Sunday, September 13, 2009

Do Your Homework!

One of the things that separates a good mystery novel from a not-so-good novel is accuracy. By that I mean that the novelist should get his or her facts straight. For instance, if the novel involves the use of a pistol, the novelist should know enough about what a pistol is like to be accurate. Otherwise, the mystery isn't believable, and the reader is left thinking, "Wait a minute! That could never happen!" It's distracting for the reader, and takes away from what should be the central part of the novel - the crime.

Of course, being accurate isn't as easy as it sounds. We novelists have enough on our hands, what with creating believable characters, an interesting crime, motives, and all of the other elements of the novel. It's sometimes hard to remember that accuracy matters. But it does. Mystery readers want authentic stories, and they sometimes complain if those stories play with the facts. In Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table, fictional sleuth and writer Ariadne Oliver puts it quite well:

"I'm always getting tangled up in horticulture and things like that. People write to me and say I've got the wrong flowers all out together. As though it mattered."

To most people, though it matters. So it's important to do one's homework and find out facts. Many of us novelists use our own backgrounds to do that. Patricia Cornwell, for instance, has used her background in forensics brilliantly to make her Kay Scarpetta series authentic. Robin Cook's medical background has given him a lot of useful knowledge about the world of medicine. In fact, Cook was trained as an ophthalmologist, and you can see his technical accuracy in books such as Blindsight. Kevin Hughes uses his experience as a former police officer to add acccuracy to Dogging the Truth and Casualty Crossing. Agatha Christie spent World War I working in the dispensary of a Voluntary Aid Detachment Center. That experience gave her a great deal of knowledge of poisons, which she used so well in books such as Murder in Three Acts (AKA Three-Act Tragedy), Peril at End House, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Sad Cypress and Poirot Loses a Client (AKA Dumb Witness).

In my own Joel Williams series, I rely a lot on my years in higher education. Williams is a professor, so I know his professional world fairly well. That makes it easier for me to be accurate. I understand about things like the tenure process, committee work, and some of the other aspects of university life.

Of course, even the best of us don't know everything. So we novelists need to do our homework. We need to make sure we have our facts straight before we write. Most of us do this by asking experts. Nearly every Robin Cook novel, for instance, includes acknowledgements to others who've given him technical input. Most other novelists do that, too. For my part, I've been known to take "field trips" to talk to people who are experts in their field. I've talked to police officers, store managers, the mother of a child who is at risk for anaphylaxis and a forensics expert, among other people. I learn a lot when I do that, so I actually enjoy the process, and I think it makes for a better novel. Besides, most of the people I've asked for help are flattered and eager to help.
Does accuracy matter to you? Do you care if a victim is killed with a pistol, when you know that the author really meant "revolver?" Do you look for those details?


  1. Hello! I have just discovered your blog via Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise. It looks most interested and I've added it to my RSS reader. Also on Kerrie's suggestion I have added your blog to those at our Friend Feed crime&mystery fiction group here: Links to your posts will appear there as you write them. I hope you will join us at Friend Feed (, and of course, if you prefer for your blog not to "feed" into our group there, please let me know. Looking forward to reading more. Best wishes, Maxine

  2. Hello, Maxine,
    Thanks for your interest in my blog. I've joined Friend Feed and added the Crime & Mystery RSS, and am looking forward to meeting more folks on that feed. I look forward to chatting -