Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Making Facts Fit the Story

By Vicki Delany

I always love this question, and I've found over the years when I do public appearances that the audience enjoys hearing about how we either make things up out of whole cloth or tweak something real to make it fit into fiction.

I try and make everything as realistic as I can within the bounds of fiction.  As Sue Ann mentioned yesterday, how many bodies the actual person come across in the course of their day?

Even many cops might never encounter a murder, much less engage in a battle of wits with a different diabolical killer regularly.   

Having said that, books are expected to have far more veracity than movies or TV.   And that definitely suits me as a reader: I rarely watch TV because I’m too busy noticing things that aren’t realistic.  The suspension of disbelief is important, but really…

It certainly bothers me to read a book in which the author hasn’t even bothered to get easily checked facts right. My biggest turn-off is Canadian books where everything the author knows about policing they got from watching American TV.
Nelson, B.C. (aka Trafalgar)

In pursuit of veracity for the police in my books, I’ve asked loads of questions, been on ride-alongs, walk-alongs, been to in-service training, and to the firearms range.  Even if an author doesn’t have time for all that or the contacts, for heaven’s sake they could look on the web page of a typical police department to check the ranks. 

My Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press is set in the fictional town of Trafalgar, British Columbia.  The town of Trafalgar is not-at-all loosely based on Nelson, B.C.  It is Nelson, but Trafalgar gives me the freedom to move things around as I need to.  For example in the fourth book in the series, Negative Image, what the room service waiter sees is critically important. There isn’t a hotel in Nelson that has room service, but under the guise of fiction, I can wave my magic wand and create one.   I might have made up a town, but I have tried faithfully to keep to the flavour of the place, its beautiful scenery, isolated setting, wild assortment of eccentric characters. I’ve grounded the fictional location in reality so that readers do have a sense of where the stories take place - the characters go to Trail for autopsies, to Castlegar to catch a plane, even to Nelson to concerts or police meetings.  

I have been told that there is no one on the police in Nelson who can quite remember when the last murder took place.  That had to change when I created my fictional town, didn’t it?

A Farm in Prince Edward County, Ontario
My newest book, a standalone titled More than Sorrow, however, is set in a place so real, I live there.  Prince Edward County, Ontario.  The County is an island in Lake Ontario, a place of family farms, gentle hills, long sandy beaches, small villages and meandering country roads.   Over the course of the book, I describe the train station in Belleville, the nearest city, the main street of Picton, the primary town, the beautiful historic library on Main Street. I have a scene set in the library where, if you look closely, you’ll see me seated at my weekly bridge game in the side room that houses the historical archives.

At Vicki's Veggies
I was comfortable setting this book in a real setting because not a lot of action takes place in the town itself or other recognizable places. Unlike in the Molly Smith books, the Chief of Police or the Mayor – people known to small town residents as people not just job descriptions - are not characters.   More than Sorrow is a modern-Gothic thriller set mainly on a farm and in an old farmhouse.  As is the nature of Gothics I wanted a place that feels confined, where one can be isolated even if only in spirit, with a rich history.  The real County is becoming an important place in the locavore movement with small scale and organic farms, local food, good restaurants making the most of what the land has to offer. I love all that stuff so hit on the idea of setting the bulk of the story on a small-scale organic vegetable farm.  I spent some time at County landmark Vicki’s Veggies (no relation, as they say) learning about how a small family farm operates.

The character in the book is suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury, the result of an IED explosion in Afghanistan.  I did a fair amount of online researching into brain trauma to try and give her experiences the feel of authenticity.  The interesting thing about the brain is that it is so complex and so not-fully-understood that you can pick almost anything you want as a disorder. Thus my character can’t read the printed word, but can read handwriting, so she gets involved in reading the old letters stored in the attic. 
I try as hard as I can to get things as right as I can, but in the end, the facts do have to fit the story. It is called fiction, isn’t it?

 If you are attending Bouchercon in Cleveland this weekend (and if not, why not?) be sure and come out to MEET THE CANUCKS on Friday following the live auction - 9 o'clock.  The Crime Writers of Canada will be having a reception with a dessert buffet, cash bar, our popular Hang-In game, tons of book prizes, both individual and in an overflowing basket.  Find out why Canadian crime writers have been called, "the new Scandinavians"!


Catriona McPherson said...

I had to laugh, Vicki. Only a really real realist would think it a big leap out of reality to invent . . . room service!

Absolutely agree about police/legal procedure. Coming, myself, from the colder emptier country north of the one everyone knows, it drives me nuts when Scottish writers speak of: coroners, inquests, 12 on a jury,etc (none of which are true of Scotland).

New book sounds fab, btw.

Vicki Delany said...

Caitriona, we have much in common. I also come from a colder, emptier country north of the one everyone knows! Love that description.