I’ve been down the rabbit hole for the last couple of weeks. It’s a necessary side venture to writing any novel, and some more so than others. I’m working on book 2 of The Skoghall Mystery Series, Dark Corners in Skoghall, and I hit a wall. Not just any wall—certainly not writer’s block—the research wall. And down the hole I went, chasing that fellow with the fluffy white tail, all in pursuit of what is true.

Book 1, The Murder in Skoghall available here, involves a murder that occurred 40 years ago. Very little of my main character’s detective work involved police procedure or forensics. The murder in Dark Corners, however, happens today. As I started to write in the grisly details of my victim’s death, I developed concerns I didn’t have with the first book.

The things my reluctant psychic detective, Jess, sees have to make sense when compared to what a police detective or forensic scientist would report.

Everything I write needs to make sense to Jess, my detective, me, and our readers.

My trip down the rabbit hole raises an important question for all writers. It’s one I constantly discuss with workshop participants and clients writing memoir. It’s one I address in my work as a fiction author, as well. How true is true? In creative nonfiction and fiction alike, writers deal with facts, logic, and the coherence of the world we inhabit on the page. Today, I’m going to discuss this question as it relates to Dark Corners in Skoghall.


Although my setting and characters are fictional, and I’ll place that nice disclaimer in the front of my book, stating that any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is purely coincidental, much of my book is in fact based on fact. So much so that I worry over my factual accuracy. That’s right, it’s mine. It’s personal. I am responsible for every word on the pages of my books—good, bad, right, or wrong. I have weird dreams related to my worry. And I disappear off the map for weeks at a stretch because I’m chasing the rabbit down the hole.

What kind of questions cause my sleepless nights? Just like I tell my workshop students, fiction and creative nonfiction alike, there are two types of truth: factual truth and emotional truth.

You need to balance them, but I tip the scale in favor of emotional truth—unless you’re writing a dry, scholarly biography, but I’m not talking about that kind of writing. I’m talking about story.

This table lists some of my research questions and I’ve sorted them by the two kinds of truth.

Factual Truth

Emotional Truth

What kind of injury will this weapon make?

What kind of person becomes a homicide detective?

What state of decay will a body be in after 36 hours during August in Wisconsin?

How does being a homicide detective change a person?

What is the trail of evidence necessary to solve this mystery?

Is my killer organized or disorganized? What kind of person does that make my killer?

What will it look like if this injury is premortem, perimortem, or postmortem?

How does the suffering my characters inflict or endure affect the balance of sympathy for them?

There is some overlap between factual truth and emotional truth. Factual truth questions have to do with the potential to make technical errors, to simply get it wrong. Emotional truth questions have more to do with characterization, the emotional impact the story will have on the reader, and that feeling we get that everything in a story is as it should be.

Like it or not, thousands of facts go into any book. For example, if I attributed a certain kind of wound to a certain calibre of rifle, plenty of readers wouldn’t know the difference, but a few would, and hopefully the rest of the story would hold together so well that such a technical error would be readily forgiven. Many such errors, however, would add up and be held against any author.

Errors of emotional fact are, I believe, less forgivable. They have to do with the author’s authority, and therefore how much I the reader trust him the author. If that homicide detective behaves in a manner that feels inconsistent with what I know or believe about homicide detectives, the story quickly falls apart for me, because I have lost faith/trust/belief in the author’s ability to deliver a story that rings true. Another way to say that is, the author has broken the social contract with the reader.

The social contract states: I, the author, do hereby promise to deliver to you, the reader, a story that is entertaining and believable. It may also be dramatic, cathartic, hilarious, or any other number of things, but it will above all be entertaining and believable.

The flip side of the contract states: I, the reader, upon opening this book, do hereby place myself in the hands of you, the author, with the expectation that in exchange for my time, attention, and possibly my money, you will actively engage my emotions, my mind, and my senses.


There is no escaping this contract, even if you build your story world from scratch. Aren’t hardcore sci-fi fans the first to point out inaccuracies in the stories they love? Aren’t they known for heated debates over the logic inherent in the worlds they engage as readers/viewers/gamers? All that means is if you build a world, you are responsible for creating its rules, and if you break those rules, you break your contract with the reader. All of us might lose readers as a result of breaking the contract, but those of you who build your own worlds are probably more likely to get stung by dissatisfied readers. My logic being (tell me if I’m wrong), that your genre’s readers are known for being passionate about the worlds they visit and will therefore be quicker to publicly note their upset.

That is why I spent weeks of writing time without writing a word, instead tunneling through piles of research material. Because I care about verisimilitude. If a homicide detective or forensic scientist reads my book, I want her to enjoy it, as someone who knows better than I whether I got the factual and emotional truths right.

Verisimilitude: noun 1) the state of having the appearance of truth, probable. 2) the state of depicting realism in art or literature.

I’m thinking about writing more about research, the how of it specifically. If you have questions about the topic of research, please send me an email!

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