Keeping It Real in a Fabricated World

Ian O’Neill, the one-time advertising copywriter turned award winning freelance journalist, is the author of Endo, a mystery/suspense novel set in Ontario, Canada. Ian has written for newspaper, magazine, radio, television and once wrote a dirty limerick on a dusty car but didn’t sign it. Ian writes:

Writing a fiction novel can be oxymoronic since we fill the fabricated story with facts. In my novel, Endo, I made up a detective, his life, the world around him, but added facts to keep the reader grounded. I used real towns and cities but fabricated the buildings and addresses he visited. I created numerous characters but gave them real jobs: park rangers, crime scene investigators, a coroner and most of all, police officers.

I didn’t kill anyone but I did research what happens after a body is discovered. In storytelling there needs to be a mix of truth amongst lies. It’s a delicate balance that keeps the reader walking a fine line between what is real and what isn’t. As writers, we must suspend our reader’s disbelief. To do that, we need to understand how far is too far. Sometimes we miss the mark and readers are more than pleased to point out the error of our good intentions.

I’m not the first writer to bend the truth to benefit his story and I know that all of the writers reading this piece will do the same. But, I caution you on just how far you’ll go to make a story plausible because too far means the reader will not believe. Even in genres where you’d think anything is acceptable, you still have to maintain the parameters that you set out in the story. So, in chapter two you introduce a woman who can read minds; any mind, anywhere, as long as the person she’s trying to read is in her sight. Then, chapter 29 rolls around and she is miraculously able to read the mind of a killer in a basement apartment in Arkansas when she’s in California. But it made the story plausible, right?

Our focus here is on crime and mystery novels and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on formula; suffice to say most mystery novels begin with a crime.

The usual suspects: murder, kidnapping, bank robbing, theft of some kind. Regardless of the crime you choose, it must be believable. If it begins with an outlandish crime then it’s your job to talk the reader into believing it could happen.

Writers have the best job in the world. We get to make stuff up for a living. We create the crime, make it seem implausible or difficult for anyone to accomplish. We throw in obstacle after obstacle in hopes of stopping our heroes from getting to a solution. We muddy the waters with all kinds of distractions including love, lust and greed to name a few. In all of that, our reader must never stop suspending their disbelief. It sounds like a very tall order and that’s because it is.

Cops and detectives are different in all parts of the world, each operating under a different set of rules and guidelines. It would be best to find out specific rules and laws in the country or area of the detectives, cops or P.I.s in your story. For the purposes of this article, let’s have our hero be a cop from the States.

A policeman being first to arrive at a crime scene acts in similar ways to a detective in the same situation. Their eyes are wide open to the possibility that the perpetrator is still at the scene. Once they check the scene and realize they are alone, what do they have at their disposal to take in the scene. Well, at first, as I said, their keen senses but eventually they’ll use what every person in law enforcement carries, a pad and pencil.

Mundane, yes, but a necessary tool not only for the cop in question, but also for the writer. Balance is key. It offers reality at a time when you’ve introduced a fake crime. Besides, the pen or pencil could be a weapon, right?

Detectives often draw out the scene as accurately as possible. Sound familiar? I’m not sure how many of the writers reading this article do this, but I draw out my main characters’ homes’ floor plans. Or, the floor plans to any buildings that appear frequently in the novel. Just as I can check back to ensure my accuracy and not test my memory, your detective can do the same.

The scene is secured. By that, the detective or policeman will ensure that no one enters the scene thereby contaminating evidence. Anyone already at the scene, including the first on the scene, will not smoke or use the sink or toilet. No one will touch anything at the scene. This is as real as it gets considering Locard’s exchange principle. Dr. Edmond Locard, considered to be the father of modern forensics, in 1910 opened the first forensics lab in Lyon, France. He postulated that a criminal would leave behind evidence and take evidence from the scene, therefore an exchange would occur. Today we call it trace evidence.

Can shit be traced?

When writing always remember that you must keep your reader’s belief suspended. It will impact every word you put on the page. I watched a show about real cops on a case and all were huddled around a door while a crime scene analyst (yeah, a CSA), took a shoe impression from a door. One of the lead detectives looked into the camera and with sarcasm dripping from every word said, “And now we’ll just enter this into the shoe database.”

This very scenario is believable if handled correctly. Remember, too, that readers want to believe. If a person’s stomach contents can tell investigators what the victim ate, they have a good chance of using that information in many ways. They can use it as a timeline or trace them to a location. This happens and is believable. A victim’s fecal-matter can be traced but you have to ask yourself if a reader wants to follow along with that lead?

