Deliberate mistakes

by Pari

We novelists have been known to take liberties with the truth when it furthers a story. Sometimes we do it unconsciously. Other times, we know that the reality would bore readers to death.

I mean, who really wants to know how private investigators work? I did. I interviewed a well respected former policewoman who now runs a great agency in NM. She spoke about people’s expectations about the job, the ideas formed and nurtured by fiction and television, that were so far from her day-to-day efforts. In fact, the biggest parts of her work centered on research — at her computer or going through printed records — and then writing reports. Only once or twice in her career had she ever confronted a “suspect” and she regretted it. In fact, the impression I got from her was that most PIs deliberately strive not to be larger than life; they want to melt into the background, to be as invisible as possible in order to get the info they need.

However, reading about report-writing doesn’t rock most people’s world. It just doesn’t have enough oomph.

What about the CSI phenomenon?
Let’s face it, an octogenarian claiming she’s a 21-year-old Playboy model on her MySpace page is closer to the truth than most fictional depictions of crime scene analysis these days.

Yet, we writers have the resources to tell it like it is. In addition to the experts we cultivate as acquaintances and friends, there are marvelous online sources such as, Jan Burke’s emails about crime labs, Lee Lofland’s wonderful blog — and reference books galore.

Sometimes I feel like I have an obligation to the truth, to try to counter all the misperceptions out there. However, I don’t write procedurals and to include too much info about how police — or professional PIs — investigate crimes wouldn’t mesh with what my books are about. All I can do is try to be accurate in how my protags perceive what’s going on  . . . and my protags aren’t always right.

Yet I think that readers’ expectations have changed dramatically in the last decade or so. They want more procedure, more DNA analysis and national computer databases that in reality don’t exist or are too costly to conduct.

They have all of these ideas about what the truth is and those ideas simply are wrong.

Where’s the balance? Do we keep giving them the exciting confrontation between PI and perp because it makes a good climax to our book? Do we throw in a nifty piece of evidence scraped off a ladybug’s footpad because the insect crawled on the victim’s lips after he died and that makes our take unique?

Do we write these jacked-up versions, thereby creating even more erroneous expectations?

I don’t have the answers. That’s why I’m asking you. 

Writers:  How do you handle the balance? Do you put in the reality — the length of time things really take, the lack of resources, the mistakes — or do you take liberties?
Readers:  Am I totally off? Do you want more and more procedure and CSI techniques or are you sick of those being stuck into everything?
Everyone:  What’s YOUR favorite lie/mistake in print or television vis a vis crime solving or law enforcement?

38 thoughts on “Deliberate mistakes

  1. Jude Hardin

    I like to make occasional references to my PI’s ordinary humdrum work life, the attorney who owes him money for an insurance fraud case or whatever, so the reader knows all the exciting stuff happening during the story is far beyond the norm.

  2. B.G. Ritts

    I like character driven stories, but I also enjoy the path to ‘who done it’. So for me, procedure is enlightening and wanted as long as it isn’t ‘follow-the-dots’, hold the beakers and flasks up to the audience boring and silly.

    My favorite ‘lie’ was in the old Perry Mason shows where he would get the guilty party to confess in the courtroom, often right after Paul Drake showed up with the damning evidence. I don’t think the police are that inept at finding evidence, that courtroom confessions are that common, and that a DA would keep his job for that long if the opposition was always showing him up. That formula made for entertaining TV though.

  3. pari

    B.G.,I liked those old Perry Masons too. Even though we knew the courtroom scenes would always have those last minute revelations, the “damning evidence,” they were still fun.

  4. Louise Ure

    I guess I do put a fair amount of reality into my work — DNA testing doesn’t happen in one hour or overnight. But I treat it the same way I treat dialogue. I leave out all the ums and ers and boring parts of speech.

  5. J.T. Ellison

    I used to think Perry Mason was God. Literally.

