Pedantry, Perfection or Procrastination?
Hot on the heels of last week's #TuesdayTip about writing realistic relationships, I am staying with that broad theme and this time want to examine realism in general.
I write police procedurals grounded largely in reality. I am not a police officer, and have no experience in law enforcement, but I try to be as procedurally accurate as possible, whilst acknowledging that compromises need to be made in order to serve up a dramatic story (see #TuesdayTip49 for more on this).
I also like to get as many verifiable details about other, non-procedural things as correct as possible. I will never forget one of my proof-readers early comments for my first novel, The Last Straw. The book is set in the summer of 2011, but as is the way with these things, it was well into 2013 by the time it was submitted and edited. In one throw-away comment, I mentioned how the dry weather had affected Warren's lawn. My proof-reader's comment was succinct: 'I looked it up and the summer of 2011 was actually quite wet in Hertfordshire'. A later comment on the same manuscript noted that the radio station that Warren was listening to in the car had changed its name the year before.
A couple of years later, I received not one but TWO comments in my Amazon reviews for Silent As The Grave (both from Americans, bizarrely) pointing out that a hospital in Coventry, UK, wasn't built until a couple of years after I had a character being born there.
Since then, I have been a stickler for trying to get as many of the small details correct. Not only is it a way to avoid those negative reviews and save my proof-reader some time, it also provides a brilliant excuse for procrastination!
My books always have a date (although I tend not to specify the year), so here are some of the things I do.
Googling for these little details is an obvious solution, but sometimes it's difficult to phrase the question properly. In this case you can post questions to forums on Reddit etc - you'd be amazed at the trivia that somebody out there is an expert on. Similarly, firms that provide services or goods that you need details about are often very willing to answer strange questions. I always start my email by explaining that I am a crime writer - the communications staff for large companies spend much of their time dealing with the same routine questions from the public. Something a bit different will often pique their interest. For my latest book, Out of Sight, I needed some specific guidance on the laws surrounding the drafting of a will. I found a firm that specialised in this and fired off an email on a Friday afternoon. A partner replied within a couple of hours, saying that they thought the question was fascinating and they'd get back to me. Sure enough, Monday morning I received their response. It was really lengthy and detailed, and they had clearly spent time looking up what I needed to know in their own time.
For other precise facts, Wikipedia is a remarkable resource. I just finished writing a short story, and in the first draft, I blithely mentioned a life insurance company. Fortunately, I always flag anything like this with a comment to verify later. It turns out that not only did I have their name incorrect, it had also sold its life insurance business years before my book is set!
Finally, don't forget Facebook. I know nothing about guns, but there are dedicated writers forums populated by US cops who can tell you everything you need to know and more! If you have a wide and diverse group of friends, then sometimes it's worth posting the question and letting the FB hive mind do its thing.
Don't let the (inevitable) mistakes get you down.
How much effort you put into finding out these little factoids is entirely up to you, and I am well-aware that I am probably at the more obsessive end of the scale. It can be a tremendous time-suck, if you aren't careful.
Unfortunately, mistakes still occur, especially for things that you are convinced you know - I was certain that I had the name of that insurance company correct, and was really only double-checking capitalisation and spelling, I had no idea it no longer sold life insurance.
Even if you are correct, there are plenty of readers out there who won't believe you (I had a recent surreal email exchange with an overseas reader who took exception to my pluralisation of a word, refusing to back down even when I cited the Collins dictionary). Some readers even write to authors to castigate them for giving incorrect directions for a fictional route between two places that only exist in the writer's imagination!
There will always be those who loudly proclaim on social media or review sites that an author's faux pas 'ruined the whole novel' and they had to 'put it down, never to read one of their books again'. Sometimes they call into question the author's attention to detail, accusing them of not bothering to engage the services of a proof-reader or, something that really irritates me, implying that the proof-reader is useless and unprofessional - they aren't, they're human.
Dig a little deeper and you'll find that such an over-reaction usually says more about the reviewer than your book. Often, they are using it as a platform to broadcast their supposed expertise on a niche subject that nobody else really cares about.
To be honest, aside from absolute howlers that are embarrassing, my advice is not to lie awake at night. If there is an opportunity to change the manuscript, then perhaps do so, if only to avoid having to reply repeatedly to the same questions on social media. Otherwise, wear it as a badge of honour. You aren't really a successful writer until you've had your first unjustified one star review!
How bothered are you by small inaccuracies? Do you have an obsessive attention to detail? What tiny details do you always strive to get correct?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media.