I wrote a scene and posted it to my online writing group. It was in a courtroom during impact statements – when the victim’s loved ones, family and friends convey to the court how they have been effected by what the convicted person has done. These are usually part of a murder trial and my story was no different. I painted a picture of the courtroom and how, after one man had told the killer he would rot in hell and be damned forever for what he’d done, people applauded and cheered. One of my critics refused to believe this could happen. I never explained to them that I’d seen it happen a number of times in documentaries that followed murder cases to their conclusion. It wouldn’t have mattered. They had a right to not believe this situation. There is always a chance that some reader will no longer suspend their disbelief based on their own morals and sensibilities.

Situations are difficult to predict amongst readers, but using existing investigation tools and better, the personnel who perform them, will cement a reader’s belief. And, there are a lot of different experts one can draw on to balance out fiction with facts. Crime Scene Analysts are responsible for photographing a crime scene as well as recovering evidence and processing latent fingerprints. Document Examiners work mostly in a lab to examine documents and document-related evidence which includes handwriting, printing and signatures. There’s also a Firearms/Tool Mark Examiner who is responsible for performing scientific analysis on firearms and tool mark evidence. One of the least known jobs of this expert is to examine and compare footwear and tire tread evidence.

There are an abundance of individuals responsible for tracking and taking down criminals: Evidence Custodians, Criminalists, Photo Technicians, Lab Technicians and probably one of the most recognizable, Latent Fingerprint Examiner. Job descriptions are available on the internet for these positions or in several excellent books on forensics and criminology.

While crafting your mystery referring to these facts will enable you to suspend your reader’s disbelief – what could be the biggest fact about fiction.

One lucky commenter, chosen at random from Ian’s two guest posts, will receive a copy of Endo, which will arrive in an evidence bag with a toe tag, five fingerprint card strips and a few ‘crime scene tape‘ bandages.

Also see:
Never Be Afraid to Ask by Ian O’Neill
The Magic of Mysteries: The Art (and Joy) of Misdirection

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7 Responses to “Keeping It Real in a Fabricated World”

  1. Sheila Deeth Says:

    A fascinating article, thanks. It sounds like we might have to work as hard to convince readers of things we know are true as to convince them of what we’ve made up. Which makes sense I guess. The reader can’t know beforehand how carefully we’ve researched. And there’s no place in the story to say Hey, I checked these facts.
    Presumably in the crime novel it’s doubly difficult since so many readers watch TV series and are convinced they portray exactly how things are.

  2. Ian O'Neill Says:

    Great observation Sheila. I didn’t think about in that way – having to work at convincing the reader of the facts and the fiction. I’m positive that you can’t win with every reader so, putting your best forward is all you can do. As long as you’ve checked your facts and stay within the fictional realm you’ve created, not much we can do to stop the strays who just can’t be convinced one way or the other.

  3. Kym Says:

    Great article, Ian! I’m a stickler when it comes to storyline cohesion. If you tell me something, stay with it, otherwise, why bother? Your example above regarding the mind-reader’s skill that changes suddenly in the book, the writer better tell me why it’s changed or he no longer holds my respect. I’m going to send you an article that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

    “One of my critics refused to believe this could happen.” One day I’ll have to tell you about my jury duty experience on a murder 1 charge. We all want to believe in justice and good morals, until real life shatters our dreams.

    Keep writing, Ian!

  4. Pat Bertram Says:

    In a way, it could be easier to write a detective novel now that people know so much (or think they do) about how it’s done. A writer may not have to give the gritty details that once were so necessary, but can gloss over them a bit. Though it’s still important to keep it real. So much of what is shown in shows is at least a bit off — something that can take minutes in a show, such as DNA identification — could take months in real life.

  5. Jay Says:

    Great article! When you’re deep into writing a novel, it’s hard to keep things on the straight and narrow – that’s where the editing process is crucial. And if it’s a series with loads of characters, a bible is usually a pretty good way of keeping everything in order. I’ve done it myself – written about something, then later added something in not because I wanted it to be plausible but to get past a block or move the story on. If it had been read then, readers would have gone ‘huh??’ but once edited, it can make perfect sense!


  6. Ian O'Neill Says:

    You’re so right, Jay. Writing is the fun part for me, editing is the real work. It’s amazing how much you can pick up in edits.


  7. Jeannie Chambers Says:

    Thanks for all the tips- a great article. I love reading mystery and “whodunit” novels, I guess Agatha Christie got me started when I was in junior high school.
    I am a writer ( I used to say aspiring writer- now I just say writer- aspiring to be published).
    I have been a little afraid of writing murder mysteries probably because I was afraid – not of the research, but getting the research believable while not having personally experienced these things.

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