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Author Topic: Research in Crime, or "Never lets facts get in the way of a good story"  (Read 5378 times)
Sandra mre
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« Reply #15 on: August 16, 2006 »

On a side note here, would you agree or disagree that over the last 20 years, crime writing has become more and more dependent on these sort of forensic accuracies? If so, why do you think that is?

I would agree, and maybe it's down to the fact that we communicate electronically and even the 'money' we spend isn't paper most of the time anymore, our furniture is plastic and our food is processed.  So while we have less and less in our lives that's "real" we seem to be pushing our fiction to embrace reality. 

But at the same time, there's something about general knowledge in society.  It's like backstage-frontstage regions.  Used to be the men talked in one room, the women in another.  There used to be things you didn't know about, just based off of gender boundaries or physical boundaries.  That's all changed, with the advent of technology and changing philosophies.  The result is that fiction writers are confronted, on certain levels, by what the general public is aware of.  It can't be completely discarded.  How hard would it be to believe in a book set in this time in which the cops never used computers for anything?  Or didn't use cell phones?

I had a recent experience of reading a book where the author had overused specific terms.  In this case, it had to do with cultural setting, but it pulled me out of the book to the point that I was flipping back and forth trying to stay on top of the story.  Thing was, I kept flipping to the index at the back, where these local words were explained, but only about 1/5 of the ones in the book merited a definition.  And it was one of those languages that uses the same 8 letters all the time.  Ultimately, it was hard for me to say if the author failed to persuade me of the story and character because I missed stuff by flipping back and forth and trying to sort out my technical confusion, or just because they didn't do a good job explaining stuff and making it believable.  It was definitely an example, to me, of where less would have been more.
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darkdoug
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« Reply #16 on: August 16, 2006 »

Overdoing it is another way to fail.  Good writers are selective.  The one you mention, Sandre, seems to be self-consciously trying to show that he knows enough about that culture that he can't be accused of stereotyping.  All art requires selection.  A single, well placed detail creates a whole world around itself; two many details crowd the narrative.
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clashcityrocker
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« Reply #17 on: August 17, 2006 »

Personally it doesn't matter too much to me as long as the author does not insult the intelligence of the reader by including incidents which defy credibility. I have to say I very often feel hugely ambivalent about some of the twists many authors feel obligated to inflict on us. I hesitate to mention this but even the, arguably, crime writing genius, Micheal Connelly is guilty of this. For example one of Connelly's most accomplished novels, The Poet, is utterly compelling and convincing until you analyse it a little closely: are we really to believe the head of the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit is himself a serial killer in his spare time? Mmm. And towards the end of the novels, where all the loose ends are tied together, you know there will be a final twist which alters all of your preconceptions.
As a reader looking for some realism I often feel a little cheated when all of the character and plot believability is sacrificed simply in order to shoehorn in, sometimes clumsily, a highly unlikely final plot twist. Ironically, of course, it's very much the law of diminishing returns because any reader of Jeffrey Deaver will, for example, be expecting a final twist and will be surprised if one is not forthcoming. You're prepared to expect the unexpected, if that makes sense.
I may have veered off the original question a little here but I feel research, character, and plot credibility are very much in the same area.
Back to research; I think we are entitled to criticize an author who rests his reputation on the accuracy of procedural detail, if there these details are demonstrably sloppy or even wrong.
We are always gong to have readers who, for whatever reason, wish to wrongfoot a writer. One of my favourite authors related in his blog how exasperating he found it when readers post in forums of this kind, and point out, often gleefully, some error the writer has made. His argument being, quite rightly, in my view, by all means inform the author of the mistake, but not in such a public manner.
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Sandra mre
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« Reply #18 on: August 17, 2006 »

Overdoing it is another way to fail.  Good writers are selective.  The one you mention, Sandre, seems to be self-consciously trying to show that he knows enough about that culture that he can't be accused of stereotyping.  All art requires selection.  A single, well placed detail creates a whole world around itself; two many details crowd the narrative.

Well said.  I'm so tempted to steal that for the official review... (but I won't!)
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Confession is good for the soul but bad for a marriage.  That's why I never admit to anything.

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doc rabbit
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« Reply #19 on: August 26, 2006 »

o.k., I just had to throw in the thoughts of a scientist who enjoys crime fiction but hates misinformation. I know the original question was about procedural accuracies in law enforcement, but scientific accuracieis an important parallel, I think.

I am SO frustrated to the point of angry when the simplest science facts are just plain wrong. I agree with prior posts that too much detail is distracting at best and at worst, loses the reader completely (like the glazed-over eyes of my chem students when I get too dry and 'fact-y'.) However, I believe that a storyline is strengthened tremendously by accuracy that keeps its spice and freshness.

It's not only possible, but deepens and enriches and excites a story, when the facts are right. And, although people in general don't like to admit it, it's kinda cool when, in the course of good fiction, you learn something that's little-known but really neat.