Until next time,
Writing Realistic Relationships
Relationships between characters are at the heart of all stories, and crime novels are no different. In this week's #TuesdayTip, I want to look at how we can write realistic relationships.
First of all, I firmly believe that you can't write a relationship unless you know the people that you are writing about. This is as true of minor, secondary characters, as it is of long-standing, series regulars. So before you start writing a scene, think about who will be taking part.
How two people interact depends on a range of factors.
With that in mind, it's worth considering the types of relationships that occur in real life.
Lovers / Spouses / Exes.
These relationships are so often at the heart of dramatic fiction, and for good reason. In a crime novel, where the aim is to dig below the surface, it's worth spending some time building up the layers for key couples/former couples.
(Note that I make no assumptions about whether these relationships are same sex, opposite sex, or non-gendered. I will be writing a future blog about writing LBGQT+ characters, but the questions below should be true of any relationship).
So ask yourself a few questions:
These are amongst our closest relationships, rivalling even that between lovers and spouses. These people have known us for many years, and we have evolved and aged together. Even in close, loving relationships, there is often emotional baggage that will forever colour how we interact. They know what makes us tick, and what buttons to press. They have often seen a side of you that nobody else has, such as temper trantrums.
How have the relationships evolved? Do the chcaracters 'regress' to childhood patterns of behaviour when they meet up with them? Do old memories and feelings resurface?
Friends are like family - but different.
Think about the people you grew up with - they know all your secrets; including the ones that you kept from your family. They know about your likes and dislikes and what makes you laugh.
Are your characters still in touch, or have they perhaps drifted apart? What happens when they reunite? Again, do they regress?
Then there are new friends.
A new friendship group, perhaps as a result of moving, or going to university, can be an opportunity to reinvent yourself.
Would old acquaintances recognise the 'new' person, if they were a fly on the wall?
Then there are your work colleagues.
We often spend more waking hours in their company than we do friends and family. Sometimes they become best friends, other times they are people we (barely) tolerate. Even the most open and friendly colleague is probably showing you a different face than that seen by their closest loved ones. I am sometimes struck by how a colleague's social media posts often seem to be that of a complete stranger. Doubtless they feel the same way about me.
Is the relationship friendly, antagonistic or neutral? How did they meet? How often do they see each other? How much do they know about your character? Do they know things about the person that might be unexpected (eg something they overheard or saw)?
So, what if all these different people meet?
Weddings are unique occasions when two families and circles of friends meet, often for the first time. I've written before about how people often regress when they meet up with childhood friends. What happens when your character finds themself sitting on a table with people they went to school with, people who shared a flat with them as a student, and the people who know them primarily through work? How will your character deal with that?
In a crime novel, a police officer interviewing acquaintances of a victim or suspect might get different responses depending on who they interview. Who should they believe?
Things to keep in mind
Keep the relationship consistent - but remember, relationships evolve.
This is not a contradiction! For there to be a change in a relationship, there needs to be a catalyst. That catalyst could be something as inevitable as the passage of time, but as a rule if two workmates are warm and friendly one day, then cold the next, then something must have happened. This is the assumption that your readers will make, so take care not to lead them down the garden path by being careless - they won't appreciate it.
Don't forget the importance of relationships between secondary characters.
A couple of lines is all it takes, but it will help round out a character and make them realistic. The touch of a spouse's hand on their partner's shoulder can tell the reader lots about their relationship without ever being explicit.
Two people may have an entirely different view of their relationship.
There are plenty of people sideswiped by the unexpected ending of a relationship that they though was going fine. Or consider that sudden explosion of anger after a few too many at Christmas, when you realise that your constant 'joking' about your sister's weight was actually only funny to you...
Then of course there is jealousy or unrequited feelings.
So how can you write realistic relationships?
Observation is key:
Look at friends and family. Pay attention. Is there a relationship in your life, or someone you know, that matches the one that you are trying to write?
Of course, this comes with a big health warning - think carefully about how comfortable you (or they) will be if it becomes apparent who the character is based on.
For that reason, it may be safer to take note of how relationships are dealt with in books and on TV. Soap operas are pretty much nothing but relationships, but of course the quality and realism varies. Choose wisely! As a reader or viewer, you probably have a gut feeling for what works and what doesn't, so follow those instincts.
So, what are your thoughts about writing relationships? Are there any really good examples that you would recommend?
Feel free to comment below or on social media.
Until next time,
DCI Warren Jones Day!
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
Disclosure: I am a member of both the Amazon and Bookshop.org affiliates programs, meaning that I get a small commission everytime a book is purchased using links from my site.