More than once, I’ve come up with a great, dramatic scene, one that would make chills run up and down a reader’s spine or bring them to their knees in wracking sobs. And then some vital aspect of this scene, the perfect location or the perfect murder weapon or the evil villain’s physical condition turn out to be some place or thing that could not exist in reality.

And I have to change the whole scene. Dratted reality!

For example, my book Takeover had a very specific set of locations, in which I took hometown pride: the Cleveland Federal Reserve and the Cleveland Public Library (downtown branch). These were gorgeous, historic buildings that faced each other across East 6th and I enjoyed bringing every beautiful, very real detail to life.

I had planned for my villains to be charging away from the bank in their car, pursued by the officers, up East 6th, right on Lakeside, left on East 9th, and off the end of the pier into the depths of Lake Erie. When I was young, there had long been a restaurant named Captain Frank’s at the end of this pier. My villains planned to fake their own deaths in this manner.

My mother was still with us at that time so I’d bribe her with lunch out to let me drag her to my book locations. We wandered the library, perused the educational display at the Fed, and drove up East 9th. Then, to my horror, I found that Captain Frank’s had been torn down nine years after my high school date there and, worse, the pier had been outfitted with heavy concrete posts along its sides. Any speeding villain would die in the crash before they’d make it over the edge.

My climactic final scene needed a Plan B.

Years later, I set Unpunished at a newspaper. I wrote the first draft, in which the third victim suffers a gruesome death. He is pushed onto the printing assembly line and is chopped to death by the huge paper cutters.

Then I asked the public information officer at the police department if he could put me in touch with someone at the newspaper. (Perhaps this was using an unfair advantage from my occupation. But life is short, and sometime hard. Use every non-harmful advantage you can, is my advice.)

A very nice print supervisor gave me a thorough tour of the printing plant, an amazing mechanical process with a single sheet of paper winding in and out and up and down in a very long ribbon.

And that’s how newspapers are cut—one sheet at a time, with a thin, circular blade exactly like a pizza cutter. In fact, pizza cutters are bigger. And probably sharper. It might give the victim a nasty paper cut, but nothing more serious than that.

My tour guild said there was nothing he could do about the cutting method, but that long, long ribbon of paper comes in one big, big roll. If it landed on a human being, they would not survive.

Aha, I said.

So if you pride yourself on the realism and accuracy of your writing, nothing can be as helpful as actually walking the course of the scene. It can not only provide you with a host of tiny details which are the lifeblood of fiction, this extra research can save you from a host of snippy emails pointing out the absurdity of your plots.

However, if you really want that car to fly off the end of the pier or the guy to get chopped up by giant blades, do it. This is what the Acknowledgments page is for. All gaffes are forgiven if you own up to them, such as: ‘The Newton building is actually on Orange Street. You use ninhydrin to process paper for fingerprints, not powder.’ And so on. Then, should you receive a snippy email, you can send one right back.

Lisa Black is the New York Times bestselling author of 17 suspense novels, including the Gardiner & Renner series and the Locard Institute series. Her works have been translated into six languages, optioned for film, and shortlisted for both the inaugural Sue Grafton Memorial Award and the Nero. She is also a full-time Certified Latent Print Examiner and a Certified Crime Scene Analyst, beginning her forensics career at the Coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and then the police department in Cape Coral, Florida. She has spoken to readers and writers at numerous conferences, been a consultant for CourtTV, and was a Guest of Honor at 2021 Killer Nashville.

Her latest release is The Deepest Kill, available for sale everywhere books are sold February 20th!

11 thoughts on “WHEN REALITY INTERFERES by <a href="http://www.lisa-black.com">Lisa Black</a>”

  1. The care you take to ensure your stories fit reality is both impressive and inspiring. I’ve been shooting for that with my own writing, and this encourages me to see that it’s worth the effort.

    1. Saralyn,
      As you know from Lisa’s books, her details make them riveting. Combining reality that works with her imagination leaves readers on the edge of their seats. Your Parrott books show the same attention to research, accuracy, and clean writing.

  2. Thanks for this article. I enjoyed it and found it inspiring. It also made it clear to me that my research for my first novel was probably inadequate. i couldn’t go to the locations, but I lived there a long time, so I went with a conbination of memory and Google maps. And a lot of stuff I just made up.

    1. Candace,
      If what you made up is plausible and doesn’t tinker with reality too much, you can’t go wrong. A lot of times readers won’t be turned off by little differences, but as Lisa noted with her example of where the restaurant no longer was, when things become impossible, a knowledgeable reader will give up on the book or story because of doubting what the writer says. — if you can lie about one thing, what other things have you lied about?

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