    I find this a problem too, even though I can write the procedural stuff in. So much of what cops do involves dead boring stuff, just like the PIs. So I approach mine like it’s 1984 instead of 2009, when hands on investigation ruled and computers weren’t making matches with suspects. That way I can do the procedural stuff, let my cops actually investigate on the page, and allow the readers to investigate as well with other POVS. I use modern day technology, of course, but like to let my folks keep a hand in things.

    And since in real life it actually does take time for a DNA match to come back, instead of the instantaneous way it’s presented on TV, that buys time to investigate too.

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Interesting topic, Pari. As a reader, I just want the highlights of what they do, with a hint of the normal humdrum stuff if the event I’m reading about is outside the norm. I like getting real information and an appreciation of real time constraints, but it shouldn’t ever overburden the story (characters) or else it becomes a tech manual, and that’s not what I buy fiction for.

    In my own writing, the time-span of the books are very compressed, which doesn’t allow for a lot of time for investigating–they are thriller structures, and we generally know what the villain is up to and it’s a question of can Bobbie Faye stop it and survive it. The first book takes place over 16 hours, the second in about 30, and the third in roughly 8 days, which the majority of the book covering only the last 24 hours. I do a hefty bit of research on the details, but take license when I need to.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I use the truth that’s useful and fudge the truth that’s not.

    I think everyone has their own taste about how much reality and detail they want, and they will seek out the authors that write to that level of reality.

    Personally I love for stories to feel real without necessarily BEING real. I like a pushed reality – I want heroic cops and mythic villains. I want the sensual experience of a story without a lot of mechanical or technological detail. So I research and write enough of that for a certain level of plausibility without getting bogged down in the details. I always end up taking out more of what I learned in my research than what I leave in.

  8. pari

    J.T.,I’ve never felt beseiged by “boring” information in your books. You do make it seem real — with just enough procedure — but it never takes over, say, in the way that some technical info gets too much attention in a Clancy novel . . .

    I’m curious, do you find yourself overwriting the tech stuff and then pulling back or does it come out as perfect as it ends up in the books?

  9. Allison Brennan

    I’ve grappled with this question many times. I take a lot of liberties, but I generally explain it. Most of the time, DNA evidence isn’t required in my books. The one time I needed it, I had the ex-husband of my heroine be the head of the crime lab in Quantico. Since I know how long DNA ACTUALLY takes to process (different than when you can expect a report based on work load) I had him run the tests in the middle of the night for her (they had a good relationship.) After working in the legislature for 13 years, it’s definitely the “who you know” that’s half the battle.

    For SUDDEN DEATH I needed ballistics tests. I thought they’d take a long time, but in a high profile case (which is, honestly, one of the best ways to get information fast–make the victim high profile or somehow compelling. My victims were a truck driver and his pregnant wife–I had half the police force coming in on their own time to look for evidence around the crime scene) — but the truth is ballistics, if you have the bullets, can happen pretty quick. Much faster than DNA as many city and county labs have the right equipment and ballistics information is online through the FBI.

    If a point is plot critical–and this is my personal threshold–I don’t take liberties (maybe a little with time and leaving out the boring report writing! Though often I’ll show my weary detective or agent leaving the station in the wee hours because he had to write a report . . . ) The ballistics in SD was plot critical, so I made sure that it was PLAUSIBLE (even if not PROBABLE) that they could get the reports in 12 hours (or whatever it was–I don’t remember.) If the point is not plot critical, then I’ll fudge it if I need to (i.e. timeline.)

    For example, in TEMPTING EVIL I had a secondary character tracking a fugitive from California to Montana. I’ll admit, I got this from television–NUMB3RS specifically. I didn’t even THINK that he COULDN’T do it. The first draft was written. It would have been next to impossible to take him out of the story because he was a plot critical character. When I made contact with the FBI I found out that this would NEVER happen. My agent would have called the closest regional office if he had information about the fugitive, and those agents would follow up on it. I was banging my head. So I asked my contact, what would happen if he followed the fugitive anyway? Say he was so wrapped up into the case that he just had to do it. What would be the repercussions? Well . . . anything from a reprimand to termination. Seriously. That actually worked BETTER for my story because Mitch was a maverick, he didn’t like playing by rules, so it made complete sense that he’d track the fugitive and ask for forgiveness later. That disobedience ultimately had him pulled from the case in the next book, setting up conflict and also establishing that he would be willing to break rules if he had a hunch. It wasn’t PROBABLE that Mitch would have tracked the fugitive, but it definitely was possible.

