Monday, June 17, 2013

Green Trash Bins

The saying goes that the devil is in the details. And sometimes the details bring out the devil in otherwise normal human beings.

The question I bring to the loyal Stiletto Gang readers is how much truth do readers of fiction expect? How much do they deserve?

Recently my coauthor and I received a review at Amazon from a reader who protested that we had failed to do adequate research for our latest mystery MURDER DOUBLES BACK. She complained that we used the wrong color trash bins in a scene set in a particular city. In great detail she explained that she had lived in Arlington, Virginia for many decades and not once had "green" trash bins been used in the area. Apparently had we chosen just about any other color, the story might have passed muster with her as the bin color had varied over time. But never green!

Honestly, when I read the review I was hard pressed to remember any trash bins in the mystery. I knew it wasn't a significant plot point.  So doing what any mystery writer would do in this situation , I opened the Word file of MURDER DOUBLES BACK and did a search for the word "green."

The software program brought up a list of sentences with "green" in them. Whiskey, the Irish wolfhound in our Sullivan Investigations Mysteries, sleeps on a "green futon" in Mac's office. I think we are safe there, although I confess I did not research futons to see if any manufacturer produced "green" futons. If we get challenged on it, I plan to say JJ, Mac's assistant, reupholstered the futon in the green fabric. JJ does a lot of things besides being a computer wiz and detective-in-training. In MURDER OFF THE BOOKS, the first mystery in the series, she renovated the Sullivan Investigations Inc. office by painting walls, refinishing furniture, etc. I'm sure she could recover a futon if push came to shove.

The next time "green" came up in my search was in relationship to vegetables – green beans, green peas, green bean casseroles. Yes, I'm making a note that for future books we should branch out – maybe add some yellow squash, white hominy, and orange carrots. Although we probably wouldn't need to describe carrots.

Finally I found the object of our reader's ire.   

Afternoons in late December got dark early. Mac was glad he found the group home while there was still light. It looked like most of the others on a block of tract homes built in the 1950s. The house numbers were hidden by a large Christmas wreath on the front door. There was a well-used basketball hoop attached to the garage. Three garbage cans sat at the curb waiting for trash collection the next day. Next to them was a green plastic container marked recyclables.

Busted. We never checked the color of the recyclables bin in Arlington, Virginia. All I can say is that we profusely apologize for offending the citizens of Arlington. And thank heavens we sent Mac back home to D.C. right away without further ado or more erroneous color choices.

(Note to self – Mac was the character who saw "green" while visiting a group home residence. Is it too late to make Mac color-blind? According to the reviewer "blue" would have been an acceptable trash bin color for that town. No, maybe not. Surely that handicap would have come up before in earlier books and after all, let's get "real" here for a minute, the mention of the trash bins was just made in passing. The bins, green or otherwise, were of no significance to the plot.)

Of course Mac also visited West Virginia in this book while chasing after a kidnapper. I'll do another Word search, but I'm positive we didn't involve any trash bins in those scenes. Seriously, what do you think? Should every detail in a work of fiction be researched by the author? What is the reader owed?
aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

Sullivan Investigations Mystery
Murder Off the Books Kindle - Nook - Smashwords - Trade Paperback
Murder Takes the Cake Kindle - Nook - Smashwords - Trade Paperback 
Murder Doubles Back Kindle - Nook - Smashwords - Trade Paperback
Riley Come Home (short story)- Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
Moonlighting at the Mall (short story) - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords

Brianna Sullivan Mysteries - e-book series
I Try Not to Drive Past Cemeteries- Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
The Dog Days of Summer in Lottawatah- Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
The Holiday Spirit(s) of Lottawatah- Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
Undying Love in Lottawatah- Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
A Haunting in Lottawatah - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
Lottawatah Twister - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
Missing in Lottawatah - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
Good Grief in Lottawatah - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords
Summer Lightning in Lottawatah - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords

The Ghosts of Lottawatah - trade paperback collection of the Brianna e-books
Book 1 - I Try Not to Drive Past Cemeteries (includes the first four Brianna e-books)
Book 2 - A Haunting in Lottawatah (includes the 5th, 6th, and 7th Brianna e-books)

Zoned for Murder - stand-alone mystery
Love Lessons - Kindle - Nook - Smashwords


  1. The truth that readers of fiction deserve is emotional truth. What the reader is owed is an interesting, maybe even thrilling, ride. Readers who stop to pick such nits as inappropriately green recycling bins are not bringing the right kind of attention to the book. That's my view of the matter.

