What do I fear as a writer? That’s simple—errors. Having spent twenty years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I know the repercussions of getting something in print and getting in wrong.
When I was a managing editor of a newspaper, I would wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, convinced I’d left something critical out of a story (or one of my reporters had) or I’d made some horribly egregious error that would show up on Jay Leno’s “Headlines” segment on the Tonight Show.
Don’t laugh. It happened.
The same is true in mystery writing. There is no more critical and well-informed audience than mystery readers, who can parse every detail and every clue to the Nth degree and who, more likely, are correct.
For example, take when my first book, BARN BURNER, was published. The reaction, while positive as to the story, the characters and pacing, was swift as to the errors. And what readers picked out as errors just blew me away.
“You’ve got the fire chief wearing a yellow helmet. The chief always wears a white helmet.”
“That kind of gun wouldn’t leave shells behind.”
“Any cop who knows his stuff wouldn’t put himself in that situation.”
Suffice it to say that I had believed that I was objective enough to look at my own writing and catch my own errors.
The good news: As a self published writer, I can pull a manuscript down from its publishing platform, make the corrections and re-upload the manuscript. The new correct manuscript is generally back up for sale within 12-24 hours.
The bad news: Those reviews that note my errors are there to stay.
The lesson: Get an editor, let them rip your manuscript to shreds and then respect their suggestions. They can look at your work with a clearer eye.
As a journalist, I have no problem asking questions or doing research. I’ll call anybody and ask anything. That’s a very valuable skill to have as a fiction writer, too. I just didn’t do it as often as I should have in BARN BURNER.
Since then, I’ve made more than a few trauma surgeons nervous, especially when asking about gunshot wounds. (“You sure this is fiction?”) I also corralled a friend’s husband at a cocktail party, and asked him uncomfortable questions. My friend’s husband manages a hog farm and I was considering having a body disposed of by being thrown into a pen of hogs in one of my books.
Hogs will eat anything. Living as I do on a farm, I’ve heard more than one story about this, but I’d never thought much about it until I had a bad guy who worked at a hog farm.
I cornered my friends husband at this cocktail party and asked, point blank, “So, Ian, how long would it take for a hog to eat up all trace of a dead body?”
And while Ian (and my husband and most of the people at the cocktail party) were horrified, most people have no problem talking about themselves or their profession and are glad to share with you. They may even come up with ideas to make your story better. Just make sure you’re asking questions at socially appropriate times.
I’m in the midst of writing my sixth novel, CALL FITZ, about a private investigator trying to keep an innocent man out of prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
I recently spent an afternoon with a volunteer firefighter discussing the damage a Molotov cocktail would do in a certain situation, specifically an older office building with older wooden furniture. I learned what would burn easily and what wouldn’t—surprisingly, the older furniture I’d filled this fictional office with were less likely to burn if they didn’t have an easy ignition source, like a cheap rug or curtains.
It was possible for a Molotov cocktail to hit the floor, flash and then burn out without doing significant damage, depending on what the liquid ignition is.
So I added some stuff to Fitz’s office: a cheap Chinese rug and flimsy curtains, and two suspects who threw the firebombs in through the front office door and the back office window, to make it more likely Fitz would face more danger and raise the stakes in the mystery.
And, according to my firefighter friend, it did.
Writing can be a grand and glorious adventure—if you get the details right. Ask questions, even when you think you know the answer. There might be something you get wrong, and that could be scary.
Deb Gaskill is the author of the Jubilant Falls series, six novels which center around the staff of a small southwestern Ohio newspaper staff and the crimes they solve. She is at work on her first PI novel, tentatively titled CALL FITZ. Follow her blog AT https://debragaskill.wordpress.com.