Sunday, September 20, 2015

Introducing Guest Blogger: Catherine Astolfo

I first met the dynamic Catherine Astolfo about five years ago, and have been awestruck by her talent, positive attitude, and contribution to the writing community. Catherine is an Arthur Ellis winning author of short stories. Five novels and a novella are published by Imajin Books and have been optioned for film by Sisbro & Co. Inc. A Derrick Murdoch award winner, she is a Past President of Crime Writers of Canada, and a member of both Mesdames of Mayhem and Sisters in Crime. Find all the stories and Catherine's links right here:

Enjoy her blog, “Mystery Fiction Requires Research? Really?”

Writing mystery fiction books is more difficult than it might appear. Only highly intelligent people can do it. Keeping all the clues straight requires an entire box of cue cards. Or a night’s worth of napkins from the pub. Or writing on the wall with washable markers. (Those were washable, right?) Not to mention quelling the temptation to reveal too much. Just enough to keep the reader guessing; not so little that they’re completely in the dark. And then comes the research!
There’s an old adage that says, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Writers can’t get all the research right every time, can we? I mean, sometimes the situation cries out for a manipulation of the facts, at least in fiction.
However, the background information provided in a novel is often fascinating, if not entirely accurate to the last drop.
We are all familiar with the detective story, police officer or PI variety.  Think of how much we’ve learned about processing a crime scene because we’ve read these books. Doesn’t mean we could conduct one, but… Other writers opened the world of forensic pathology, autopsies and morgues with the result that many shows on the subjects turned up in television.
Even in the “simplest” of fiction novels, the background information is important. By simple, I mean they’re not necessarily focused on a field of work. They’re not primarily detective or legal or medical fiction, but tell a tale about rather ordinary folk.
In my first book, The Bridgeman, I portray an old-fashioned lift bridge and the person who manages it. I had to actually go and look at a bridge to see how that worked. My protagonist throughout the series, the Emily Taylor Mysteries, is a school principal in a small town. Luckily, I was a principal in my other life, so I had experience on my side. When the caretaker is murdered in the school, I had to explain how the education system would handle such a thing.
Then there is the puppy mill in the book. For this section, as difficult as it was, I wrote about my niece’s experiences as a veterinarian’s assistant.
For Victim, I had to do a lot of reading about Ojibwa folklore and philosophy. Legacy returns to the school and its processes with Emily’s handling of a very dysfunctional family, plus there are tidbits about the effects of fire, inquests and hypnosis. The research! My fourth book, Seventh Fire, discusses a wrongful conviction and how these tragic mistakes happen. My Forensics for Dummies and Criminal Investigative Failures, as well as Until You Are Dead (Steven Truscott) are well thumbed.
Although the stories are fiction, and some of the facts may not be one percent accurate, there is enough background information to give the reader a more in-depth picture of the setting, the characters and how the plot plays out. It may even lead a reader to investigate the topic further.
There must be enough fact even in fiction. You can see why only highly intelligent people can write a mystery.
Is that statement fact or fiction?

Check out Cathy’s latest book, novella Up Chit Creek. 


Alison E. Bruce said...

Good points there, Cathy!

As a reader, I'm willing to let amateur detectives do what real police would never let them do, but I hate it if a police detective doesn't at least acknowledge procedure - even if they don't always follow it.

You make your settings and people feel real. If you let a few facts slip away, I don't notice their absence when I'm reading. I'm too busy wondering what's next.

Gloria Ferris Mystery Writer said...

If the facts get in the way of the story, write around them - the facts, I mean. That's what we all do, am I right, writers?

Melodie Campbell said...

EM...not sure I'm with you on that, Gloria. For me, it's like motivation. It HAS to work - has to be rational, or I'm out of the story. If I come across something that I know is the wrong procedure, again, I drop the book and am out of the story. Damn, but it makes it hard for us writers, having to get it right! (Most of the time, anyway!)

Jason. said...

I'm such a stickler for facts that when something seems "odd", I literally look it up inevitably. I am all about research, probably stems from my educational background or love of Family Feud. Sure, there are folks that can write so well that you don't even question it. Alas, dear Cathy, I think I may fall into your category going meticulously through my Grandmother's scrawled scraps of recipes, maps, etc. You can certainly fool me, but if something doesn't hold water that I am aware of, like Melodie, I'm out.

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. The challenge is always to blend fact and fiction in a rational, seamless way; one that makes events, characters, and settings seem very real even if we've never actually been to or experienced the things our characters do. This is a challenge for all fiction writers but mystery writers, particularly those who write historical mysteries, really have to do their research to be as authentic as possible, or readers will notice!

Kristina Stanley said...

I'm a believer in facts, but maybe not including all the facts in the novel. Early on, an editor reviewed my work and commented that the author - me - really knew her facts, but maybe didn't need to include all the detail in the story. I took that advice to heart. My strategy now is to learn all I can about a topic and then decide what is best for the story and include that. Sometimes it's hard to cut facts that are fascinating to me but maybe not the best for the story.

Linda Cahill said...

Hi Kathy, loved your guest blog. I agree with everyone if the facts are really wrong it pulls me out of the story. I research a lot, glide over what I can't ascertain. Comes from the journalism background. But I still invent like crazy too.

Catherine Astolfo said...

Great discussion! I am one of those (maybe rare) readers who doesn't really care about the facts when I read. As a writer, I have to be more mindful of those who do care.

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Agrreed, Cathy! Great discussion!!