Did ya know . . . ?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

There’s a lot I don’t know about a lot of things.

Most of the time, I’ll brazen my way through a scene I’m writing and eventually do enough research to ensure my premise won’t knock a reader out of the story.

This was the case last week. I’d pushed through several chapters and began to think that I might be really, really off base. So, with the help of the handy-dandy Yellow Pages, I found listings for local home/corporate security businesses. My story line required a high-end place, maybe with a store front, so that I could see some of the hidden cameras up close.

Many of these services had online presences and their websites gave me a little feel about their clients and expertise. From there, I selected the one that most intrigued me and picked up the phone. A nice, neutral receptionist answered. After explaining the following request might be a bit odd, I launched into my standard pitch about being a mystery writer and wanting to get my info right.

The receptionist asked me to hold. I played a couple of games of spider solitaire and waited. A young man came on the line and proceeded to answer my queries. He then offered to show me some  equipment — his business doesn’t have a store front — if I wanted to come see.

Oh, baby. What an opportunity.

The next morning at 9 am, I pulled up to one of those purposely nondescript buildings, the kind you find in industrial parks around the country. The kind you’d never remember after you left. The door was locked. The nice receptionist clicked on something out of view and let me in. She also brought me a great cup of coffee. The young man with whom I’d spoken used a magnetic key to let me into a conference room with a gorgeous rosewood table, sat me down in a plush leather chair  . . . and opened his world to me.

Covert cameras, digital versatile recorders, computer interfaces — he answered every single one of my questions. He took me into secured areas so that I could see some of the systems first hand. He brought out a video camera no larger than the last joint on my little finger and told me how and where such an instrument could be hidden. He showed me all the security cameras in his own building and then took me into another secured room where I could see the recordings. He used a joystick to move one of the cameras outside and we looked into a building about 1/3 mile away; I actually could see what the people inside were doing. It was creepy, fascinating and wonderful all at once.

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing fiction is that I get to learn all kinds of things that I never thought about before. I love going into food processing plants, agricultural research centers, government buildings and talking with experts about what they do. I’ve done it for years in my nonfiction — but fiction now affords me many of the same perks.

And, they’re ALWAYS a gas.

I hope in the comments you’ll share:
Readers: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned while reading a novel?
Writers:  What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned while writing your novel (or short story)?

I can’t wait to read what you’ve got to say . . .

23 thoughts on “Did ya know . . . ?

  1. Jacky B.

    I used Andrew Wyeth’s haunting painting “Christina’s World” in a novel. I’m too lazy to type what I found out, so I’ll let my character, Roxi, do the job.

    “It is a print. I didn’t paint it, I just renamed it. Real name is Christina’s World.”

    I relaxed, let the vodka talk for me, “So, you identify with Christina. Why?”

    She gave me the jade stare, unblinking, said, “You make light of me on this, you’ll be leaving, fast. Hungry, and horny to boot.”

    I smoothed her hair, said, “That’s not my style. What’s serious to you, is serious to me. I wouldn’t mock you.”

    “Christina, the real life inspiration for the painting, had a neurological disorder from early childhood on.”

    “Polio?”

    “They weren’t sure. She delt with it, best she could. In the beginning she could walk and everything, but poorly. Thing was, it was progressive. By the time she was a young woman she couldn’t walk. Refused a wheelchair.”

    “Why?”

    “Nicky? How the fuck would I know? I wasn’t there. You wanna hear this, or not?”

    “Sorry. Go on.” My vodka perception had kicked in, firing on all cylinders. The painting meant everything to Roxi. She perceived her own heroin addiction to be as limiting to her, as Christina’s physical affliction had been to Christina. Perhaps more so. I guess it was about restriction, borders. My early reaction to the painting? That, no doubt, had been a by-product of my own Trina induced affliction: pure paranoia.

    Roxi’s voice got lower, “No wheelchair, couldn’t walk, but she could crawl. So that’s what she did. She crawled. Everywhere on that property. To her garden, to the out-buildings. Three hundred feet here, five hundred feet there, but she made it. Crawling. Took her hours. Supposedly, she had been crawling to visit her parents gravesite when Wyeth, dude that did the painting, saw her, got inspired. Point is, her entire world was limited to how far she could crawl.”

