“Hey, it’s fiction. Who cares if it’s accurate?”

By James Hayman

The summer before last I attended an International Thriller Writers get-together at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan.  One of the better-attended sessions over the three days of the conference was an interview and discussion with Harlan Coben, whose books regularly hit the best seller lists and one of which, Tell No One, was made into a successful French movie starring a British actress, Kristin Scott Thomas (who speaks pretty good French) complete with subtitles.  (Yes, I know Coben’s books usually take place in New Jersey. This movie was definitely French.)

Anyway, I digress. At the conference, one member of the audience asked Coben how much research he does when writing his books.

“None,” replied Coben.

“Then how do you know if what you are writing is accurate?”

“I don’t,” Coben said. “My books are fiction. I don’t pretend that they’re anything else. I don’t really care if they’re accurate or not. All I care about is whether people enjoy reading them.”

I remember the exchange so clearly because at the time I found it troubling.

Unlike Coben,  I spend a fair amount of time and go to some lengths to assure the technical accuracy of what I write about. Maybe too much time.

My first novel The Cutting is typical.  The Cutting is a story about illegal heart transplants.  Before I wrote a single word for the book about transplant procedures, I read at least a dozen articles and watched a number of videos that describe and show the operation in detail. I talked to three cardiac surgeons about how one goes about removing a heart from one human body and then putting it in another. I researched the instruments and tools required for the job, learning among other things how heart-lung machines work and the brand name of the saw most typically used  to cut through the sternum and open the rib cage to get at the heart (Stryker, in case anyone is interested).

I also spent several hours with the transplant co-ordinator at Maine Medical Center discussing where hearts come from, who co-ordinates the process and who would be eligible or ineligible for such a procedure. Before publication, I sent my (almost) final manuscript to an old friend and college classmate who was and is a transplant surgeon at the Iowa Heart Center in Des Moines for a final fact check. He said I got almost everything right but suggested a few small changes, which I made.

All in all, at least a hundred hours and maybe more went into this research.

Was it really necessary for a reader’s enjoyment of the story?  Probably not.  Could the time have been better spent writing and polishing the manuscript? Possibly. Undoubtedly, most of my readers probably wouldn’t have known the difference if I’d fudged it. And for those few who happen to be cardiac surgeons and might have recognized an inaccuracy, I can always adopt Coben’s retort. “Hey, it’s fiction. Who cares if it’s accurate?”

Harlan Coben has published a dozen or more successful books. I’ve published two, neither remotely as successful as most of his.  Coben’s been number one on the New York Times best-seller list.  I haven’t gotten anywhere close to that lofty status.

Still, as I close in on the finish of my third novel, Darkness First, I find myself, at the moment,  spending more time than I probably should researching exactly how much of exactly which drug a murderer should put in his tranquilizer dart to make sure the victim’s vicious rottweiler goes to sleep and stays asleep until the murderous deed is done.

Maybe Coben’s right.  Maybe this kind of obsessiveness about accuracy isn’t necessary.  Somehow I just like it better that way.

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7 Responses to “Hey, it’s fiction. Who cares if it’s accurate?”

  1. Lea Wait says:

    “Who care if it’s accurate?” Well, I do, for one. Not just as a writer. (I’ll admit I’ll match you as a possibly compulsive researcher) but also as a reader. It drives me absolutely nuts to read something in a book — yes, dear readers, a book that is FICTION — that is clearly incorrect. It tells me the author hasn’t done his or her homework, and, at that point, I either put down the book, or regard the rest of the story with a jaded eye. Can this book be trusted? And I’m not the only one — I have readers who’ve written (or even called) to question minor details in my books (so far I’ve been right, thank goodness) or find out more details about something that interested them. Bottom line: Coben writes great stories. But they’re set in a place and time he knows inside out. And I’ll bet he’s asked a couple of cops questions over the years. I believe an author owes his or her readers their best. And the best includes being accurate. Write on, Jim!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    I’m with you all the way, Jim. When I was an editor at Level Best Books, we rejected a lot of stories because the writers hadn’t bothered to get it right. I think we write for a very sophisticated group and they expect us to do our research. One of the greatest compliments I ever got was from a detective who said that what he really liked about the book were all the small things that really nailed the detective’s reality. Because I’d put a lot of work into that…it meant as much as the starred reviews.

