After a research trip to Galveston, my husband and I were dining with friends when one of them posed a surprising question: “If you’re writing fiction, why do you have to do so much research? You’re making it up, after all.”
Yes, but no. If I were writing about a fictional town, then yes, I could dictate that a street ran east rather than south. I could adjust the population to suit my story, or I could change the terrain and the city’s government structure. I could make it cold in October - but, it’s not cold in October in Galveston, Texas.
In fiction, you do have a certain amount of literary license. However, if you abuse that privilege, readers will suspend your license. Readers of detective fiction are more sophisticated than ever. With such a variety of choices, from police procedurals and thrillers, to private detectives and gifted (or just plain lucky) amateurs, they’ve educated themselves.
However, where readers expect believability, they also seek a certain amount of entertaining escapism. In the real world, of course, librarians don’t find bodies on a regular basis, little old ladies in English villages don’t continually solve murders, and young women don’t buy haunted seaside mansions and find themselves murder suspects. Fictional serial characters provide us with stamina we could only dream of possessing.
Mystery readers are also a suspicious, curious lot. I know; I’m one of them. Every time I open a book, the challenge begins. I’ve been pitted against the author, who knows all the answers, and I’m determined to best her. Finding factual errors is like tripping over something. You find yourself stopping, looking around, and asking where that came from.
Fortunately, I really enjoy and appreciate research. While researching The Stewart’s Mansion, I found real treasure in the story of The Campeche Hell Dogs and their ties to the pirate Jean Lafitte. In addition to talking with the police and firefighters as one would expect, while working on this novel, I also questioned reporters, criminal defense and intellectual properties attorneys, a wildlife expert, a medical examiner, the Galveston Historical Foundation, two doctors and a property manager. Then there was a lot of time with everyone’s friend, the Internet, and my new best friend, Galveston’s fabulous Rosenberg Library.
Ask any investigative reporter or detective, and they’ll tell you it’s usually some simple pieces of information that provide the answer. However, they’re not always that easily discovered. Nothing underscores this point better than the old saying, “The devil is in the details.” Like so many clichés, it has morphed from something else, but its meaning hasn’t changed. The phrase, which began as “God is in the detail,” is generally credited to Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). Quite simply, it means details matter.
We’re asking readers to invest 300-plus pages of time in our stories, and we have to do our best to be accurate. As my mother used to tell me, “People can get more money, but they can’t get more time.”