    “Just like you. You go back on the shit, you’ll be Christina; your whole world limited to how far you can crawl.”

    Jacky B.

    Reply
  2. pari

    Oh, wow, Jacky,

    Very cool. Do you have a link for the painting so that we can see it? There’s so much going on in that scene you shared . . .

    I want to know more.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Tammy Cravit

    Recently, I needed to learn about TASERs for my novel-in-progress. The bad guy disables my main character with one, and I wanted to get the details right.

    A couple of phone calls landed me at my local police department’s weapons instructor. (A word to the wise: Find out who the Public Information Officer is at your closest law enforcement agency, and make friends with that person.) He took an hour out of his busy day to tell me all about TASERs and patiently answered all my questions. He let me handle an unloaded TASER, and then loaded it up and fired it into a cardboard target so I could see/hear a TASER discharge up close. (Especially in a small space, those things are louder than you’d think from watching “Cops” on TV.)

    I still have the expended dart cartridge (and one of the darts, which I was able to dig out of the target) on my desk as a souvenir.

    Reply
  4. pari

    Jacky,I had no idea that that’s what that painting depicted. I just thought it was a young woman experiencing beauty in that wide field. Holy cow.

    Tammy,You must have been in heaven with that guy. There’s nothing like talking to someone who loves his work and wants to share expertise. You pick up so much besides the words. Can you describe how the TASER sounded? You’ve got my curiosity going now.______________________________________

    What’s Fun about this particular post is that we all stand to learn super-interesting information from each other as well . . .

    Who else wants to join in?

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    One of my favorite writers to learn from is Ridley Pearson. His research is meticulous, and I’ve learned about 1)security in infectious disease labs, 2) cell phone triangulation, and 3) how to uncouple a railroad car with one hand.

    I don’t think I’ve been quite that illuminating in my own writing, but I had a great time researching the job of jury consultant in my first book, and the day-to-day life of a blind person in the next.

    Reply
  6. pari

    Louise,Good suggestion re: Ridley Pearson.

    Was there anything that surprised you about jury consultants or the life of a blind person? Something that you never would have known had you not done the research?

    Reply
  7. pari

    Are they ugly? I didn’t know. I figured they looked like tripe — or what we call “menudo”– but I just looked that up and it’s actually cow stomach rather than intestines.

    I’ve learned even more.

    Reply
  8. Tammy Cravit

    Pari,

    The discharge of the TASER sounds like a loud pop (the nitrogen propellant charge firing the darts), followed almost simultaneously by a staccato series of cracks as the device discharges electricity into the darts. The first ten seconds or so of this video should give you an idea, though the weapon sounded a lot louder in person than it did in the video:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=ACUjnJBHIZc

    The darts themselves look like straightened fish-hooks about half an inch long attached to a tapered cylinder of metal with wires leading from the end of it. Apparently, my city’s police department’s standard procedure following a TASER discharge is to call EMTs to remove the darts from the subject’s skin. The nitrogen charge propels them at about the same velocity as a BB gun, and if they hit bare skin with no clothing in the way, I imagine they’d leave a very unpleasant puncture wound.

    You can see a picture of the cartridge/dart on my Web site:

    http://www.tammycravit.com/content/office_tour/taser_dart.jpg

    The spines of the books behind it give an idea of scale.

    Another interesting tidbit I learned: When the TASER is fired, it also disperses about thirty mylar disks perhaps 1/5 of an inch in diameter, imprinted with the serial number of the cartridge that was fired. The idea is to discourage the use of TASERs in the commission of a crime, since firing the device leaves behind evidence that can be traced back to the purchaser of the cartridge. (In my own book, I solved this problem through the expedient of having my bad guy steal the device from someone else.)

    Reply
  9. pari

    Simon,That must have been fascinating. I would have loved to have been a fly on that wall, just to hear the questions you’d think of asking him.

    Tammy,Thanks for this. I had no idea. I especially like that detail about they mylar disks.

