Fudging Facts in Fiction

RamonaGravitarConsider, if you will, three scenarios:

  1. In a mystery novel, a retired police chief character is asked by a neighbor to check out her daughter’s new boyfriend. The daughter claims to have spent Saturday night at a friend’s house, but Mom suspects she was with the boyfriend, who works at a pizza joint. The retired chief knows how to get a quick answer to this mystery. He calls the pizza joint, identifies himself as “Chief Lawson of the township police department” and asks if the boyfriend worked last Saturday night.

  1. In another mystery, a young single father (Jimmy) moves into a new apartment. Soon after he moves, there’s a rash of thefts in the complex. Jimmy has been no trouble to anyone, but he’s the new guy. A police officer rings Jimmy’s doorbell. Because his baby is sleeping, Jimmy steps into the hallway to talk, and closes the door behind him. The officer asks Jimmy where he was during the last burglary. Jimmy says he was working and gives his work info so that can be confirmed. Then the officer says he needs to go into Jimmy’s apartment to “take a look around.” Jimmy is taken aback, and he doesn’t want his baby to be disturbed. He says, “I don’t know. Don’t you need a warrant to search my apartment?” The officer says, “No, I don’t. In the US, you have to open your door to police whenever we say so.” Jimmy reluctantly opens his apartment door. Nothing suspicious is found.

  1. In a thriller set in a medium-sized town, a woman’s ex-husband is shot while changing a flat tire on the side of the road, on his way home from a bar. Janet (the woman) was also at the bar and started to leave as soon as her ex showed up—but on her way out, they had a nasty exchange that everyone saw. Now the ex is dead and the cops appear at her house, asking questions. Janet lives alone, so all she can say about that night is the truth: after the argument, she came home and watched TV until her blood pressure returned to normal. The only witness to that is her dog. After the detective finishes his questions, he says, “We may need to talk to you again. Don’t leave town.”

Each of these scenarios (with some changes) come from a mystery manuscript I have edited. Each was written as described, and each has a problem.

In scenario #1, when the retired chief identified himself a “Chief Lawson of the township police department” he forgot the word “retired.” By doing so, he impersonated a police officer—and committed a felony.

In scenario #2, Jimmy is correct—the officer does need a warrant to search his apartment, unless Jimmy gives permission. He opened the door, but only after the officer told him a factual untruth about his rights as a citizen.

In scenario #3, the police may have good reason to want to speak to Janet again. That’s not the problem. Telling her she can’t leave town? That’s a problem. The police may request she make herself available for more questions, but she’s not arrested or charged, so her movements can’t be restricted.

These are all fiction samples, and fiction needs conflict. That means, the characters need to face problems. What is problematic is when an author bends the law, or misleads a reader about the law, for conveniences to the plot because “it’s only fiction.”

Readers (and writers and editors) have personal opinions about what is and is not okay to stretch when writing fiction. I am not much of a stretcher. I don’t want my police characters committing felonies. I don’t want a reader to come away thinking Jimmy, as an American citizen, could not say, “No. Unless you have a warrant to go inside, we’re talking in the hallway.” I don’t want anyone to believe “Don’t leave town” is anything other than a quip on a TV cop drama.

What difference does it make, if it is fiction? Isn’t this artistic license? Aren’t readers smart enough not to believe everything they read in a novel?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

When you read a book set in your town, would it bother you if the name of the river that ran through it was wrong? If you questioned the author about why she used a realistic setting but changed the river’s name, and her response was, “The real name was too hard to spell, so I made one up,” would that be okay? Or, if her response was, “I didn’t look up the name of the river. Who cares? It’s fiction.”

Who cares? I care.

In writing, there’s this thing called the author-reader contract. It’s not a contract on paper, but more as an understood act of good faith. The contract promises, among other things, that the author will provide a story that makes sense. Because the contract is nebulous, the terms of it are nebulous as well. I believe the contract means the author will do everything in his or her power to be factually correct, whether it’s place names or police acting accurately.

After all, in real life, do you want people to impersonate police officers to get information? Do you want your rights as a citizen to be ignored?

What if one of your readers comes away from reading one of your stories believing something wrong? Believing, because you wrote it, that she can pretend to be an officer, or she can’t say no to an illegal search? It may not be your fault if she misinterprets or misapplies what you wrote, but why take the chance? Why knowingly write something that is wrong in the first place? Can’t you be a better writer than that?

Remember Blackstone’s principle: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

Isn’t is easier, better, and more fair to be accurate?

