You’re probably here expecting David Corbett to challenge your mind with a smart and thoughtful essay, but we switched days because it’s his birthday and he’s out being happy. You can read his post from last Sunday here.
So you’re stuck with me today.
David is a recent addition to Murderati and after reading his first post, I emailed JT and said:
“Where’d you dig up the smart guy? Sheesh, I feel so inadequate. I think I’m going to have permanent blog-writer’s block :/”
So I’m not David, no great insights from me today! But I want to talk about one of my favorite subjects: research.
I’m giddy about my next research trip. Tomorrow I’m participating in another FBI SWAT training session, this time as a hostage. I can’t tell you how exciting these things are for me. First, I lead a boring life. It’s all writing and kids. That’s it. So when I get to research in the field, I feel like I’ve been released from prison. But most important, there’s nothing like hands on research.
90% of my research comes from books and talking with experts—cops, feds, doctors, lawyers, private investigators, coroners, rape counselors, pilots, business owners, mechanics, you name it. For my upcoming book IF I SHOULD DIE (11.22.11) I contacted the press guy for Argus Thermal Imaging Products about air surveillance; my regular contact at the FBI for information about working with Canadian law enforcement; a trauma surgeon I met through one of the hands on training programs about triage in the field; and even my daughter’s boyfriend who rides dirt bikes to get his input about ATVs. I poured over brochures and online maps related to the Adirondacks, learned the make-up of St. Lawrence County, New York, and researched mining history in upstate New York. I even pulled out my criminal psychology books to make sure I understood the psychology behind not only my primary villain, but because there are a lot of people involved in keeping this criminal organization running, I wanted a better understanding of group psychology.
But in the end, research shouldn’t be visible in the story. I absorb what I read and hear, but I can’t put any of it on the page. Research works only in context to the story. My readers aren’t going to be impressed that I now know how to dress a wound in the field—they don’t need me describing it in detail. What they want to know is what my main character Lucy is thinking and feeling while she’s assessing how seriously Sean is hurt after falling down an abandoned mine shaft. Because she is trained in first aid, she’s not going to be thinking about step A, B, C … she’s just going to do it.
The other 10% of my research is field trips. Touring Quantico and Folsom State Prison. Being a victim in an active shooter situation. Playing hostage. Viewing an autopsy and asking questions. But my questions are different than others. I can look up the procedures of an autopsy, but I want to know what the pathologists are thinking. Do they talk about what they’re doing? Do they chit-chat? Are they formal? Do they joke? What do they do to unwind after a difficult case? Do they tease the newbies? What’s their background? What are the strange cases? What do they like best about their job? Least? Pet peeves?
Or consider how different characters view the same scene. A pathologist is going to look at a corpse much differently than a jogger who stumbles across a body in a park, so I try to view every situation from a different perspective. What does the first responder think/feel? The untrained observer? The killer? The victim’s family? What do they notice that someone else might not?
This is where the field trips really help me. I’m lucky in that I can put myself in other people’s shoes, so-to-speak. I try to understand the world from different perspectives. When I play hostage tomorrow, it’ll be running the same scenario multiple times. I can “be” the hostage and imagine that it’s real (and they way they run these drills, it feels real—I’m hyper-alert.) I can also “be” the bad guy and watch and listen and imagine why is he doing thing? What made him snap? Is it emotional or calculating? Because he’s stressed or because he wants something? And one of the my favorite parts of these drills is when, after the fact, the trainer comes through with the team and analyzes the operation. I get to listen to why decisions were made, what they were thinking, all the information they have to process immediately. If I can understand a scene from all three viewpoints—cop, suspect, hostage—I can write it.
Don’t be surprised if a hostage situation shows up in one of my upcoming stories. 🙂
Too many beginning authors spend a lot of time researching, then dump their newfound knowledge in the middle of a scene. BORING! Okay, okay, there are some people who like all the technical detail, and there are some authors who have made a name for themselves with involved, elaborate, and accurate descriptions of technology or science or forensic investigation. And sometimes, a bit more detail is necessary for the story—but as Elmore Leonard advises, try to leave out the boring parts.
I confess, I’ve been guilty of research dumps, usually because I learned something really cool and I want to share. Fortunately, my editor usually stops me from going overboard. And I never forget the advice of a good friend of mine, Karin Tabke, who’s married to a retired cop. It’s the details that’ll hang you, especially when you’re not an expert, so only share what’s necessary for the immediate story and move on. (But then I remember two emails I received a week apart on my book THE HUNT—one cop wrote that I got everything wrong, another cop wrote that I must have worked in law enforcement because I got it all right. Go figure.)
In the end, research needs to serve the story, not the other way around. Raise the stakes, tighten the prose, maintain the proper pacing, and be true to each character. Incorporating research is just the window dressing.
Next week I’m off for a two week trip! Not a book tour or anything fancy like that (being a mass market original author, touring isn’t an option.) But I will be at RWA and Thrillerfest, both of which are in NYC back-to-back this year. Toni McGee Causey and I are rooming together and hopefully will have time to do tourist stuff between conferences. After six (seven?) trips to NY, I have yet to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, so that’s up this time. Any must-see Broadway shows? Go-to restaurants or shops? One of those “you have to do this before you die” experiences? Are you going to one of the conferences? Bouchercon? Maybe next year?
I printed up a promotional copy of my digital novella, Love is Murder, to give away at the conferences. Comment or say ‘hi’ and I’ll randomly send five people a copy (which also includes an excerpt of my upcoming book.)