Background research in fiction

A police procedural doesn’t have to be accurate but it has to come off as accurate.

Most authors  writing in this genre either come from a background in police work or law or they research like crazy, spending time with police officers and prosecutors, reading police manuals. Trying to get it right.

Details are important in establishing authenticity. You’ll often find characters in procedurals using the police 10-Code (10-13 when they arrive at scenes, 10-4 when they acknowledge a message, 10-20 for location, and so on.) Or prosecutors who recite from statutes and defence lawyers quoting case-law.

My novels, however, are set in Cuba. Beyond a couple of references in  travel guides to police, most of what I need to know about the internal workings of policing in Cuba simply can’t be found. Other than the Cuban Penal Code, I can’t find case-law either: cases aren’t reported.

Information about the Cuban court system is almost non-existent. Which makes sense in a Communist country that is under siege for a record of human rights violations.

For the most part, then, I’ve had to make things up. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do research.

Pathology is something I can easily research on the Internet. So are some well-known tourist attractions in Havana, like the Barrio Chino, where I’ve set a scene in my work-in-progress.

And with one of my new characters a Chinese forensic entomologist, I’ve spent probably more time on-line reading about the development of blow-flies than I ever imagined. (And found it interesting. Which is a good sign: if I find something interesting, there’s a good chance I can use it in a way that will engage my readers as well.)

Where research has been useful is in giving depth to my characters. Helping to make them believable, because of the food they eat and the places they go. All of that requires research.

My advice to aspiring authors, though, is to remember it’s fiction. Don’t get so caught up in research that you become paralyzed with the need to get it absolutely right. Some authors will spend years researching the fine details: I’m certainly not one of them.

I keep thinking of Sir Laurence Olivier’s comments to Dustin Hoffman when they co-starred in Marathon Man. Hoffman spent two sleepless nights when his character was supposed to be haggard, driving himself into exhaustion. Olivier asked Hoffman why he didn’t simply try acting instead.

I do my best to be accurate, but I don’t drive myself crazy. If someone who knows nothing about Cuba reads my work and finds it convincing,  I’m happy. If someone who knows something about it is persuaded, I’m ecstatic.

But I’m not writing for a doctoral jury: my stories are made up. I want my writing to have the ring of truth, but it doesn’t have to be true.  It only needs to be plausible enough that my readers are willing to suspend disbelief.

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