You Got That Right*

AccuracyIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings  has chosen a crook play.

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’

Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.

This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.

For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.

It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.

One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.

What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.

You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.

Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.

Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).

What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Robert Rotenberg, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow

35 responses to “You Got That Right*

  1. Interesting topic/s I definitely used to get very annoyed at inaccuracies in fictional health care settings but I’ve been out of that environment for about two years now so I’ve mellowed a little. I still shout a little bit occasionally. For example in and episode of ‘Death In Paradise’ (you’d love this show Margot) a plastic surgeon takes the detective into theatres to ‘have a chat’ while he’s operating. OK maybe stretching it a bit far but I’ll go with it so far, until he asks him to assist him! Errrr no. No, no, no, no ,no. Not even if you want to portray the surgeon as slap dash and unprofessional, just no!

    • That’s exactly the kind of thing I”m talking about, D.S.! Precisely! It’s those sorts of things that make readers very cross if they have any knowledge about a given field. You’ve got a point, I think that after being out of the field for a bit, one’s view might change. But still, as you say, there are certain things that are just…no. And I must try to see Death in Paradise. You’re not the first one to mention it to me.

  2. Oh, absolutely I think we can’t help but bring our backgrounds into what we read. If a book is well-written and the author does his/her research, I can easily allow a slip here and there. In my own work, I contact my law enforcement pals to check my facts. I would hate to have a detective read my novels and cringe. Matter of fact, that’s why Officer X contacted me in the first place. He grew tired of reading inaccurate information in crime fiction and yearned to be a “behind the scenes” consultant. The stars must have aligned in my favor the day he chose me. Great topic, Margot.

    • Thank you, Sue. You’re very lucky indeed that Officer X chose to reach out to you and offer some real-life expertise on police procedure. That kind of information can be really useful, particularly when a writer (and I’m in this category) isn’t on the police force and has no experience in law enforcement. In fact, your experience with Officer X reminds me of an experience I had writing one of my Joel Williams stories. I had some questions about police procedure when it comes to serving warrants and handling evidence. So I visited my local police station. I’m pleased to say that the officer who talked to me was delighted to give me practical and accurate answers to my questions. Overall I’ve found that most people are happy to share their knowledge. It’s up to the writer to take advantage of that willingness, in my opinion, and ensure that the story is accurate. As you say, we all bring our backgrounds to what we read, and there are plenty of people out there who, I think, get quite cranky if those important facts are not accurate.

  3. Great overview of this fascinating topic Margot. My own field is journalism, and I do groan when people act in ways they never would, or print of broadcast stories in a way that would never happen in real life. But actually I have got more tolerant as I get older, I tend now to shrug and say ‘well it’s just a story.’

    • Thanks for the kind words, Moira. It’s interesting that you’ve noticed a change in your reactions as you’ve gotten older. I wonder if that’s what people do in general – mellow about such things as they get older. Hmmm….. Even so, I can imagine how annoying it can be when a writer is hopelessly inaccurate about what journalists may do and may not, and would do or wouldn’t. And honestly, it doesn’t take an inordinate amount of research to connect with people who do know how the field works, and get the facts straight.

  4. Yes, indeed! And, having had a somewhat varied career, sadly there’s more than one area I get picky about. I worked for years in the health service, so get extremely annoyed when that’s portrayed inaccurately – but also pleased when an author gets it right, as I feel Belinda Bauer did in ‘Rubbernecker’. I’m not aware that she has a background in health, so I assume that was down to excellent research. On the other hand, having worked again for years with young offenders, I harrumphed a good deal over Ruth Dugdall’s suggestion in ‘Humber Boy B’ that a boy who had drowned another child would be given a work placement in an aquarium! And the boy’s voice felt totally wrong for someone who had spent his life in young offenders’ institutions. And yet Dugdall actually was a probation officer in real life. So I don’t think it’s necessary to have worked in a field to write well about it, nor a given that previous experience will always mean an author gets it ‘right’. Most people loved Humber Boy B – I thought it was good but my own experience got in the way of buying fully into it.

    • Oh, yes, FictionFan! I remember you mentioning that point about Humbe Boy B when you wrote your excellent review of it. I would imagine that if you have experience working with young offenders, you’d have a sense of what their voices might be like, and it must be irksome when it’s not done authentically.
      I’m glad you made that point about Bauer’s work, too. She has a great deal of talent, in my opinion, and her work does feel authentic to me. Glad that Rubbernecker did to you, too. It’s rather hard, I suppose, not to be influenced by one’s professional background when one’s reading a novel that takes place in that context.

  5. Kathy D.

    I’m not a professional writer, but I am a reader of a lot, including history and current news. And it irks me no end when writers have wrong information in their books — which, even if they erred, should have been fact-checked and edited properly.
    I do proofreading often for friends and if I question a fact, I ask an editor or check it myself and duly note it. Or if something is written that isn’t understandable or is open to misinterpretation.
    Maybe writers need more editing and publishers need to use fact-checkers and hire more editors, copyeditors and proofreaders.
    I worked for 10 years in a non-profit law office. I have liked legal mysteries since a teenager meeting Perry Mason and watching The Defenders.
    But when I read books by John Grisham, Scott Turow or other attorneys, whether current or retired, I just love when the legal issues are spelled out correctly and realistically.
    Now to find more good ones in this genre.

    • You make a well-taken point, Kathy, that a lot of things can be checked (and should be) before a book gets published. And those things aren’t necessarily associated with a particular profession. And I’m sure your experience working in a law office helps you to know whether something in a legal novel makes sense in terms of how law offices work. I think we can’t help bringing those kinds of experiences into our reading.