    Even more important to me, I have to make the premise fit in my head. I have to believe it could happen and that the reasons why work psychologically. Most killers and criminals are not insane, so they have reasons for what they do. I have to buy into those reasons otherwise I can’t write.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Apart from the sheer speed of turnaround in processing of evidence, one of my favourite gripes in CSI-type programmes (although I watch and enjoy them!) is the lack of decent lighting. Why do they always go into the crime scene with a tiny little pen-sized flashlight?

    The other is the fact that they never seem to put on any protective clothing beyond gloves and, very occasionally, a pair of bootees. No unflattering tyvek suits, hoods and masks for our intrepid – and fashion-conscious – heroes.

    And they will keep picking up new bits of evidence before anyone’s photographed them in situ.

    Tyre squeal on dirt roads, that’s another annoying one. And I watched an episode of ‘Without A Trace’ recently where the head FBI agent sticks his gun in some bad guy’s mouth, and then we distinctly hear the sound of the hammer going back to further intimidate him. Only trouble was, the gun was clearly a Glock, with no hammer. Why was that addiional sound effect necessary?

    Yes, I agree with you, Pari, that report-writing does not make fascinating reading in a PI novel, but we are writing escapist entertainment. It’s all a matter of balance – enough procedure for authenticity, but not enough for boredom to set in.

    We need dark and light in any novel, and the mundane routine often allows our characters thinking and breathing room. They can’t always be having gunfights and car chases or that, in itself, would become boring.

    Interesting, though, that I was talking to a judge for one of the major UK crime fiction awards last year, asking about the standard of debut novels entered, and she said that too many new authors were concentrating too much on the procedure, and not enough on telling the story.

  11. Dana

    I’m pretty much in line with Jude. I summarize my PI’s mundane tasks: scenes will periodically open with him working on reports, getting bills ready, then being interrupted. I also try my best to have his murder investigations evolve from something a PI would actually do, since, as we all know, PIs don’t do homicides except under extraordinary circumstances.

    My pet peeve is when someone on CSI will drop off a DNA sample and, when asked how quickly they need it, says, “I’ll wait.” To me, the delays in lab tests should be to the advantage of the novelist, as so many other things can be explored and worked in while the tests are pending.

  12. K

    I hate CSI and shows/books which get forensics wrong. Hate it. It’s not because I’m a stickler for accuracy but because I’m a prosecutor who has to convince jurors who’s expectations are unrealistic and downright silly based on the fiction they’ve watched/read.

    The DNA backlog where I work is 6-8 MONTHS, not days, not weeks but months. However, Defendant’s can demand a speedy trial and have it held within 90 days. Jurors watch CSI and think DNA comes back after the commercial break.

    I hate to think of how many criminals are walking free right now because of jurors misinformed by CSI and it’s ilk.

  13. CJ

    I agree about using the real life time aspects to your advantage as a writer: in my WIP I have two police itching to make a move but they have to wait for the DNA before they can get warrants — and in the meantime other poeple could be killed, so it really ratchets the tension up…

    as a writer I like to get it right as far as possible. I f I DO have to stretch the truth I try to make it reasonable — like the “who you know”idea above — in one case one person is emotionally involved and so does go beyond official procedure —

    as a READER I HATE inaccuracies — sp;oils things for me UNLESS they have such a great story and such great characters I forget to notice it — I will go along with things IF they give a reason for it that makes sense to me and fits with the character…so someone getting a speedy analysis of forensics because they are personally involved and have pulled in some personal favours works for me – getting DNA in 12 hours on a regualr basis stops me reading the book…


  14. J.D. Rhoades

    No actual bail bondsman would take half the chances that Jack Keller does, and much of the job is done on the phone or on the computer. Another big chunk of the job of bounty hunting is just waiting around.