I’ll present a fourth scenario:

~In a mystery novel, a woman (Deanne) has four children, a dead-end job, a philandering husband, and a pile of bills. On Saturday night, she manages to convince the husband to take the three older children to the movies. Finally, she may have a little peace to herself, after she gets the baby to bed. But the baby won’t stop crying. Exhausted, Deanne decides to slip a little something into the baby’s bottle, to help it along to sleep-land. What does she add to the baby’s bottle? A little dash of cyanide. She does this, and the baby falls asleep, and the next morning, baby gets up rested and in perfect health.


Remember, this is fiction. In this story, cyanide doesn’t kill anybody.

What’s the problem? After all, it’s not like there is any chance a reader might read this and later, on a Saturday night when her baby won’t stop howling, she thinks it’s okay to slip cyanide into her baby’s bottle. She read it in a book, and she trusts the author, so it must be all right to do in real life. Right?

28 thoughts on “Fudging Facts in Fiction

  1. Ramona, I 100% agree. Yes, my stories are set in a real place, and I have made up names of bars, restaurants, and sometimes roads (Fayette County doesn’t have really good road maps for things outside of state routes, interstates, and towns). I think there’s an acceptable level of “fictionalizing” that you can get away with. But don’t make up names of major landmarks, or make police officers commit felonies (unless that police officer is a creep and part of your plot is to expose his corruption).


    1. Mary, that is all very true. It’s fine to make up a business and set it in a real place, because using a real business presents a whole other set of issues and permissions. As to the showing the officer is a creep, if he had been lying or a bully, this would have been a good way to reveal that. But he wasn’t–in fact, he was a positive character who the author needed inside that apt. Rather than get into details, she took a quickie way out and changed the laws of our country!


  2. Cyanide?? First of all, if a person wants to write about what the police do, the person needs to know what they do–and what they don’t do. It’s OK to have a bad cop, but the reader needs to know this is a bad cop, not just an ignoramus. But cyanide in the baby bottle??? NO!!!


    1. That’s the whole point, Kaye. If you can write a supposedly realistic story that is supposedly set in a US where police can enter your home anytime they want, and you can’t stop them, what’s to keep you from writing a story where cyanide is put in a baby bottle and nothing happens?


  3. You know, the writer could have gotten the cop into the apartment with the sleeping baby. Have the baby wake up howling and Jim want to go to him/her. He might then wave the cop inside while he tended the infant. Especially if he has nothing to hide.


    1. It’s trickier than that. The writer needed the cop into the apt so he’d see the baby, or at least what looked like a baby in a crib. Something happens to the baby (I don’t want to give too much away) but the cop can’t be 100% sure the baby was there and was okay. So, no crying baby. There were many other ways to get the cop inside without changing a law or trampling the character’s rights as a citizen, and making a good cop look bad in the process.


  4. Thank you for writing this. I feel guilty . I did fudge a little because automatic elevators didn’t arrive in Honolulu until a year after my crime was committed in an elevator . Is that too much. You have me worried. I try not to bend things, but the book was written before I chanced on this fact in the Honolulu library. I didn’t actually say the year but a reader could figure it out. Kathryn


    1. Kathryn, while I do believe in accuracy, no one is going to fall down an elevator shaft because of your story, right?
      There’s a difference between making an honest error or oversight (which is what this sounds like to me) and being misleading. You made a small factual error. If a reader catches it, admit you made an oversight and you’re good. No one’s perfect!


  5. As always, an excellent essay, Ramona. Totally agree about the contract. I’m lucky to have a local police officer (detective, actually), who will answer any question I ask. And it’s fun to research, for my historical mystery, things like when infant formula was invented, when electric street lights took over for gas, or when the Chain Bridge was built (yes, 8 years before my story, so my protag and her beau can go over in a carriage rather than taking the ferry…).


  6. I think the last example of the baby is entirely different than the three scenarios you present in the beginning. The last example is a fudge on science–can’t be done–I agree. But the previous three are dependent on human behavor. In the three scenarios, the police fudge procedure. Just because none are proper procedure doesn’t mean humans always follow procedure. It may be a fudge, but if the police character in question is described as a bit sleezy or at least lax, it is believable.

    I once witnessed a conversation between my daughter and her aunt. Both confessed to putting on tears whenever a cop pulled them over when they drove. When they put on tears, the result was–no tickets (giggle, giggle). Did the cops follow procedure? No. It proved they were human and susceptible to distraught women. If it were fiction, it would make the cops more authentic, not less because they are human. Not all police follow all procedures all the time. Human beings make for exceptions, and that is their strength and that is their weakness. When everyone follows the rules 100% of the time authenticity goes south and characters become machinations. You’ve read about real crimes when procedures are botched and evidence becomes inadmissible. It really happens.


    1. (Hurrah, I can respond!) Yes, Elaine, there’s a lot of leeway in what police do, what they should do, what it okay to do, what’s sketchy but legal.

