. He manages to send himself back in time, but at the end, he inadvertently finds a penny in his pocket from his own time period. It shoots him back to the present, and it feels like that when I encounter this kind of thing in writing.

    I like Richard Peck, because when I read his historical fiction, it’s like I’m actually back in time. No glitches. And it’s amazing.

  21. I like to be as accurate as possible, but can’t afford to travel onsite, so research outside of Alaska is mostly google earth and made up.

    Something I did in my novel 65 Below is made up a whole town that sounds like the real thing, but since I didn’t want any fan-boy tourists driving through a real looking for the farmhouse where the incidents took place (or current residents wondering about toxic spills in their neighborhood). Gotta keep the innocents safe ya know.

  22. Basil, I did the same thing. Cochinelle is based on a real town in Texas that I visited last summer. I used the real name in the first go-round, but didn’t want to have to constantly error-check and potentially annoy someone.

  23. I love doing research and trying to get the facts behind the story right. But that obsession can get in the way of finishing the book. One of my test readers reminded me that I am writing fiction. It’s okay to move locations and make things up

  24. I’m late so I’ll leave one small comment:

    For what it’s worth I will ~never~ forgive Stephanie Meyers for screwing up how DNA works. Some sins are unforgivable.

  25. I want the “stuck door” authenticity in my writing. Anyone who has been to the U.S. Embassy in a certain Asian country knows the door always sticks when you enter. Writing that detail can’t come from maps & travel brochures. Since I can’t travel to these places, I must rely on friends who have.

  26. Regarding your observation about “no detective Mirandizes a suspect at the point of arrest” – I asked a cop friend of mine about this today. He said they always Mirandize at the point of slapping the cuffs on. Could it be a state-by-state issue?

    • I’ve not done as much research as James on this, but what I’ve found agree. There is no need to Mirandize until the police are ready to question the suspect, as a suspect. There was a time, when the Miranda ruling was still new, when some suspects would blurt things out before the police had a chance to read them the warning, on the premise of what they said could NOT be used against them until they were advised of their rights. The Supreme Court quickly disabused them of this notion.

      If any of us are witnesses to a crime, we are not read our rights before questioning, even though what we say can still be used against us, if only for making false statements or obstruction of justice. It’s only when police have made an arrest and about to ask potentially incriminating questions that Miranda kicks in.

      I used this in a story once. Police arrest a guy, start talking to him. He notes they haven’t read him his rights, and they say they aren’t going to ask him any questions. They’re going to tell him what they know, then send him back to his cell. They’re hoping he’ll come clean of his own volition after he hears what they have on him. I’m sure that would cause a nifty court challenge–the cops knew they were taking a chance–but I had the guy lawyer up before things went too far.

  27. Thank you for this post. For some reason, I decided to write a story that took place in a state I have only visited a few times. Why? It would have been so much easier to just place the story in a warm climate…but I needed the snow, I needed the warm jackets and slushy snow…Ah well.

  28. I’ve never cared much for research because it’s often felt like writers are seeking good grades for accuracy in research, and I’m going “What about the story?” Entertain me, and I’m happy. I don’t really care of if you goof up the distance of the Capitol from the Washington monument.

    Most of my research for places has consisted of it “What does it look like?”; “What kind of animals does it have?”; “What’s the weather like?”; and “What cool stories does it have?” I’m continually surprised at how much people say they get the feel of the location from these simple details.

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