I’m Dropping A Body In Your Lake…

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!

24 thoughts on “I’m Dropping A Body In Your Lake…

  1. Kathryn Lilley

    I understand what you mean about having to be careful with flip comments, J.T. I was at a bank teller’s window and the very-chatty clerk in training (with his supervisor at his elbow) wanted to know where I lived, what I did, etc. When I mentioned that I was a writer, he said “Oh, what do you write about?” I gave him a level look and said, “Murder.” He and his supervisor looked startled until I broke into laughter, then they started laughing–in relief. I realized that a bank teller’s line or any security line is not a good place to be joking around! I also get carried away with pictures in my blog, which always express my mood du jour. Check out the comments for my post today at http://killerhobbies.blogspot.com/2008/06/fact-or-fiction.htmlBest,

    KathrynKathryn Lilley

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  2. J.D. Rhoades

    When doing the research for the WIP, I needed to find out a little bit about Coast Guard Search and rescue operations, so I e-mailed the CG Station in Elizabeth City. They put me in touch with a very nice fellow who’s a pilot on a SAR chopper (he also played one of the chopper pilots in the Kevin Costner movie THE GUARDIAN).

    About midway through the conversation, I tentatively asked, “okay, here’s a question you may not want to answer…how would I shoot one of these down? Because I’m contemplating taking the chopper down and killing the whole crew. Fictionally, of course.”

    Fortunately, he was very cool about it. But I’m betting it added another page to my DHS file.

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  3. Chuck D.

    Very cool stuff JT. Dropping a body in the lake…CLASSIC!!!

    I like to physically visit the places I write about. It really helps to take my camera, and video camera, and as I film, I will dictate my senses, such as smells, or small sounds I am hearing. Typically I write about Europe, and have been over a few times in the last two years. I will go ahead of time, with no plan, find great scenes, and then weave them in as I write.

    Like you, I will simply walk into a police station, or the train station, or wherever, and just ask. Usually they are happy to help.

    I thought you did a great job with details in ATPG. I like them. Most books I read have high word counts.

    Great topic!!

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  4. R.J. Mangahas

    As far as research goes, I usually start with the internet, then move onto the library if need be. But nothing is a better source than the actual thing.

    As far as reading, it’s always fun to learn small details here and there. But what I don’t care for is when the author wants to show the reader that they did a lot of research. I’ve read a couple of books where the narrative started to read like a textbook at certain points because the author decided to do a few information dumps.

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  5. Lee

    As a retired Correctional Officer, I really appreciate any author who does their homework, and who goes to the right guy for info. I can’t tell you how many books are out there that are so off the mark, I through the book in the, “to be donated pile,” before the 2nd chapter…Thanks for getting it right. And for the great sites.

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  6. Louise Ure

    You sound like a hell of a researcher, JT.

    I did a lot of investigation about the child slave trade and pedophilia rings for an upcoming book. If the feds ever get hold of my computer there are a lot of visited sites they’re going to be curious about.

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  7. Pari Noskin Taichert

    JT,I like to talk with people and to go to the actual places if I can. For the New Mexico series, this makes a tremendous difference because the locales are characters.

    A couple of weeks ago, I was in Las Cruces learning all about the chile pepper industry — it’s fascinating — and had a great time talking murder with several major business leaders in the area; they were totally into it.

    For Darnda, I’ll have to depend on sources who live or have visited some of the places she’ll work — as well as the internet. I don’t imagine hubby will really want me going to the Cote D’Azur or Malibu.

    My books are filled with info, but little procedural detail, so I don’t interact with law enforcement too much. Still, I find the yahoo group: Crimescenewriter to be a fantastic resource. It’s also a wonderful place for ideas.

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  8. toni mcgee causey

    Yeah, I interviewed (in person interview) a SWAT commander, who, fortunately, knew I was a writer before I met him. Good thing, or when I was asking how he’d respond to the kinds of things I was going to do in book 3, I might not have been home for a long, long time. (He was pretty grim when he had to admit that I had a very possible scenario.)

    My friends are certain DHS has me wiretapped just because of the kinds of crazy conversations we have on the cell phones. When I was talking to a friend about blowing some specific location up and that I realized I knew exactly how it could be done, she countered with, “You mean in the next FICTIONAL book that you have UNDER CONTRACT, right?” Just for anyone who might’ve been listening in.

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  9. JT Ellison

    Patty, I’ve always wondered what lists might have me tagged. Hey, the government is smart — they use writers like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor to see what COULD happen… Smart move, I think.

    Toni, I try to emphasize the word fiction as well. Doesn’t always work.

    Hi Tash! I would say absolutely, and it must be even harder in your genre, since you don’t have first-hand — you have to use primary source. Don’t you wish you had a time machine sometimes?

    Louise, I can’t even imagine what the history of my computer could tell people. My latest book deals with necrophilia, and let me tell you, THAT’S a whole lot of fun to research (she said, sarcastically.)

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  10. JT Ellison

    Pari, you’re research is so evident in your books, and not in the kind of information dump some authors do. Yours is seamless, and gives us flavor. Hard to do, and you do it well!

    Lee, I think it holds true for every genre, every topic. Nothing throws me out of a story more quickly than a blatant mistake. I make all kinds of little ones, I’m sure, but the biggies are so easily avoidable…

    R.J., I know what you mean. I used to have a big problem with that, I’ve learned how to give what matters to the story instead of the whole background. It’s hard too, because you want to share all this great info you’ve learned. Tasha Alexander said it best — she’s researched the inner workings of Victorian plumbing, but does the reader really need to know about it???