    I’ll admit it–I like doing research. The writer’s life can be a pretty solitary one, so I like sitting on the sofa at someone’s Christmas party asking a school psychologist about one of my teenage character’s behavior, or asking an ER physician about the physical effects of a particular poison. Maybe that’s why I don’t invited to parties anymore…but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

  3. I just won this prize from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance for THE EDGE OF RUIN, a funny murder mystery set in the film industry in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1909. I did massive research, but it wasn’t possible to find out absolutely everything. So last Wednesday I was on a panel to receive this prize along with two real historians, in front of an audience of real historians, including the world’s foremost Edison scholar, Paul Israel, confessing that I made stuff up.
    It was sort of a thrill. Not exactly like saying, “Ha, ha, I fooled you,” but I did wave my poetic license at them, figuratively speaking. Fiction, you know. Paul Israel set me straight on a couple of points.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    I’m less concerned with accuracy (because I think accuracy is often in the eye of the beholder), and more concerned with believability. But believable to whom? A sophisticated mystery reader–or an experienced detective? I think the hardest part is not capturing the facts and procedures, but capturing the atmosphere.

    My husband worked in politics for 30 years and because of that association I believe that most novels and movies about that world get it completely wrong. Not just the intricacies of FEC regulations, (There’s an incredible scene in the Harrison Ford film Random Hearts where friends deliver cash from a fundraiser to the candidate’s house. Next stop, prison!), but the atmosphere, characters and their motivations. An exception was the late, great, Ross Thomas, but in his day job he worked at AFSCME in DC for years, so he knew what he was writing about. As a result of all this, I can’t enjoy these books and movies, though my husband is able to suspend disbelief and do so. He just went to see the new George Clooney, Ryan Gosling movie this week–without me.

    And then there’s the inverse, when fiction becomes more believable than reality. Now prosecutors are complaining that juries expect Bones or CSI level proof–which is rarely available.

  5. Paul Doiron says:

    I tend to lean in Barb’s direction here. “Inaccuracies” are crimes in journalism, but in novels I see them more as venal sins. At worst, they interrupt the suspension of disbelief that makes reading fiction so enjoyable. (I suppose that there are some widely read novels in which factual errors, deliberate or otherwise, work to disseminate horrible untruths; the odious TURNER DIARIES being one example. These should be condemned by all authors of conscience.) I personally think a novelist needs to do extensive research and then jettison about half of what they learn and get on with the writing. Doing research is, arguably, the most common excuse for not writing, so there’s that to consider. But secondly, I believe in the dictum that “story is all.” The only indispensable truths in a book are the human truths, which is why you can have Gregor Samsa turning into a cockroach. And who took more factual liberties that Shakespeare? I try to write as honestly as I can about the work Maine game wardens do, partly out of respect for the good deeds they do but also because it helps advance my plot (which is the purpose of all description in a story). But very often I have cause to take liberties, either because my readers have no knowledge of or interest in some bureaucratic particulars of the warden’s workaday life; but more typically because my aspiration is to communicate to an audience that isn’t interested in daily bag limits on black bass and the difference between a Type II and Type III PFD. As my wife always reminds me, “You’re writing for 100,000 readers, Paul, not 100 district wardens.”

  6. Interesting post, James. I think I’m in the “less research” camp myself. When I wrote my non-fiction books it was crucial to be accurate, and the whole nitpickiness of it drove me nuts. I’m enjoying fiction much more because I am free to imagine.

  7. Pat Browning says:

    I love this take on research — especially Paul’s wife’s comment “You’re writing for 100,000 readers not 100 game wardens.” That puts it in a nutshell. That said, I confess to loving research. If I had another life to live I’d be a research librarian. As a fiction writer I have spent more time doing research than doing actual writing, and that’s one of the reasons I got such a slow start on my second book. Then life interfered, and — quoting the King of Siam — et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Great blog, thanks for looking at a different view of research.
    Pat Browning

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