Monday, May 19, 2014

Note to Tax Preparer: Read the Following, Please

"How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?"

Good and timely question for me. I am well into a non-series novel set in rural France in the present. The responses I get from friends when I mention it always include how much they look forward to reading about that part of the country – the wine, the cheese, the medieval towns. Now I’m thinking I’d better include more researched, atmospheric details than I had initially intended or I’ll disappoint the expectations of readers.

I just breezed through three crime novels relished by fans for their inclusion of just this kind of detail: Cara Black’s Murder Below Montparnasse (contemporary 14th Arr. Paris), Charles Todd’s A Pale Horse (early 20th c. Berkshire, England), and Deborah Crombie’s The Sound of Broken Glass (contemporary Crystal Palace area of London). I know the authors and they grin sheepishly when asked, as they always are, if they get to write off their travel expenses to do research!

My Dani O’Rourke series was conceived as a dual-setting one: In each book my San Francisco-based protagonist travels to a different American city or town, where an important part of the story takes place. I chose settings I already knew and loved (Santa Fe, Manhattan, a small New England town so far) and there wasn’t a lot of research of place involved. For the French novel, I have invented a hamlet very much like the one in which my real friends live and which I’ve visited, but it required lots of iPhone photos, cheese sampling, and walking around to get some of the details right.

Other than place, my biggest need for research perennially is how law enforcement agencies operate. It’s quite different from place to place in the U.S., from small towns to big cities, from local police departments to county sheriffs and coroners. I’ve asked working cops for help in each book, but know I may still make a mistake. Alternatively, I may bend a local practice a bit to serve my plot.

So far, I haven’t been called on it, but there’s always a first time. My French novel – not quite a mystery but with a suspicious death – is the hardest by far in that regard. Even with help, I have not yet figured out the intricate bureaucratic thinking that connects the small town “sheriff” to the “mairie” to the “gendarmie” to the national police. It should have made me feel better when a French gendarme admitted it was so confusing he didn’t quite understand the protocols either, but his comment only made me more nervous!



Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, you make a good point about how various law enforcement agencies throughout country operate differently. I think sometimes our view of how they operate comes from TV or the movies and we think they all operate pretty much the same. So it's good to think about what you said in that regard.

Catriona McPherson said...

It always amazes me how many Scottish people living in Scotland don't know that there's no such thing as an inquest or a coroner or even how many people are on a jury - because all their contact with the law is through the telly.

RJ Harlick said...

Since France is one of my favourite countries, I love your French rural setting, Susan. The icing on the cake for me would be able to use the trip as a tax write-off. But the differences in investigative procedures, police and judicial systems would be challenging when setting a crime novel in France or any other country not your own. Each country has its own unique quirks. Good luck.

Robin Spano said...

Wow, sounds challenging when even the locals are confused by what goes on. On the other hand, in that case, who will know if you have a detail wrong?

Susan C Shea said...

Take heart, fellow crime writers, if you get a zing email telling you what you got wrong. I'm sure it's clear to the homicide inspectors in SF but when they explain it to us, as two did at a recent MWA meeting, they stumble and say, "Well, most of the time, it works like that, but there are exceptions" and then they go on to describe cases that all seem like exceptions! That's my defense and I'm sticking to it.