  6. Yes I do get annoyed but mainly with glaring errors. The small stuff I can let slip by. Having a varied work background there are several areas that I can draw upon for accuracy in my reading/writing but I know how hard it can be to get everything correct. Research! That’s the key. Thanks for another entertaining post Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, June. You’re right that for the author, it is hard to get every single fact and detail right. Even the most caring author is, after all, only human. But as you say, there’s a difference between little things that might slip by, and those big, glaring errors that the author really should have gotten right.

  7. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    If you love a great mystery, especially classic ones like Agatha Christie, then you’re going to love following this blog. Margot Kinberg is a mystery author who also writes about the process and cites examples from all the best mystery writers. I’ve reblogged some of her other posts so you may be familiar with her already, but I know you’ll enjoy my current Sunday Reblog!

  8. Pingback: You Got That Right* | Ms M's Bookshelf

  9. Fortunately, I have no skills linked to crimes and legal wrangles whatsoever, so everything sounds plausible to me (except, as you say, an academic setting, or possibly a school setting, although I always have to allow for country differences). I do get a bit het-up about plotholes, things that seem psychologically inaccurate or implausible. But there aren’t too many crimes set in the corporate world – goodness knows why, as I’ve known many, many vicious hatreds springing up there!

    • I know what you mean, Maria Sofia, about plotholes. I get annoyed about them, too. I like my characters to behave in realistic (or at least credible) ways. It’s funny you would mention murder in the corporate world. There are certainly plenty of motives for murder, as you say. It’s a context that’s ripe, you might say, for a good crime story.

  10. And maybe that is the difference in all of our views on a particual rbook – our background – our understanding – I have no crime fiction

    • Take 2 🙂 And maybe that is the difference in all of our views on a particular book – our background – our understanding – I have no real crime/law experience – except a brief stint as a legal clerk – I don’t know how the police run a case or an investigation – I can therefore follow along without any real issues re procedures as long as the plot and action seem plausible and the narrative has engaged me – if not “engaged” in the story however all sorts of “holes” or maybe incredulity may come to the surface.

      • Ah, here’s the rest of it. You’ve got a very well-taken point about how important engagement really is. If the reader isn’t engaged (because the plot is not solid, or the characters are ‘flat,’ or some such thing), then it won’t matter how accurate the details are. Accuracy and credibility help make a plot plausible, and that’s important. But they won’t save a really weak novel.

    • I think that’s an important point, Carol.

  11. Research, research, research…then go back and check thoroughly. Then throw it to the beta-readers. Then research the bits they didn’t like!

  12. Research, as others have said. It’s how I could write quilting cozies without having been a quilter. 🙂

    • Now, that’s a perfect example of what I mean, Elizabeth! The details about quilting are part of what makes the stories seem authentic; and if you weren’t careful about the research, that’s what would put readers right off.

  13. Col

    I don’t have any expertise whatsoever in any field, so can’t really pass a considered opinion on the accuracy or otherwise on how elements are portrayed. ie legal matters in a legal thriller. I guess I measure my enjoyment based on plot, characters, setting etc and try not to get too het up about the rest. I suppose plausibility is important – if it reads true, I’ll accept it.

    • You’ve hit on something important, Col, I think. if the plot, characters and so on draw the reader in, that’s the key. Even the most complete accuracy isn’t going to save a poorly-written book. And complete accuracy isn’t going to ‘flesh out’ characters or make a plot interesting.

  14. I try not to get annoyed by it, but schools where each subject has only one teacher annoy me. Getting Oxbridge wrong bothers me more – a recent read put a science lab in the middle of a Cambridge college and an older one by the normally impeccable Sharon Bolton has such unacceptable behaviour being ignored in an Oxford college by the authorities, it derailed the whole book for me. But I know someone who hasn’t been there who read it who didn’t bat an eyelid at it.

    • Interesting point, Puzzle Doctor. The reality is that each discipline usually does have many different lecturers/professors, and so on. So it’s not realistic at all to write otherwise. And even though I’ll admit I didn’t go to Oxbridge, I know what you mean about certain things being let go in novels that would never be permitted in real life. There are real-life consequences for those things.

  15. I can second the above recommendation for Death in Paradise. A fun, clever series. It seems one of the most common complaints is from medical professionals who rankle at inaccuracies.
    In any event we writers have it so much ‘easier’ these days in the area of research with so much information online, with the usual caveat that the Internet isn’t necessarily known for accuracy 🙂 which tends to reinforce the idea that there’s no substitute for direct, primary knowledge about a subject, through experience, in-person research or talking to an expert.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Bryan. Today’s writers really do have it comparatively easy when it comes to research.. There is, of course, the Internet. And because you’re completely right about its sometimes questionable accuracy, I think it really does behoove the writer to really check her or his facts to make sure they are correct. I’ve found, too, that most people are happy to share their expertise. In facct, some people are downright flattered to be asked for assistance. I don’t expect any author to be perfect, of course. But it’s straightforward to find out facts. I think that’s the least authors should do in terms of research.

  16. I work in Information Technology and database development. I don’t read much about programmers or that type of environment, but if I did I think I would just chalk up any “mistakes” to differences in work places, etc. I tend to think of mystery novels as creative and allow for the author to create his own world, in a sense. I am not always that tolerant and I understand other opinions, but I go with “it is just a story, enjoy it.”

    • There’s definitely something to letting a story just be a story, Tracy. As you say, we all have different work histories and areas of expertise. So it makes sense that an author might not get everything right if s/he had no experience in a certain area. As I think about your comment, I wonder if our tolerance for inaccuracy depends at least a little on how egregious a mistake is. If it’s a small ‘slip,’ people will sometimes just let it go, especially if they, like you, see it as a case of, ‘It’s a story.’ More blatant inaccuracies, or cases of authors simply not checking very basic facts, may annoy people more. I’m not sure that’s true, but I have the sense it may be.

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