Authentic Enough?

By Sherry who is melting in Northern Virginia (why is it an ice storm suddenly sounds appealing?!)

IMG_1796As some of you know I edit manuscripts in my spare time. The most recent manuscript I worked on was Grilled for Murder by our very own Edith Maxwell. It’s the second in her new Country Store Mysteries written under the name Maddie Day.  I had a lot of comments on the way she had the police handle a crime scene. I thought they were too unprofessional, they mishandled the crime scene, and they took everything Edith’s protagonist Robbie said at face value.

Edith and I tossed ideas around until we came up with a solution that worked with her plot but wasn’t too farfetched. I told her I thought cozy readers were forgiving, that she isn’t writing a police procedural, and that the solution was authentic enough. Edith said authentic enough was going to be her new motto.

IMG_3738The whole process made me think about writing scenes where police are involved. In my writing I try to keep it to a minimum. I rely on two police officers to help out when I have questions. One of the police officers told me that I had most of it right in Tagged for Death except for when Sarah’s taken into a building that had potential for being a part of the crime scene. He didn’t think that was realistic. It made me change a scene in The Longest Yard Sale so after the body is discovered they talk outside the building instead of inside the building.

My conversation with Edith also made me think about describing dead bodies. Again, I try not to go into too much detail (for one reason I write cozies, and two, yuck) but I don’t want to be so far off the mark that I leave readers thinking, “no way.”

IMG_3784The same rule applies for legal matters. I’m not writing from a lawyer’s prospective but I want to be in the ballpark. My police contact in Bedford, Massachusetts told me that if you are arrested on a Friday afternoon in Bedford you’re stuck in jail until the judge can see you on Monday morning. And that you’d likely be eating McDonalds all weekend because they are too small a facility to have a cook. So depending on the circumstance, as a writer, you can make sure someone is locked up for a couple of days or out and about getting in trouble. Small details like that make a book realistic.

Barb recently blogged about the differences between her fictional clambake in her Maine Clambake Mystery series and the real clambake the series is based on over on Maine Crime Writers. It’s interesting that Barb wrote the first draft of her book before ever visiting the island. You can read her blog here:

IMG_3521All writers do a lot of research — lots and lots of research. But out of the mountain of amassed research, we have to pick out the bits that will make the manuscript shine without causing the reader to be buried in an avalanche of unnecessary details. My protagonist, Sarah Winston, eats a lot of fluffernutter sandwiches — I felt it was my duty to try them. In other words, we want to make sure the manuscript is authentic enough.

Readers: Is authentic enough a good enough standard for you?

40 Thoughts

  1. Great point about it depending on what kind of book it is because it points out how important the reader’s expectation is. I love police procedurals, although I could never write one. I luxuriate over the plodding details, methodical methods and logic in them. But if Sara Winston ever got that dry, let alone logical, no way! Authentic enough, as defined by subgenre, works for me.

    1. And you graciously answered my question about how quickly someone can get a divorce in Massachusetts when I was writing Tagged for Death. I don’t mention an exact number of months in the book but what you told me (four months at the time) worked perfectly.

  2. Authentic enough is perfect. I keep the police on the sidelines as much as possible. My character’s dad is a homicide detective, so that gives her a little more leeway. I’m pretty sure that the real Pittsburgh Police wouldn’t care whose daughter she was, though. See? Authentic enough.

    When I’m reading a book, I only have issues when something is blatantly wrong, but it won’t necessarily make me stop reading. It depends on the book. I’ve never noticed anything wrong in “yinz guys” books (had to throw a little Pittsburghese in there). So keep up the good work, lol.

    1. Thanks, Joyce! I agree when it becomes so obvious that something is wrong it can make a book difficult to read. I’m a very forgiving, easy to suspend belief kind of person so usually the little things don’t bother me.

  3. I’ll be interested in reading these responses! I get manuscripts with cops committing lots of felonies or, my pet peeve, telling citizens not to leave town.

    1. I agree with you Ramona that people go over the top with things when it isn’t part of the plot. I’m interested to see what people say too!

  4. One thing writers use but should not abuse: giving police some discretion in pursuing a case. Most of us write about small towns, where the local police will know most of the people and their histories. While they shouldn’t ignore evidence, they can use their own judgment to follow up on it, stopping short of arresting a person. Is it legal? Maybe. Is it the right thing to do? Probably, most of the time. Does it reflect the real world? I’d like to think so. But I think it’s better than setting up a perpetually adversarial situation between the police and the townspeople, particularly that nosy snoop of a protagonist. I’ll plead guilty to that, on occasion, but I’d rather see them be friends who respect each other’s intelligence and can discuss the merits of a case (without revealing confidential information) than continually butting heads. “Stay out of police business, Jessica Fletcher!” “But I know you’re wrong, Officer.”

    1. Excellent points, Sheila! I particularly like your point about the police knowing the history of the citizens and having some leeway. But I don’t like it when a protagonist has someone in the police department who will tell them everything either.

  5. Authentic enough works for me. In my books and short stories, the MC has a cordial working relationship with a female police officer. The MC moves in circles that the police officer doesn’t have access to on a daily basis (grocery store gossip central).

  6. Authentic enough will always work. Your readers will span the gamut of professional fields and the trades. My own family has doctors (and other medical field professionals), liars (I mean lawyers) artists, Federal Agents and Police. With a family like this I always have to suspend reality and just sit back and fall into the world of the story in my hand.