    But reality is boring. That’s why people read.

    I’m facing a challenge with my current WIP, which is about a small town Southern lawyer. I’m trying to put as much verisimilitude in as possible, without getting too much into the boring stuff. One thing I do touch on is the trouble of keeping your practice alive when you have a single murder case that’s consuming a huge share of your time.

  15. Catherine

    Zoë said it perfectly for me as a reader with this comment…

    ‘It’s all a matter of balance – enough procedure for authenticity, but not enough for boredom to set in.’

    An Australian author I’ve been reading lately, and for the most part enjoy, as in I’ve read her 4 books (and used cash to achieve this )…I like her plots, her characters, the links between one book and the next, except she has this annoying habit of explaining why procedure is the way it is…throughout each book in an internal voice. It’s quite disconcerting.It’s not that the knowing about the procedure is not interesting, it’s that she switches the pace down by doing it. There are times when I’m reading these books where I’m thinking the editor thought this was a good idea, this technique keeps happening…what the heck is going on…so it may just come down to my internal triggers of what I consider plausible. I just can’t see someone explaining to themselves why things are the way they are in this semi lecturing style.

    I’ve just finished Tempting Evil after reading this other author and went to myself, well that’s how you make procedure plausible and smooth. Top marks Allison.

    So Pari I think it’s not just a matter of being accurate, or how much information I’m given, it’s how the procedure is woven in.

  16. Allison Brennan

    Thanks so much Catherine! I really appreciate it —

    Tammy, who often comments here, helped me with a plot critical point in my upcoming CUTTING EDGE. I needed to find out if it was possible to learn via autopsy if someone bled to death vs died in a fire (with a burned or partly burned body.) As in so much forensics, you can set up a situation to give the detectives the evidence you want them to have . . . or to give them inconclusive evidence . . . or give them something completely different. CJ taught me that in medicine, a lot of the job of the doctor is educated guesses based on the information in front of them. They can do tests to rule out A, B and C, but whether it’s D or E is 50/50 so they treat D and if it works, it was D; if it doesn’t, they treat E. When someone dies in a fire, can you know with certainty that they were already dead? Maybe . . . based on other factors. It’s one reason I love forensics and writing forensics and crime in books. But I think the psychology of killers is my first love in writing. Why do people do what they do?

  17. pari

    Toni,I also wonder if different subgenres have different conventions about this. Of course there are the obvious ones: Police procedural = procedure/ PI = some reality about being a PI . . . But do Thrillers commonly have more or less? How about traditional mysteries?

    I wonder.

  18. rgiraffe

    I don’t mind at all with TV shows/writers taking liberty with what reality is – I’m not a stickler for those things – I just want to be entertained.

    I will say a couple of years ago I had to go to court to defend myself – and the only thing I had to base the experience on was what I’ve seen on TV. Nothing (well, the judge does sit above with a gown on) was the same and it depressed me (all my mad Matlock skillz went untapped). A primer course on “what to REALLY expect” would have been helpful, all in all.

  19. pari

    Alex,You’re right, of course. It HAS to feel real and once it does, we can do what we want.

    Allison,I love your story about the agent following the fugitive and how the truth actually made it stronger. Fascinating. I had the same kind of thing happen with the manuscript I’m writing right now.

  20. pari

    Zoe,You bring up so many issues I can’t even begin to respond to them all. You’re absolutely right about writing entertainment AND about those mistakes that annoy the living beejezzus out of you. I’m never sure how much the audience knows or cares.

    CSI and its spawn have gotten so incredibly implausible, yet consumers keep coming back for more; they really believe that CSI folk interview witnesses etc etc.