      I think it comes down to what you want to achieve with the character. A totally by the book cop wouldn’t say “Don’t leave town” because he knows he can’t enforce that. But if a writer is trying to portray this guy as by the book, and she puts those words into his mouth, he’s acting out of character.

      These were not intentional, to make the police murky. They were errors, but a reader would not know that, and might come away thinking the “don’t leave town” or “nope, no search warrant required, ever” is true. That’s the damage, IMO.

      If police were perfectly portrayed and stuck to procedure all the time, it would be boring, they’d solve the crime by chapter 2, and we’d have no books!


  7. This is a good discussion about a problem we as writers face every day–telling a story honestly but interestingly. We want to be accurate without sounding like a police manual, and that takes work. The cyanide example is shocking, and I hope no one ever actually used that. It is important to me for readers to feel they are in a real place, listening to conversations that could be real even if I made them up. It’s work.


    1. Susan, thank you for your thoughts. I purposefully went to the extreme on the baby bottle. I’m glad it’s shocking–it should be.

      In the long run, don’t you think it’s easier to stick to the facts when using a real setting or police procedure? We have to make up so much other stuff!


      1. I do agree that we should use as much reality as possible. I use fictional towns but base them on real places, so I get distances and other things correct (I like to keep buildings in the same place). The more accurate a story is, the greater the likelihood that the reader will accept the illusion of the story and believe it all the way through. As John Gardner pointed out, the story is a continuous dream and writers should avoid anything that breaks the illusion.


  8. The second scenario is okay with me. The cop lied. Cops lie all the time. It’s part of their arsenal of techniques. If they had found evidence and Jimmy had a good attorney and a jury or judge believed Jimmy when he said he’d been bamboozled into letting them in (all big ifs I think) the evidence found would be inadmissible. Cops can also say, “Don’t leave town.” However, in the scenario you describe, if Janet does leave town, there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve made a request that sounded like an order, but it’s completely unenforceable. Janet may or may not know that. I agree that a retired chief wouldn’t impersonate an officer as in the first example (of course depending on the character).


    1. (I hope this goes through, I am having posting problems.) In the MS, the cops were not lying. Both were actually good solid cops. The authors, however, chose to put wrong info in their mouths. One (don’t leave town) because the author thought that was legal and enforceable. The other (about the search warrant) because he needed the cop in the apt. and he thought it didn’t matter if the cop said something that was wrong. Apparently it is not coming through in my examples that the authors were writing these false statements as true statements.
      Thanks for commenting! Even if my examples are not as clear as they should be, the convo is terrific.


    1. Ellen, you can do so much with this. Asking the question, “You’re not planning to leave town anytime soon, are you?” gets the idea across, without making the officer be quite as slippery. Or the request to make yourself available for more questions.


  9. I belong to a couple excellent writers’ groups which include in their membership law enforcement professionals willing to share their expertise. Whenever I’m not 100% sure of the correct police procedure or point of law, I ask. I expect any writer to do the same.


  10. I have an acquaintance who writes books set in the American Southwest in the 1870s. She knows a lot about the times and tells a great story, but she likes to have famous people show up — Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I told her this is fine if they could have been there and there’s no records to prove they weren’t. But if Doyle was known to be in England at the time in question, people will jump on it. She said, “Oh, but it’s fiction, right? So I can say whatever I want!”

    When I mentioned the fact that I was having trouble with my crime novel because I actually knew too little about how the police force and the morgue worked in the town my setting was based on, she said, “Oh, it’s just fiction — make it up!”

    The thing is, I realized that I’d lost respect for her as an author. Why? Because she had no respect for me as a reader! I think any good writer should show respect for their readers. Don’t be lazy — stick to the truth, even in fiction.


    1. Genie, putting famous people into novels can be regarded as artistic license. Even if Conan Doyle *could* have been in that place and that time in the novel, he was never going to interact with those fictional people! So that’s a different kind of leap when you write a story that injects real people into a fictional world–it’s like fantasy, where you create a world with its own rules. Of course, your comfort level as a reader is determined by you, and I would think a check on whether or not the person was alive at the time would be a good idea!

      There are many writers who have the “make it up” attitude. That’s their own comfort level. I think it’s your job as the writer to be a good researcher, because of the comment you make: your readers will lose respect for you.


  11. Great post, as always. I always learn so much from you! I agree in general, but I have a question about stories set in real towns. Making up restaurants and bars is simple, but what do you think about making public offices like the sheriff’s department smaller than it really is or creating a bumbling deputy? It seems that any annoying character created for a real place could be insulting (I also use the BLM and county offices). I’ve tried renaming the town, but with distances from other places and so few towns in the state (NV), everyone in the west would know which town this really is. I’ve struggled with this a lot. The original story was based on a real festival. I’ve changed that so I could change the name of the town, but there are still problems.


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