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 crimescenewriter.com, 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?