Now, I do get a good laugh when movie science is wrong in such an overt way that it's obviously a director's choice. Best examples:  green and glowing chemical waste (it's often brown-black and sludgy); neurotoxin that makes the skin melt off of everyone's face except Nicholas Cage's with dramatic self-injection into the heart. Very wrong, but I gotta admit, it was good drama. BUT I really hate it when the whole plot line is based on a scientific inaccuracy. If you don't care about accuracy, put it on another planet or an alternate universe and call it sci fi. Even then...

It can be tempting to believe that when the facts are wrong, especially scientific facts, not many people notice (just nerdy rabbits like me) so -- what's the harm? Sorry, that's just plain LAZY. I think it's much easier than is commonly believed to get things right. How easy is it to get things right without a science background?

Do you have ANY idea how underpaid the science teaching profession is, especially at the undergraduate or community college level?!! Why do we do it?  Most of us just love to teach. Most teachers, I think, have fragile egos, too. What does this have to do with researching facts? I could be wrong, but I believe that many of us would love to review written work for accuracy for a small fee and an acknowledgement. Really. Heck, if it's just a few questions, many'd do it just for an acknowledgement. Just choose your timing wisely. Beginning and end of semesters are bad. Or just ask them if it's a good time. Or, better yet, find out when their office hours are and just wander in. If it's not just before a quiz or exam, chances are, there your expert will be, just waiting to answer questions.

And, just for the record, you can't put a fiber into a gc-mass spectrometer. There! I said it! In your face, CSI !! (they got the analysis right, but the instrument wrong...)

back to class prep!!
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chelbel
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« Reply #20 on: August 26, 2006 »

Mr.Doc Rabbit, tell us more stuff they get wrong?  I love it, that would be a cool thread!
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Roger
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« Reply #21 on: August 27, 2006 »

I think its important for authors to do research. It important to make the story believable as possibly and that means getting that facts right. A author should only Write about a subject he is comfortable with. If a author was writing about a particular car and you owed that car and you new what he was on about was a load of rubbish, you would put that book in the bin and never buy another one of his or hers.
So the story is fiction, keep the facts, fact.
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paperbackwriter
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« Reply #22 on: August 29, 2006 »

This is a great thread! I've been wondering about this topic for some time. From a reader's perspective, 'getting it right' isn't terribly important as long as it's entertaining....at least in my view. Most books I read involve several murders, including those of our erudite host Mr B, but they vary enormously with regard to their treatment of police procedures and forensics. At one end of the scale you have, for example, Martina Cole who presumably knows next to nothing about these scientific subjects and accordingly leaves them out of the story. Do I care? No, because the story was good. At the other end of the spectrum you have the likes of Jeffery Deaver and Tess Gerritsen - in both cases the presentations of criminal, medical, pathological or psychological analysis often borders on showboating and while for me it remains interesting it can still annoy. I've just finished a (fortunately brief) chapter of a Tess Gerritsen novel that was largely dedicated to the analysis of a single fibre. I haven't the time to check up on the accuracy of her work, life's too short to be such an anorak, but it's invariably impressive. As for entertainment fare, well not always so.

From the writer's point of view, well this is why I'm so interested in the topic of this thread - I am working on a crime fiction novel and my knowledge of police forensic procedures and such like can be summarised on a postage stamp so I'm pretty paranoid about writing about it. Apart from Martina Cole, writers such as Harlan Coben manage to side-step this area of expertise without its absence being prominent, so I guess I will focus on what I know better - people and relationships. At the end of the day, every successful writer has their own style and procedural accuracy rarely gets in the way of their success. By way of example, let me name and shame Dan Brown, who among other daft ideas stretched readers' credibilities to overload when one of his 'heroes' jumped out of a helicopter with no parachute and made it safely to the ground (or water, as it turned out). Could it have been done? Very unlikely. Does anybody care? Not Mr Brown, that's for sure.

I think the best philosophy is if you don't know it for sure, don't write about it. Successful writers such as Brown, Coben and Cole have shown that you need hardly mention it, and others such as Deaver and Gerritsen have racked up the sales by being famous for it. If you, moneill, have visions of being (or continuing to be) a novelist, I would suggest concentrating on the areas in which you are strongest and feel most confident about.

Just don't refer to DNA as the National Dyslexia Association, will you....
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Sammo
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« Reply #23 on: August 29, 2006 »

As a writer that knows diddly-squat about legal procedures, all my research was done through the TV.  CSI, Law & Order, Daziel & Pascoe, Cracker, and a few others I forget have provided me with enough bare bones that I can flesh out my story with.  I would have thought that Average Joe reader wouldn't want too in-depth procedural novels?

At the end of the day, I read novels for entertainment.  If I wanted to read for education, I'd pick up a text book.

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rockrebel
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« Reply #24 on: August 29, 2006 »


At the end of the day, I read novels for entertainment.  If I wanted to read for education, I'd pick up a text book.



Ah but Paul, There's the rub. education through entertainment is an exciting concept methinks. Could catch on
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Sammo
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« Reply #25 on: August 29, 2006 »

I remember something like that called Edutainment a few years ago when educational computer "games" started showing up.  Wasn't well received by the games playing public.
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Sandra mre
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« Reply #26 on: August 29, 2006 »

As a writer that knows diddly-squat about legal procedures, all my research was done through the TV.  CSI, Law & Order, Daziel & Pascoe, Cracker, and a few others I forget have provided me with enough bare bones that I can flesh out my story with.  I would have thought that Average Joe reader wouldn't want too in-depth procedural novels?