      1. And the joke it, with the death of my aunt I’m now the family Matriarch and I never finished college let alone getting multiple degrees. LOL

  7. I’m also of the “authentic enough” school, and I try to keep details about weapons, police procedure and autopsies to a minimum. I always try to make sure that my two state police characters (and sometimes the local police) are pursuing an alternate, logical theory of the case–ie what they do or believe makes sense to them, even if it is not the same avenue Julia Snowden is pursuing. In other words, they’re not idiots.

    1. I like the alternate, logical theory and have never thought that as I read your books but now that you say it, it makes so much sense. And it’s probably why your books ring so true!

  8. If you’re not writing procedurals, I think that gets you leeway. Just don’t have your police characters break the law, please! Or do something really, obviously wrong. And yes, I prefer when the amateur and the professional get a long (mostly, some conflict is okay) and respect each other. And please, no “my amateur has to get involved because the police are stupid” tropes. Please.

    Me, I write procedurals. And I have an attorney. So I can’t afford NOT to get it right. Or at least what Lee Lofland refers to as “believable make believe.” Real law and police work would probably be deadly dull and it goes way to slow for fiction. So fudging must be done – but my goal is to not have a cop or lawyer reader throw the book across the room. Which is why I now have a public defender on speed dial and have made friends with several cops (including a PA state trooper).

    1. As a lawyer, your comment that real law and police work would probably be deadly dull made me laugh, because truth really is so much stranger than fiction! The work may be meticulous, but rarely dull – although going too slow for fiction is completely accurate. What is rare is for a lawyer or policeman to be able to work on a single matter/case at a time – so there are fits and starts for any given project. But my colleagues and I frequently say, “You just can’t make this stuff up!” Of course, sharing details of “this stuff” can raise issues of attorney/client confidentiality, or other professional responsibility rules, so I really enjoy reading mysteries, and letting go of the details.

      1. Oh Vida, I’ve read enough “true crime” stories to know you are completely right in the “people would never believe this.” So there is that, too.

  9. One thing that is important to me as a reader is that the writer has checked on how murders are investigated in the particular state in which the story is set and how those departments are set up–color uniforms, type of cruiser, who does what within the department. Most departments have a PR person who is happy to share that information with the public. In Maine all homicides are taken over by the state police, except in Portland and Bangor. In New York State, that is not the case, although they may be called in. Other places? No idea, so I’ll take the writer’s word for it. That the “sheriff” of Cabot Cove was in charge used to drive me crazy, as did the fact they had the wrong color lights on the police cars. At the time Murder, She Wrote was on and for years afterward, police here used only blue lights. Red was only for firemen. Oddly enough. Maine now has changed and does use both blue and red. Some will say I’m nit-picking. I actually agree with what others have said about keeping police details at a minimum in a cozy . . . but that also means not getting any of those few “authentic” details glaringly wrong.

    1. In Massachusetts homicides are investigated by the state police, who answer to the (elected) district attorney. (At least, I hope I’ve got that right!) I nearly messed that up in one of my first books, where I gave the investigation to the sheriff. Nope–that person handles prisons, not investigations.

      But I haven’t given a lot of attention (on the page) to makes and models of police cars (and isn’t the paint scheme decided town by town?) or what kind of lights they use. I can say that our local medical examiner’s van is plain white, based on personal observation.

      1. I hope elected is right too! I have a DA appointed to fill out a term but he is going to have to run for the spot next time around. I think I’ve read there are three cities in Massachusetts that the police departments take over — Boston, Worcester and I can’t think of the other one. Lowell?

    2. It’s very interesting what we pick up on depending on where we come from! I had not idea of the system in Maine so bought all of the Murder, She Wrote details — accents included. In Tagged for Death I said red and blue lights and found out — too late — that it is just blue lights in that part of Massachusetts. It’s one of those things where I’d like a do-over! I can’t imagine the amount of work you do for the historicals! I’m in awe!

  10. Authentic enough works for me – most of the time. However, if you mess up something I happen to know about, then it will bug the heck out of me. It’s a very fine line to walk, I think.

    1. It is a fine line, Mark! That line is what started the whole conversation — it wasn’t something I was planning to blog about. And what I really like about all of these comments is how individual it is to each person.

  11. I think you are so right to consider the genre when you decide on how much detail to use. I’m writing cozy mysteries about a small town. I use a homicide detective for my expert, and she used to be one of my high school students. With my WIP, I needed about three weeks to get the toxicology report back, and she said that was pretty much on the nose. On the other hand, when a murder occurs, I send my detective and her partner off to the scene without having a big long powwow with the state agencies. The detectives receive news from the dispatcher so they know what they are walking into, but they don’t stop to discuss things at the office with the state guys. Too much detail. Too long. She gave that her blessing even though in real life it would be not quite the norm. I don’t need all that police procedural. I just need to get the detectives to the scene.

    Of course, long ago when she was in my high school English class, this now-detective in real life had to rewrite a number of book reports to get them right. So when I send her a fictional crime scene now, she takes great delight in saying “re-write!” Besides, as she says, her police reports don’t have to have all that fancy language….just the facts!

  12. I guess because I retired from law enforcement after 20 years I can get annoyed by blatant mistakes and stereotypes in books/movies/T.V. But, as far as my cozy mysteries go i do think good enought is good enough. Many of the mysteries I read have just enough police interaction but not too much. And, the authors seem to write the law enforcement, leagal and medical characters carefully enough.
    If I read police procedural (which I don’t and which I won’t) I would expect a bit of realism, but like cozies they are fiction after all. And, for those who want realism i guess they could read true crime, but even then I am sure the authors take a lot of liberties.

    1. I like your point about stereotypes, Margaret! It is an easy trap to fall into — the bad cop, the aggressive cop, the stupid cop!

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