    Did ya know . . . that legal explosives also have “taggants” to identify where they come from? So do many other dangerous substances.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m constantly researching in the supernatural arena. I want to make sure anything spooky I write is well within the bounds of what people have actually experienced, so that readers believe that what I write could really have happened – for that moment IS actually happening.

    In researching THE HARROWING, I was amazed to find a Jewish creation myth that was completely unique and also had powerful resonance with the fallen angel myth of Christian tradition. That dual surprise and familiarity I felt apparently translates well for people who read the book.

    Research really is the joy of this profession. I would have been in heaven with your security expert. Pure gold!

    Reply
  11. Fran

    I learned a lot about the Cathar Crusades from Kate Mosse’s “Labyrinth”. I had no idea.

    I learned amazing things about progressive recycling and fuel creation from Alex Kava’s “Whitewash”. I also learned not to be eating when reading the first few pages of that particular book.

    Lowen Clausen explained Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in a way that finally made sense in his second book, “Second Watch”.

    People who dismiss mysteries as “genre fiction” with that snooty tone have no idea just how much research and accuracy goes into each book. I learn something new in everything I read, and I love it!

    Reply
  12. pari

    Alex,We’ll have to talk about that Jewish creation myth . . .And you would have liked the expert quite a bit. He was affable, intelligent, and mighty good looking too.

    Fran,I’ve found that the people who shun mysteries as being second-rate fiction are usually ones who’ve never bothered to explore the genre.

    I think I might have to check out that Lowen Clausen book. It sounds like it’d be useful on so many levels.

    And, I learned long ago NOT to read mysteries while eating, period.

    Reply
  13. Louise Ure

    Pari, I can’t give away too many of the surprising details I learned about being blind or it would take away from the denoument of my new book. Suffice it to say … blind folks have some skills and adaptations that had never occurred to me.

    Reply
  14. JDRhoades

    In researching my books, I’ve learned:

    The developers of the Claymore mine felt the need to print FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY on the front of the mine. This tickles me for some unaccountable reason.

    A Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle can actually cut a man in half at 1400 yards. And you REALLY don’t want to see a photograph of a head shot from one.

    Reply
  15. Will Bereswill

    I friggin love research. I like the hands-on type much more than Internet research. In fact, those of you who browse the Good Girls Kill For Money Blog may get some insight into the kind of hands-on research I’m talking about.

    Try walking right up to a police officer and ask to see their gun. I did and the female officer didn’t even arrest me. Instead she was quite cooperative.

    I’ve been to a firing range to research the handgun I chose for my protagonist and found I really enjoy shooting.

    I also got up close and personal while researching how to blow up a jumbotron at the Wachovia Center in Philly.

    Reply
  16. pari

    Ah, heck, Louise. You mean we have to wait?

    J.D.,Ewwwwwwwww.

    Give me that sign anytime.

    Will,You sound like a perfect candidate for Firearms and Fiction. Do you know about it? It’s a wonderful way to shoot all kinds of guns — free ammo, too.

    Elaine,Brouhahahahhahaha. That was my guffaw for the day. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  17. a Paperback Writer

    Huh. I’d always heard that Christina’s World showed a blind girl. Fine. Now I’ll have to go research that to figure out how many other stories are out there about it (Mona Lisa, anyone?).Anyway, some of the most interesting research I’ve done was on the mobility issues and abilities of a young man paralyzed from the armpits down. I had to watch him move around school and dance (yes, dance — in and out of his wheelchair), play basketball, etc. to absorb his rhythms and motions. I had to learn how he gets dressed, see where his hands grow callused, and watch him interact with others before I could create a character who uses a wheelchair.Years ago, I wondered why people liked the term “differently abled” instead of “disabled.” Now I understand. My world’s a little wider than it used to be.

    Reply
  18. pari

    Hey, Paperback Writer,Thanks for opening MY world too.

    When I was in grad school, one of my friends worked with people who’d been paralyzed and she told me that once, after a party and too much drinking, she and her friend got arrested for DWI. They were whipping down the hills in San Francisco — him in his wheelchair, her on his lap, both of them completely sloshed.

    I always loved that image.

    Reply

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