by J.T. Ellison
There’s just nothing like being a mystery writer. We see things in a completely different perspective. Our rose-colored glasses are tinted with shadows. The nightly news is a source of grist for the mill. An argument between strangers takes on a sinister cast. Dusty’s post on Wednesday illustrated just how devious our minds can be when it comes to twisting straightforward events into pretzels of mystery.
I forget that others don’t see the attraction.
I had a somewhat humorous (for me) and horrifying (for her) situation this week. Let me state, for the record, that I am sometimes a bit excited when I find I need to do a spot of research. I love research. Research is a blast. It can be scary, upsetting, or just plain interesting, but regardless, I tend to plunge into it wholeheartedly. And when I get excited, I talk fast, and sometimes don’t give as much information as I need to. In MY head, it’s all perfectly logical and my motives are pure. On the other end… well, suffice it to say, sometimes people aren’t as thrilled by my ideas as I am.
I was writing a scene that concerns a lake in my area, and I needed to know if they had security cameras. So I looked up the number and called. A very nice woman answered, I told her I’m a local mystery author, went through my spiel, and told her what I needed. She paused a bit, then said I should probably talk to the head guy. Fine, no worries. Then she took my info and referred back to the questions. "Why do you need to know about security?" (Cue stupid move on my part…) I answered, rather gleefully, "Oh, well, unfortunately, I’m dropping a body in your lake!"
The moment that ensued gave new meaning to dead silence. Then she said, "Literally?"
I started laughing. She didn’t. She didn’t find it all that funny. And I realized that not everyone is as excited about mischief and mayhem as I am.
Research involves many facets, from Internet combing to old-fashioned library work to physical, get dirty, experience it first-hand kind of research. I prefer the hands on, am always willing to take that ride along or make that phone call. First-hand is the best way to go.
But there’s always a chance that you might mislead someone about your intentions, albeit on accident. I know people who’ve done research on bomb-making materials, on terrorism, on all kinds of things that might make the powers that be sit up and take notice. There are some kinds of research questions no one can afford to take lightly. Especially in this post-9/11 world, when we need to be careful just who we give out security information to.
At every conference, panel and signing event, I’m asked how I do my research. What I mentioned above is pretty much my MO — I have a question, I check the Internet, get as much information as possible, then contact the appropriate person and ask if I have it right. A solid ninety percent of the time, they are more than happy to talk to me, to give me what I need. I’ve found that especially in law enforcement, they WANT you to get it right. I’ve always been of the mind that the more fiction "fictionalizes" law enforcement, the less the real world understands what they sacrifice every day to keep us safe. I try to avoid that if at all possible.
Every once in a while, I get turned down. My local medical examiner’s office can’t talk to laypeople anymore — they were sued after an unfortunate event during the filming of a television reality series. That creates a serious issue for me, since one of my main secondary characters is the Medical Examiner for the state of Tennessee. Happily, (or unhappily) forensic pathology is a relatively standard field. So now I have a brilliant, wonderful doctor in the Manhattan Medical Examiner’s Office who has truly made all the difference in my work.
I needed to know about forensic odontology (identifying people through the unique characteristics in their teeth through dental x-rays) for my first book, and a local dentist, Michael Tabor, is the forensic odontologist for the state of Tennessee. Dr. Tabor is esteemed in his field, was actually called in during 9/11 to help. Dr. Tabor sat down with me over lunch and answered a million questions, then invited me to meet with him and the forensic anthropologist attached to our M.E.’s office to do an examination of a skull found in a local field. It was a fascinating evening, and I learned so much. My homicide detective was in on that one too.
Note I said MY homicide detective. He’s mine. No one else can have him. : ) Seriously, Detective David Achord of Metro Nashville homicide is the only reason Taylor has any credibility as a cop, period. From ten codes to guns to homicide investigation to the bingo lingo, David has been there from the beginning. I couldn’t be more grateful. (All mistakes are mine!)
I needed to talk to the FBI about this newest book, and they graciously granted me an interview with the Unit Chief of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. He’s Baldwin, and he’s amazing. Now, I didn’t just call the FBI and say hey, I need to speak to your head profiler. I went through the proper channels, submitted a written request to their Public Relations Department. And it took a good four months to get the appropriate clearances and get everyone’s schedules aligned. So think about your source before you start contacting them. It can take a while to get to the right person.
Other writers are a great resource — Lee Lofland writes an exceptional blog (and congrats on that Macavity nom, Lee). Robin Burcell used to be a cop, Jim Born still is. Christine Kling is a sailor, and thank goodness for her! I also use a site called PoliceOne, which really gets in-depth about everything from ammunition to negotiations with gang leaders. (And thanks to everyone above…)
I just looked at my bookmark folder for the research on this new book. There’s everything from the Peerage of England to MI-5 and Scotland Yard to federal prisons to twins studies to the Vatican to the history of Renaissance art to selecting a handgun to the Globe and Laurel to fishing line to the carabinieri to the music from ‘Jaws’ to eye movement when lying to paper manufacturers to DNA fingerprinting to Taschen Books to Medline to Picasso and Millais. I’ve used all of it.
It’s crazy, actually, how many little itty bitty details go into writing a book. I might read forty articles to assimilate one detail. Every item listed above (and this is only a representative sample, the folder for EDGE OF BLACK alone has hundreds of entries) has been printed, gleaned and categorized into the major areas I need for the research on this book. My research portfolio is overstuffed.
The trick is for me to synthesize all of the random information into a cohesive narrative. And sometimes, that isn’t so easy.
But what is easy is thanking everyone who physically helps with my research. You’ll see my acknowledgment pages run on and on and on….
So have you ever freaked someone out with your questions? What’s your favorite resource for research? And readers, do you like more or less details with your stories?
Wine of the Week: 2004 Juan Gill Jumilla Red
P.S. I did an interview for the latest issue of NVF Magazine, alongside some exceptionally cool writers, including ‘Rati alum Simon Wood. Stop by and take a look!