  2. Kate Gallison stated my opinion much better than I would have done. So thanks to Kate.

  3. Rhonda, there are realistic details that would be a problem. For example, if someone tried to make Kansas City the flat, barren plain that most people think of when they hear the name--we're built on lots of hills and bluffs with many rivers and creeks and tons of trees. That would tell me that they'd never been here and never researched even superficially. But the color of recycling bins? Not much. You could have visited Arlington and researched it and never learned that recycling bins couldn't be green.

    This was someone looking for a reason to write a negative review so s/he could feel powerful. There's a lot of that out there. Look at it this way--if s/he couldn't find anything more substantial to complain about, it must have been a pretty good book. And that's probably what most real readers will think when they see that "review."

  4. Wow. I think of myself as a dog with a bone when it comes to even superficial detail, but that seems too much for even me. I mean, off the top of my head: In my community, people are allowed to use things besides the official issue recycling or garbage bins. So, on big weeks you might see an old Rubbermade tub added to the mix at the curb, or even a laundry basket with extra bottles from that big party! And, people sometimes bring their recycling bins when they move into our area and our removal service recognizes them as fit for use (it’s not much of a recycling policy if you don’t let people “re-cycle” the bins themselves!). The story, even when contemporary, is an imaginary one in an imaginary place, so this little tiny level of inaccuracy seems pretty unimportant to the whole.

    Now, it struck one reader as off and so on, but maybe that reader wasn't really into the book or story--for any number of reasons--and so a small blip bugged them more. It’s unfair to harshly judge a novel because of one person's small issue. And, I agree that most people reading the review would call this a small issue, unlikely of any import.

    Bottom line for me is that I think it's important to get all the little bits right and down factually, but it's a sliding scale on that and as long as the bigger truths—and the non-truths, too—hold, I don't see it as a problem. The reader deserves your best effort and if you gave that, it's enough. How many of us have loved, loved, loved a book even though here and there we sort of found a spot that didn't quite achieve perfection, at least as we defined it in that moment! And, in movies, how many times do you laugh about a location being used in a way that is completely non-representative of the “reality”? One classic for us in Chicagoland is in “When Harry Met Sally”—Harry and Sally are leaving the campus of University of Chicago on the south side to drive to NY but they are seen driving south on Lakeshore Drive from the far north side! Everyone here knows that’s “wrong”, but we know that it is in service of a movie, a story striving to be told in a visually compelling way, the scenery and skyline being so much prettier in that shot than if we saw the lovers to be heading down gold old, ugly old 80/94 East!

    I'll only disagree with Linda, above, in that maybe the reviewer didn't so much have an axe to grind or was power-craving. Sometimes the strangest things set people off--maybe he/she was OCD about her weekly garbage collection and had a tiff about a neighbor's "non-compliance"? Sometimes people sit down and write their reviews or notes at the wrong time, when something else is bothering them and they just have to find a way, inappropriate though it is, to vent that. Most arguments with my husband start that way--I'm irked about something that has nothing to do with him, but he's the guy who gives me an opening! You just never know. And, that's the fun thing, right?

  5. I know that people here in Austin are permitted to use a recycling container that they already have in their possession. So, someone could bring a color that is not the usual one and set it out for pickup.

    I also think that it is rather sad that someone would read an entire book and the thing that stuck with that reader was the "wrong" color of a trash bin. I would rather believe that after reading one of your books, the humor, the character development or the plotting would draw the reader's comments.

    I expect major accuracy. I expect things to be generally logical. I do not like to see one thing described and a few pages later the description changes. But, generally what I expect is a book that holds my attention and entertains me.

  6. As a writer my motivation is to get it right (green bins and all) and wouldn't be happy to discover that I hadn't. As a reader I need the right details. Just do. I wouldn't send notice, but I would ... notice.