THE DANGERS OF RESEARCH: When Story and Reality Clash.

by | Aug 29, 2018 | The Writer's Life | 10 comments

Way back when, I decided to switch over from straight police procedurals to international intrigue. There was a reason for this. I’d never been anywhere but the U.S., and having a San Francisco cop, Kate Gillespie, (EVERY MOVE SHE MAKES), wasn’t going to get me to Europe. Okay, sure, I probably could have traveled there without having a book to research, but setting a book there meant I could actually research and write off part of the trip on my taxes! Totally a win-win, right?
With that singular goal in mind, I created Sydney Fitzpatrick, special agent with the FBI, who also happens to be a forensic artist. In my mind, the FBI had way more opportunities than any local cop to jet off to foreign countries on cases. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Sydney to Europe in the first book, FACE OF A KILLER, but as stated in one of my previous blogs, author James Rollins helped me turn the series into one with more global impact. (You can read about that here.) Being a quarter Italian, I was drawn to Italy for my first foreign setting, and started to write THE BONE CHAMBER, book 2 in the Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick series. (Fitzpatrick teams up with a covert government agency to investigate a murder with ties to the Vatican.)
Fortunately, my mother lived in Italy for over a decade, so when I needed a cliff-top villa, or a scenic route for a foot chase, she pointed me in the right direction, then read my scenes to make sure they worked. Unfortunately, some of my ideas fell flat, such as a pivotal plot point at the Naples airport. I sent it to her, and got shot down with: “You have to understand how the airport is set up for that to work.” When she added, “You should really go,” it was like the proverbial light bulb over my head finally lit up. After all, wasn’t that the purpose of switching from local stories to international? Traveling for research? 
Yes, it was. 
Now, how to broach this idea to my husband…  So, how was work today? You know that idea I had about writing international books so I can go to Europe…? He took it like a champ. (I knew he would.) Trip scheduled with mom (after all, she was my translator), then keep on writing, because deadline. By the time we hit Italy, my first draft of TBC was finished. We systematically visited each location I had written about in the book so that I could make sure it worked. 
Capella Sansevero, Naples

What happens when a writer discovers that nearly every key scene won’t work, because reality clashed with the story? I quickly realized the Europe I’ve seen on TV is nothing like the Europe in real life. Every key chase scene had to be redone. 

I was prepared to redo the Naples airport scene that my mother warned me about. I was not prepared for everything else I had gotten so very wrong. (And there was so much!) Part of the plot centered on a visit to the Sansevero chapel museum. Sydney and covert agent Zachary Griffin, the two main characters, are rescuing someone who has been kidnapped and being held at gunpoint by the bad guy in the back of a full-size limousine.
Yes, you read that correct. 

Anyone who has been to Naples would laugh at the idea of a limo anywhere in the city, much less where I set the scene. The sad part was that I loved the scene because the bad guy was sitting in the back of said limo, pointing the gun at the gut of kidnap victim who was sitting opposite him (you know, those limos with the two backseats that face each other?). And Sydney rescues the victim by doing some super cool moves because of the setup of the backseats facing each other.
Life. Wasn’t. Fair. 
As much as I wanted to put one of those poetic license disclaimers in the front of the book, I resisted. The rescue scene wasn’t nearly as exciting (to me) once I put all the bad guys in a compact car that would actually fit on a street in Naples. But I made it work. And in the end, I didn’t have any readers complaining that I’d never been to that country (which I’ve had happen with other books). TBC has been favorably reviewed, so apparently, I succeeded. (If you’d like to read it to see if you can find all the rewritten scenes v. poetic license scenes, the e-book of The Bone Chamber seems to be permanently set at .99 cents, a bargain!
One day I may get to use that original limo scene in another book—nothing goes to waste in a writer’s world—which sort of reminds me of that story I have about the knife scene in Deadly Legacy.
That will have to wait for a different day.
Until then, Rogue Readers, have you ever noticed when a writer takes poetic license? Does it bother you or are you willing to continue reading, because the story is what counts?
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Karna Bodman

    Great post, Robin! You asked if we've read books where an author takes "poetic license" and gets a scene wrong. Oh yes. I remember "trying to read" a book by a new author whose hero is on the National Security Council staff at The White House – since I once worked there, I thought it would be a great read. Not! The author got SO many things wrong, including the orientation process for a new staffer and especially settings. For example, I recall he wrote, "The man rushed outside the Roosevelt Room and up a few steps to the Oval Office." Sorry, there are no "steps up to the Oval Office" — something he could have discovered by watching White house videos. As for your European travels – I applaud you for "being there, doing that" to get it right for your readers….that's one of the reasons you are a bestselling author!

  2. Robin Burcell

    I'm not sure I'd dare write about anything involving the White House. But you're so right. When things are so wrong, it can pull you out of the story and you have to make a conscious decision to just enjoy the tale and what is right as opposed to what's wrong…

  3. Lisa Black

    Love this post! And I know what you mean. I had to rewrite part of Unpunished after I visited the local newspaper’s printing facility and discovered that large stacks of papers aren’t sliced with huge chopping blades—no, they’re cut a sheet at a time with something smaller than I slice my pizza with. My victim couldn’t cut off a finger on that! Fortunately a staff member introduced me to an equally grisly idea.

  4. Chris Goff

    I think writers have to try and get it right. There have been times I've caught a mistake, but I doubt the majority of readers would catch it and the scenario is plausible, so… If they get it so wrong I can tell they made it up (after all it's fiction), then I'm apt to cry foul. Making the effort to get it right goes a long way. Of course, I'm the Queen of traveling to get it right. When are we booking the Rogue Women Writers trip to Prague?

  5. Robin Burcell

    I am so on board with our RogueWW trip to Prague! Who's in?

  6. Jamie Freveletti

    I've written a couple of scenes before I actually visited an area and had to rewrite a few details. The limo scene sounds great! Sorry it didn't work for the book but glad you've held onto it for future reference!

  7. Robin Burcell

    Good thing you were able to come up with a back up plan!

  8. Anonymous

    Great post, Robin.

    I will continue most times I read a mistake in a book if I am enjoying the story and characters. I know for my short story "Terror on the Turnpike' I rode the same section of the New Jersey Turnpike about a dozen times before I wrote the story because I knew the setting was a 'character' in the story. I needed to know every curve and upgrade on the road. A mistake I read recently was the author said the guy went to West Point and then served in the Navy. NOT! Because it was a someone I knew I'm still debating if I should tell them.

    Pat Marinelli

  9. Robin Burcell

    I'm like you. If I enjoy the story, I'm willing to keep going. If it's no good, the mistake will pull me right out. (I'd have stopped reading a long time ago, with every author who got the gun stuff wrong. (The old, safety on a Glock type thing.)

    Tough call, Pat about telling the author about the mistake! I once told Lee Child that he'd made a mistake in THE KILLING FLOOR. He never forgot it! (He was gracious, and I can laugh now. I'm not sure all authors would be so gracious.) It was a cop thing, and one that only someone with tactical training would know.

    I wish I could say that I've never made a big error, since the one I wrote about in the blog, but alas…