    And that was very interesting about the awards judge with whom you spoke. I’ve had that sense that everyone is jumping on the “procedural” bandwagon and that it’s time will pass.

  21. pari

    Dana,Great point about the time it takes to run tests and what a missed opportunity there is for the novelist or screenwriter to use that fact to explore other parts of the story.

  22. pari

    K,I absolutely do NOT envy the challenge you face with these erroneous expectations. Without getting into moralizing, I really believe programs like CSI that are so incredible misleading have some obligation to ensure public education about the realities.

    I guess that’s also what I was driving at vis a vis novelists. Because I avoid most procedure/testing like the plague, I don’t have to deal with this issue much — but some authors do and they walk a very fine line in the balance between entertainment and lies.

  23. pari

    CJ,I would’ve been shocked if you’d written that you didn’t give a hoot about accuracy;-)

    I wonder how we write with plausibility in mind when our audiences have such different thresholds? Right now, I’m working on a character that communicates with nonhuman animals/plants. It’s an incredible challenge to make her even vaguely realistic but I feel compelled to do so since she works and exists in this world rather than a fantasy one.

    We’ll see if I succeed.

  24. pari

    Dusty,I think that small-town lawyer will be fascinating precisely because he or she is dealing with that problem; we can all identify with something taking far too much of our time at the expense of anything else.

  25. pari

    Catherine,That’s an important distinction. I know that some books seem bogged down in that description and it has more to do with the switching of tone — the author as pedant — rather than the information itself being “heavy.”

    Thank you for chiming in with that insight.

  26. pari


    I wonder if anyone has done that kind of a novel — the “what to really expect in court” thing?

    Probably part of the challenge is that it varies so much by state.

    Your comment about not really caring as long as you’re entertained is, I suspect, one that many readers/viewers share. That’s often my criterion, but then something will toss me out of a work and often I just can’t get back in there.

  27. Jude Hardin


    For me, it’s really about the juxtaposition of ordinary and extraordinary. Kansas is boring and safe, Oz is exciting and scary.

    We’re always glad to make it back to Kansas in the end, though, so I think we need that glimpse of reality as a reference point.

  28. RfP

    “I’m a prosecutor who has to convince jurors who’s expectations are unrealistic and downright silly based on the fiction they’ve watched/read.”

    I read an article last year saying that the “CSI Effect” is having two effects: getting record numbers of college students interested in such jobs, and giving juries a false impression of how the science and the system work.

    It’s interesting to me as a reader because I usually like to think readers are smart enough to know the difference between truth and fiction. However, clearly there are fields in which it’s not reasonable to expect that of a layperson. Perhaps especially in fiction that’s set in something close to the real world, and tries to be “realistic”.

    I think of the technologies in CSI as being major but near-future advancements like, say, the JD Robb procedurals. Imagine the difference in how the audience would perceive CSI were the shows given an occasional space travel scene like the JD Robbs, or a futuristic glitz like Minority Report. That might move CSI toward the speculative fiction genre, rather than being simulated gritty reality with cool toys to save the day. As it is, I think CSI projects a “science will solve everything” message, whereas a lot of speculative fiction takes the gloomier view that science will advance but we’ll still have to cope with it, with each other, and with bureaucracy.

  29. joylene

    My brother is a retired policeman, who know works in security. He says nothing is more boring than a stakeout. Especially if your partner has chronic bad breath and insists on taking a garlic pill every morning with his coffee and cigarette.

  30. pari

    RfP,I also wonder if those CSI shows might be easier to understand as fiction if they went further overboard so that the holograms etc were really out there. Then, maybe, we’d have a shift in public expectation. After all, many many people wanted science to catch up to the transporters in Star Trek, but we all knew it was something for the future.

  31. pari

    Brahahahahaha, Joylene,I loved that.

    Sounds like your brother had some experience with said stakeouts.

    On a side note, I used to eat massive quantities of garlic (still eat a lot but have toned it down considerably) and couldn’t understand when others commented on how I smelled like the herb. If you consume it, you lose the ability to smell it on yourself or others.

