The Line Between Research and Literary License—and a Giveaway!

Lauren and Gnarly

Lauren Carr is the best-selling author of the Mac Faraday Mysteries, which takes place in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Killer in the Band is the third installment in the Lovers in Crime Mystery series.

In addition to her series set in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, Lauren Carr has also written the Mac Faraday Mysteries, set on Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland, and the Thorny Rose Mysteries, set in Washington DC. The second installment in the Thorny Rose Mysteries, which features Joshua Thornton’s son Murphy and Jessica Faraday, Mac’s daughter, A Fine Year for Murder, was released in January 2017.

Lauren is a popular speaker who has made appearances at schools, youth groups, and on author panels at conventions. She also passes on what she has learned in her years of writing and publishing by conducting workshops and teaching in community education classes.

She lives with her husband, son, and four dogs on a mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV. Visit Lauren Carr’s website at http://www.mysterylady.net to learn more about Lauren and her upcoming mysteries.

Fiction is a work of the imagination. You won’t get an argument from me on that.  Even so, that doesn’t mean fiction writers should let their imaginations run so wild that they begin stretching the facts.  Every time they do, they’re betting on the reader to stretch his or her imagination just to accommodate them – it’s a risk that rarely ever pans out.

What’s the best way to establish the reader’s trust in the story’s narrator?  Keeping the facts straight.  State flat out falsehoods or portray your characters as lacking knowledge of the very basics in their professions and the writer is viewed as either ignorant or lazy. Either way, the writer loses their readers’ trust with something that could be so easily fixed.

Yet, on the other hand, fiction writers can’t allow themselves to get so bogged down with having every fact so perfectly straight that their imagination ends up hog-tied—rendering them unable to write.

Do I get hung up on research? It depends on the area of detail in question. There are some areas of research that are in actuality “moving targets.” It is a waste of time for writers to sweat over intricate details that could possibly be obsolete before their book’s release. State gun laws is an excellent example. Federal and state gun laws are always changing.

The Mac Faraday mystery series is set in Maryland, which has one of the strictest gun laws in the country. However, readers will notice that Mac Faraday and other characters freely carry concealed weapons, which is illegal in that state. If I was to have each of these characters follow the letter of the law, they would need to stop before crossing state lines to lock up their guns and go through other procedures, weighing down the plot with minute details that have nothing to do with moving the story forward—all in the name of keeping the facts straight.

But then, what if Maryland’s gun laws were to change a few years later? My characters’ actions would then appear silly and unnecessary. For that reason, as a writer, I have chosen to completely ignore the whole issue.

I knew I had my work cut out for me when I started working on Kill and Run. Lieutenant Murphy Thornton, USN, and Jessica Faraday, daughter of multi-millionaire detective Mac Faraday, the protagonist from my mystery series set in Deep Creek Lake, are of a younger generation. Not only that, but they live in Washington, DC, which is nothing like the resort town of Deep Creek Lake, where my family vacations, or the small town of Chester, West Virginia, the setting for my Lovers in Crime Mysteries. I grew up in Chester and still have family living there.

Yet, I was not completely lost. As a former editor for the federal government, I had lived and worked in the Washington, DC area for over ten years. No weekend was complete without hitting the downtown clubs on Saturday night. It wasn’t hard for me to rekindle the fast-paced excitement of big city life—with which I was very familiar.

While I hadn’t been inside the Pentagon since I was a federal bureaucrat, luckily I still had several sources within the military. When I met my husband, he was a naval officer stationed at the Pentagon. As a former federal employee, I had worked in several places around Washington. I knew the basic security procedures for entering and leaving federal buildings. For example, at one point, Murphy needs to escort a witness to his office. In order to take her into the building, he needs to get her a visitor’s badge. Later, when he must go into a meeting, he has to hand her off to an escort who has security clearances.

The most difficult research I encountered in Kill and Run was the military officers’ spouses’ clubs. Jessica Faraday is active in the navy officers’ wives’ club, and one of the murder victims is active in the army counterpart. Therefore, I needed to know how such clubs work. When my husband had been in the navy, I never joined. I requested information from a club that I found on the Internet, but received no reply. So, I had to rely on information from a friend who had been active in a branch while she and her husband were stationed overseas. Since the club in Kill and Run was made up of mostly women, I modeled the social hierarchy and tone of other women’s social clubs that I was familiar with.