It depends on how important the procedure is to the process of the investigation.  I've been to the MEs office - they laugh at CSI.  I thought, from reading books on dog training and from watching movies, that I knew how dogs were used to track for evidence.  Maybe in the US, but not in Canada.  When the top trainer for the RCMP agreed to read a scene, he laughed at me.  It was completely wrong.

Thing is, if you read reader sites, like DorothyL, you'll see authors get shredded for missteps like having skunks in England or failing to establish plausibility - don't even get *some* of them started on mistakes with forensics, police procedure or the legal system.

I think this is one of those things where you have to know your audience.  If you're writing tongue-in-cheek mysteries that aren't heavy-duty procedurals, you can skirt around a lot of stuff like this.  If you're focusing on cops it'll be much harder to avoid stuff and make the book believable.  When I was starting to shop the one book, one critique came back to me explaining that I knew how to write but I didn't know police procedure and would have to rewrite the five chapters I'd submitted.  They were right. 

And it isn't even about using all you know.  As they said on the research panel, the most important stuff you research is what you never use, but the knowledge that gives you to the confidence to talk about something with authority.  You should hear the minor stuff people have written to authors to gripe over.  I bet Mark has at least one story...
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Confession is good for the soul but bad for a marriage.  That's why I never admit to anything.

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norby
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« Reply #27 on: August 29, 2006 »

As a writer that knows diddly-squat about legal procedures, all my research was done through the TV.  CSI, Law & Order, Daziel & Pascoe, Cracker, and a few others I forget have provided me with enough bare bones that I can flesh out my story with.  I would have thought that Average Joe reader wouldn't want too in-depth procedural novels?

It depends on how important the procedure is to the process of the investigation.  I've been to the MEs office - they laugh at CSI.  I thought, from reading books on dog training and from watching movies, that I knew how dogs were used to track for evidence.  Maybe in the US, but not in Canada.  When the top trainer for the RCMP agreed to read a scene, he laughed at me.  It was completely wrong.

Thing is, if you read reader sites, like DorothyL, you'll see authors get shredded for missteps like having skunks in England or failing to establish plausibility - don't even get *some* of them started on mistakes with forensics, police procedure or the legal system.

I think this is one of those things where you have to know your audience.  If you're writing tongue-in-cheek mysteries that aren't heavy-duty procedurals, you can skirt around a lot of stuff like this.  If you're focusing on cops it'll be much harder to avoid stuff and make the book believable.  When I was starting to shop the one book, one critique came back to me explaining that I knew how to write but I didn't know police procedure and would have to rewrite the five chapters I'd submitted.  They were right. 

And it isn't even about using all you know.  As they said on the research panel, the most important stuff you research is what you never use, but the knowledge that gives you to the confidence to talk about something with authority.  You should hear the minor stuff people have written to authors to gripe over.  I bet Mark has at least one story...

...I get the feeling you say that knowingly.
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Roger
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« Reply #28 on: August 30, 2006 »

If you were watching CSI and you know it was all made up and unbelievable, you wouldn't watch it.
CSI researchers do hell of a lot of research and have experts on hand for advise so the make the stories as believable as possible. 


That's why we watch them, and like them.
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Sandra mre
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« Reply #29 on: August 30, 2006 »

Hate to state an obvious, but in the real world the people who process the physical evidence don't interrogate the suspects, for starters.  Lots of people who are pros at something will watch a show that's related to their field, especially if it's popular, to see how well or how poorly it's done.

My husband watches firefighter movies and shows and a lot of them are wrong.  He delights in pointing out to me all the things they get wrong and then explaining to me why it's wrong.

I don't really care.  I hate watching them because when he's on a call I don't want to think about what it might look like to go inside a burning building.

If you're reading, it's your call to make about realism.  If you're writing, all I'll say is never underestimate what your book may be shredded for.  Norby, I haven't exactly had it happen to me - yet.  But I just finished the final pre-ARC edit on the book - only one chance now to catch any lingering mistakes - and had to recheck all kinds of research points because in the two years since I wrote the original, laws can change. 

Simon Kernick got told for putting a safety catch on a gun that didn't have one for that specific caliber...  Val McDermid got a handslap from a reader for having records stored in one location when they're stored somewhere else.  Thing was, they used to be stored where she'd stated in her book, but they'd subsequently been moved, and a reader went to her forum and criticized the book for being unrealistic because of it.  I'm not trying to be difficult, I'm just saying if you're writing, be prepared for the inevitable reader with a sharp eye who's willing to tell you how you got it wrong.  And heaven help you if it's an outspoken fan who will name book and author on discussion groups and rant about how poor the research for the book is. 

I'm not justifying anybody - just saying that's a reality, one authors have to contend with.
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Confession is good for the soul but bad for a marriage.  That's why I never admit to anything.

http://www.sandraruttan.com/

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