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  11. JT Ellison

    Hi Chuck!I’m a big, big fan of going in person. For those times when you can’t though, Google Earth is an amazing tool. And Google 360 cityscape allows you to plop down on a street corner and see it from all angles. It’s pretty cool. You can’t smell or taste or hear it, but at least you can get the physical description right.

    Dusty, I should have included you on the list — being a lawyer and a journalist, you’re an amazing resource as well!!! I do hate to ask those thorny questions, because the first look you get is so skeptical. But they do like to make sure you know enough to get it right, or know how to obscure the details just enough.

    Kathryn, yeah. I try to be more careful around places that I know are sensitive to it. It’s just common sense.

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  12. Tammy Cravit

    I have to agree with you, JT – research is so much fun! I’ve had lots of opportunity, over my career, to get awfully good at it — I worked for a time with a bunch of reference librarians, and the five years or so I’ve spent as a part time freelance photojournalist has gotten me over any and all fear of picking up the phone and asking questions.

    One of my favorite research stories concerned a collaborative novel my local writer’s group was working on. (It died on the vine when a personality conflict blew up the group, more’s the pity, but I might resurrect some part of that one some day). Anyhow, the research question I was trying to answer was: “How much, roughly, would $10 million in cash weigh, how big would it be, and how easily could one person transport it?” The answer involved the branch manager of my local bank and I, in a back room with several bundles of currency, a tape measure and a postal scale. (I think we figured $10 million in $20 bills would weight about 100 pounds, but I’d have to find my notes to be sure.)

    I too have found those in law enforcement to be very willing to assist my efforts in “getting it right”, and my writing has given me a new appreciation of what those who choose to work in law enforcement put on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe. I’d encourage everyone to take a ride-along with your local police department, if they allow them. Apart from being wonderful research, it’s an eye opener. And next time you see a cop or firefighter, take a second to thank them for the job they do.

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  13. JT Ellison

    And a soldier. Thank the soldiers too. So many of them are former or soon to be law enforcement…

    Tammy, I am so bad. I read that about the money and went hmm… $10 million is 100 pounds. I could, like, carry that. It’d be slow going, but I could manage it. That’s a brilliant factoid.

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  14. R.J. Mangahas

    J.T. — I’m trying to work through that too. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to put in to help the story and what would just bog the reader down. It’s even harder especially since a good amount of what I write is short stories.

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  15. JT Ellison

    RJ, I’ve been loading backstory today. It’s fun to revisit my old characters and their actions, and it’s a neat trick to give just the right amount of detail on them too. It seems our jobs are never done, huh?

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  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT – great blog topic. I love research, but I think the secret is to leave about 90% of it out of the book … unless you’re writing a text book or a travel guide.

    I try to have fired every weapon I write about, which is no longer as easy for someone living in the UK as it used to be. Occasionally, inevitably, you make a mistake, but most of them are avoidable. It never ceases to amaze me how often people get car stuff wrong, and that should be an easy one. But anything that jolts the reader out of the necessary suspension of disbelief that you enter into whenever you pick up a work of fiction is bad. Even if it’s something simple like mentioning a plant flowering at the wrong time of year.

    The best research trip I did, though, was to Northern Ireland, where a very helpful guy in Belfast docks showed me how to disable a cross-channel ferry. As we crawled all over the engine rooms he kept saying, “If anyone asks why you’re here, DON’T tell them!”

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  17. JT Ellison

    Rob, there’s no accounting for hearing — my accent gets kinda broad when I’ve been in Nashville for a few weeks. For all I know, she might have thought I said I was a mysterious hiker.

    Hey, I kinda like that. I’m J.T. Ellison, mysterious hiker.

    Zoe, I would like to be able to do a 10th of the research you do. You manage some of the coolest stuff. If you ever get back to TN, you have to let me tag along on that certain trip we talked about….

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  18. Robin Burcell

    9 times out of 10, I usually have no problem researching the cop stuff (yeah, even us cops, ex or otherwise, need to research, because every department is different). But one time I was talking to a cop about setting up a dirty cop scenario, in which a rogue cop is on the take, etc., etc. The cop I was speaking to was not the one recommended to me, because of scheduling or something. So I tell this guy what I’m planning, and ask for his input. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Then he told me that he had real police work to do, and eventually hung up on me.

    I freaked out, thinking: now I have to change the locale of my book (and also thinking I can never drive through THAT town again). This is never going to fly, but the whole book was practically written.

    Then I finally called up the lieutenant in homicide who had given me the name of the narcotics officer to call. Told him what happened. He laughed, and said, “I think you hit too close to home.” He calmed my frayed nerves, and explained that was why he had given me a specific name. He didn’t want me talking to that guy.

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  19. Jake Nantz

    I emailed a city where I planned to drop off a rather gory body because I couldn’t afford to go there, and wanted to know if the park I had seen on mapquest’s overview was poorly lit at night. The Chamber of Commerce wrote me back and said they’d rather not say in case I wasn’t what I was purported to be, but that I was welcome to visit their lovely city and check it out for myself. From the email I couldn’t tell if they were uneasy or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

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  20. JT Ellison

    Robin, I have a rogue FBI agent in my second book, and I felt compelled to apologize to my FBI contacts for making her so devious, so unlike them. I still feel kinda bad…

    Jake, I’ve had that happen too, and I use the message boards and listserves for secondhand info. Lat year I needed a police precinct set in a specific spot in New York, and I went to the MWA message boards. Two people were able to help me get the area and setting right. Then I traveled to the spot to confirm. Very worth your time to ask around on the lists — there’s some great folks in about every town imaginable.

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