Yet, I have come to learn that no matter how much I research the people, places, and things for a book, there are going to be readers who, if they want to find fault, will find it. You’d be surprised about what some readers with too much time on their hands will go to the trouble of contacting authors.

In one scene in It’s Murder, My Son, Mac Faraday goes to the Spencer Inn, the five-star inn he had inherited from his birth mother. During this scene, he is served a five-hundred dollar bottle of champagne, which I had researched online—copying and pasting the name and describing the bottle in detail from a picture on the website where it could be purchased. I described how the wine steward had served the bottle—modeling this on how I have been served by wine stewards in fine restaurants.

Within a month of It’s Murder, My Son’s release, I received a phone call from a reader telling me that scene was wrong! The reader went to the trouble of hunting down my phone number to call me. I’m still not sure what was wrong, but, after getting over the shock, I explained that I modeled the scene from when I myself had been served wine in fine restaurants, to which the reader replied, “Those weren’t five-star restaurants!”

But wait, there’s more! Remember the five hundred dollar bottle of champagne which I hunted down online—complete with a picture of the bottle and a “buy now” button to purchase? Two and a half years after book’s release, I get an email from a reader claiming that champagne did not exist. The winery doesn’t make champagne. Well, with a scoff I went online to try to find it so I could send him a link. But couldn’t find the site.

Oh, well. That was where I learned a lesson about fiction writing and research. There’s a reason authors have literary license. It is silly for writers to allow themselves to get so bogged down researching every minute little fact in order to make everything precisely accurate to appease readers who get their jollies out of finding mistakes. Unless that detail has a direct effect on the plotline, it doesn’t really matter. So what if the wine steward was not perfect? He had no role in committing or solving the mystery. So what if that winery did not make champagne? It still tasted good in Mac’s world.

I don’t have time for that.

Do I fudge on the facts? Yep! I admit it. Every writer has to sometimes. In doing so, I draw upon what information I was able to gather and fill in the blanks while trying to keep it believable. For example, in Kill and Run, readers will meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for whom Murphy directly works. The chair of the Joint Chiefs is General Maxine Raleigh, USAF. Yep, she’s a woman! Not only is she on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but she is the chair. To date, a woman has never been appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When I was researching this, one of my sources said that was not believable, to which I replied, “This is my world and, in my world, women can be appointed chair to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Also, in my world, wine stewards are less than perfect while serving five hundred dollar bottles of champagne that don’t really exist.

Check out Lauren Carr’s
Audiobook-a-palooza Blog Tour! 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

One lucky reader here will win three
downloadable audiobooks of the
Thorny Rose Mysteries—Three
Days to Forever, Kill and Run,
and A Fine Year for Murder. Just
leave a comment below pointing
out a factual error that you
have found in a book—but not any
found in a Lauren Carr mystery!
The winning name will be drawn
Monday evening, May 22nd.

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9 thoughts on “The Line Between Research and Literary License—and a Giveaway!

  1. I was reading a novella that had Gettysburg in Virginia. I chose to stop reading rather than throw the book against the wall.

    • Oh, my! Either that novella was written before Google Maps, or maybe the writer meant a different Gettysburg, in which case she/he should have clarified. Oh, dear, Elaine, that’s a biggie.

      • Oh she definitely meant *the* Gettysburg. Bad enough she got it wrong but that no beta reader or editor caught it either.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful discussion on a knotty subject. I deal with it often. I write about Brooklyn a part of New York that is changing so fast I sometimes find I cannot keep up!

    • That is a challenge. In my Lovers in Crime series I have the couple’s favorite hang-out being Crickster’s, a 50’s retro ice cream shop. In one book, I have it located near the state line. Since then, it’s moved, so in the last Lovers in Crime mystery, Crickster’s is located under the Chester Bridge. So far, no one seems to have noticed.

  3. One of my readers was upset over a minor point in one of my cozies. My story was set on a made-up cruise ship, so while I based the ship design and activities on a real cruise I’d taken, I figured I could fudge a little on one point that didn’t affect the story. And since I’ve never visited one of the cities where the cruise ship stopped, I just had my hero stay onboard rather than make a mistake with the town!

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