  32. RfP

    “report-writing does not make fascinating reading in a PI novel, but we are writing escapist entertainment.”

    I think the boring side of PI work shows up sometimes in noir. It’s not that the story is full of stake-outs and report-writing, but the Sam Spade-type PI is cynical about his job as well as about people. I can think of a few other noir anti-heroes who start out the dedicated, passionate type but are quickly shown the error of their thinking. Though there’s the Nick & Nora type too, so obviously my noir analogy is full of holes.

  33. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RfP

    Yes, the boring side of the job does show up in PI novels, and the downbeat angle is particularly relevant in noir. The story is as much about the effect of the world on the character, as the character’s effect on the world.

    I also said, “We need dark and light in any novel, and the mundane routine often allows our characters thinking and breathing room. They can’t always be having gunfights and car chases or that, in itself, would become boring.”

  34. Stephen D. Rogers

    I think it’s important that writers know the truth, even if that truth is not expressed in the story, because the truth will affect the character (as people are mentioning how the boring facets of PI work show up in the PIs, even if those scenes aren’t shown).

    Back in the old days, police solved major crimes by interviewing a hundred people and cross-referencing all the statements. Then, once fingerprinting became available, police interviewed a hundred people and cross-referenced the statements to determine who to fingerprint in order to match the prints found at the scene. Now with DNA, the police interview a hundred people and cross-reference the statements in order to know who to name in the search warrant for a DNA sample.

    The interviews still provide the bulk of the story. Then the writer can sprinkle in mention of DNA being found at the scene, DNA being tested (and the politics involved), and finally the DNA matching the suspect that was developed by the shoe-leather investigation.

    And if the writer knows cops (I work in the police station), the writer knows the specter of reports and court color every decision the officer makes, even if these are never seen on the page.

  35. rgiraffe

    It’s interesting you said what you did in response to me, “I wonder if anyone has done that kind of a novel — the “what to really expect in court” thing?” – because that’s what I kept thinking of at the time…I needed a “What to expect in court for Dummies” book.

    Everyone in the system knew it so well they used words that were meaningless to me – (I’d come home and Google arraignment, for example) with the expectation that of course I knew what was going on. I wrote a lot about my experience (just a personal narrative to look back on later…) and I don’t feel qualified at all to say “this is the reality” except I do know I’m very well-educated (and my Matlock thing was a joke, but the truth is I had no other reference point to what goes on in court beyond TV and novels) and I felt very stupid. I didn’t know anyone who had been in a similar situation so it was entirely learn-as-you-go – and not really the kind of situation you want to be in feeling that vulnerable and unknowledgeable.

    All that rambling to say: a book on the realities of what to expect would a great idea. (but for someone else…since I don’t plan to ever return to court!!)

    kim (rgiraffe)

  36. Jan Burke

    Thanks for kindly mentioning the CLP News, Pari. For those who want to subscribe, just send a blank email toCLPNews-subscribe@yahoogroups.comYou‘ll get a once-a-week (most of the time) email with links to recent news stories about forensic science.

    I’m reading this post belatedly, but just after returning home from meetings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The U.S. forensic science community is buzzing over a newly released study by National Academy of Sciences. Anyone who wants to know more about the realities of forensic science in the U.S. should read this study. You can see an overview page here: will take you to a link where you can read the report online.

    As for writing details and being “true to life” — any aspect of life a writer writes about can be made utterly lifeless by overloading it with detail. If you recount every humdrum action any of us might take from the moment we wake until the moment we’re out the front door in the morning, it’s unlikely to fascinate a reader. A skillful crime fiction writer, whether writing about forensic science or any other investigative process, will find the best balance between detail and drama.

    My contention is that we don’t have to continue to promote false notions about forensic science or overly romanticize it to tell dramatic stories. We can tell the truth about the conditions in our forensic science labs and death investigation systems without boring our readers.



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