When to Revise the Story We Tell Ourselves

Micki Browning

I recently attended the 50th Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, in Dallas, Texas. As far as conferences go, this is the biggie, and there were over 1700 book lovers in attendance. I was one of four authors who participated in the Career Crimes panel, which addressed the careers of our protagonists—and of course, the why behind our choices. 

For those who don’t know me, I’m a cop by profession, a medievalist by education, a scuba diver by choice, and a writer by…compulsion? The protagonist of my first two books is Mer Cavallo, a teuthologist—a marine scientist who specializes in the study of cephalopods, specifically octopuses. The question often posed to me is why, in light of my 22 years of experience in law enforcement, didn’t I create a professional sleuth? 

The short answer is I tried. The result of that first attempt is languishing on my hard drive because as bad as it is, I can’t bring myself to delete it. 

The longer response is that in the beginning, I hadn’t yet learned how to dribble bits of my experience into the narrative, and like over-salting a stew, that lack of restraint overpowered the other elements of my story. I also recognized that I needed to decompress after so many years in a high-stress profession. 

Neither of these answers would register deceptive on a polygraph test. Yet the truth that held me back was more elemental. I was scared. Law enforcement is akin to a masters-level course in humanity. I’d risen through the ranks, held numerous specialty positions, retired as a captain. What if something I wrote was wrong?

Now, it’s no secret that novelists get things wrong all the time. Sometimes it is intentional, because, let’s face it, facts should never get in the way of a good story. They just have to conform to the world the author built. It’s the unintentional error that pops readers out of the story and cause them to throw the book across the room. 

As a younger woman, I had considered being a marine biologist—until I realized biology was a pretty hefty part of the program. And yes, I recognize the irony of choosing to write about a woman who held an advanced degree in a discipline that was beyond my ken, when I was reluctant to write about a profession I had experienced first hand. But I’m a curious person and I love research.

My mysteries take place in the Florida Keys. In the first book, a crime occurs underwater. In the second, a nautical archeological component runs through the mystery. I had the diving aspect down pat. I also had the theoretical knowledge of underwater investigations, but darned if I didn’t have to research the practical aspect of working an underwater crime scene.

I learned two things from the experience:

1.  Research is your friend

2.  No one knows all there is to know about a topic— even if he or she is a subject matter expert.

The cop who claims never to be scared is a liar. Fear is a survival instinct that good cops learn to listen to, and then manage. Writers fear many things, but most often it is the fear of failure (and each writer tailors the definition of failure to fit their own fear).  I owe Mer a debt of gratitude. That character taught me how to tell a story. She stood next to me as I revised my mistakes into more honest truths. Mer even introduced me to a new character, a police detective who now has her own story. She makes a mistake—a couple of them, in fact. But the detective owns them, learns from them, and refuses to let the errors stop her from achieving her goals. 

As writer Elbert Hubbard observed, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”

4 thoughts on “When to Revise the Story We Tell Ourselves

  1. Great post, Micki. I totally understand that fear of getting it wrong, especially if one of my cop friends pointed it out. But I got over it when I decided I could justify those errors through “literary license,” the right we authors have been given to create our fictional world our way. Still, I strive to ensure my novels possess a strong sense of authenticity, even when my cop protagonists break enough rules that would likely get them suspended, or in one book the character gets in more shootouts and fistfights than most cops do in a career.


  2. Brian,I needed to chart my course to that milestone. Literary license is a wonderful thing, and as I mentioned, facts should never get in the way of a good story. It took researching a career I really knew nothing about to realize how much easier my life would be to draw on my own experience… and get over myself! And yes, every cop in any novel I’ve ever read would have been suspended by the midpoint of the book! 😉


  3. Excellent points. You want to sound authentic, but it is also a worry that you might get it wrong. I feared the same thing when I wrote about a home stager. Fortunately, a home staging training and certifying company agreed to read my book, gave me a few tips, and gave it a thumbs up. Then I felt better about sending my book out into the world. Like you, I didn’t want a real home stager throwing it across the room. There is still that chance, but maybe less now. BTW, it was wonderful seeing you at Bouchercon. You did a fabulous job on the panel — I was in the audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Grace!
      On the flip side, I had the good fortune of having a wonderful critique partner who was NOT a diver. I knew I had all my technical facts right, and she was quick to tell me if I used to much lingo that confused her– or conversely over-explained something which slowed the pace. It’s that fine line we all strive to draw.
      I hope our paths cross again at Malice!


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