I had to laugh – albeit in a groaning, semi-hysterical kind of way – when I saw Dusty's Faster! Faster! post from yesterday about productivity. I'm behind with the new Charlie Fox book. Way behind. I mean, lying awake at night and sweating about it, behind.
But, finally, the end is in sight. In fact, with good luck, a following wind, and half a dozen policemen, as the saying has it, I should have something completed by next weekend. It kind of helps that we've been snowed in again this week, and I've already had to cancel one photoshoot, which has meant more writing time.
Reaching the end of a book is exciting and frightening, both at the same time. I know what is going to happen, but I don't quite know how it's going to happen, not until I actually get there. And it's frightening because then I have to show it to people, and they're going to pull it to pieces and point out all the bits that don't work. But, better constructive criticism than no comments at all.
Endings, though, are a post topic all of their own, and that's not what springs to mind today.
You may recall that I did a post last October called Tricks of the Trade about all those little bits of inside information, which people in certain trades know automatically, and which can really add that authentic flavour to any work of fiction. People came up with some fascinating snippets, and I just love all that kind of trivia.
Before I begin a book, I research my main subjects carefully, because so often you find out something at this stage that really shapes or alters where you thought the plot was going. In HARD KNOCKS, for example, I knew at the outset that, after the handgun ban in the UK, most close-protection training schools moved to Europe, with the most popular destinations being France, Holland, and Germany. As I knew Germany better than either France or Holland, that became the location of the majority of the action in the story. And, having made that decision, various other aspects of that country – particularly the lack of speed limits on the autobahns, for example – became an integral part of the plot. Trust me, you haven't lived until you've driven at over 170mph on the public road … ;-]
But, by the time I've finished – or nearly finished – a book, I have a file called Queries. Queries could best be described as Matters Arising. It contains all the little nitty-gritty questions that have cropped up during the writing process. Rather than break off and go looking for the answers at the time, and therefore interrupt the flow of the story, I jot a note to myself in Queries, and come back to it at the end.
And, when I come to look at my Queries file for this book, there are some very odd questions. Nothing at all to do, you might think, with a crime novel. Of course, there were specific crime-related questions, but the kind of contacts you make in this industry are invaluable for answering those.
I needed to know about US police interview procedure, for instance, so I called on former cop turned mystery author, Robin Burcell. I also needed to know, among other things, how long a person's heart can stop for, before they incur brain damage, and for that kind of thing, mystery author and cardiologist, Doug Lyle MD is your man. (And for anybody scribbling in this field, I can heartily recommend copies of Doug's excellent books, such as FORENSICS AND FICTION: Clever, Intriguing, And Downright Odd Questions From Crime Writers.)
A friend in the travel industry answered my query about how best to fly a coffin home to the UK from the States, while Stuart MacBride, bless him, filled me in on the best hotel in Aberdeen - the Caledonian Thistle, in case you're making travel plans – and the name by which the locals refer to it – "The Calley".
Of course, back when I first started writing, finding out these answers involved a trip to the reference library. But now, with the wonders of the Internet, you can find out just about anything about … just about anything.
If you know what questions to ask.
For example, a chance conversation with another mystery author, Linda L Richards, at Bouchercon, brought up the name Synanon, and pointed me in the right direction for researching about certain cults in California. Without that name to put into a search engine, I would have been overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of pages on the subject.
Sometimes, there's just too much information out there. And trying to describe something you've forgotten the name for, and then search for it, can prove a frustrating business.
I had a total brain-dump about the correct term for carrying a rifle with the butt in your cupped hand, and the barrel slanted back over your shoulder. How do you ask that in Google? (OK, finally remembered it's called 'slope arms'.)
And now, as I look down my list of queries, it seems a bizarre selection:
- How long does it take to go from LA to San Francisco by Greyhound (or similar) bus?
Are there free walk-in medical clinics in Manhattan?
Are California vehicles required to display a front licence plate?
What's the most common type of helicopter used by the oil exploration industry?
What wild animals – if any – do people commonly hunt with rifles in southern California?
Driving from Newark Airport into midtown Manhattan in the morning, what's the most logical route across the Hudson River?
What's the correct name for the air ambulance service in LA? (I needed similar info for New England and discovered it's called the LifeFlight helicopter, incidentally. People have a habit of being critically injured in my books and requiring emergency transport to the nearest trauma centre.)
Do late-90s' model Ford Econoline vans have one rear door, or two?
Does Interstate 405, which runs north-south through LA, have a High Occupancy Vehicle lane?
Do US schoolteachers specialise in a particular subject, ie, geography – and would that cover geology?
What is the likely temperature in LA in the early evening in February?
How would a US cop refer to someone he or she suspects is working for Homeland Security? (I would have thought this was "spooks" but I know the UK TV series about MI5 had its name changed from 'Spooks' to 'MI5', so I assume it has a different meaning over there.)
How does the door open and the steps unfold on a Gulfstream G550 executive jet?
Is Rohypnol, which is a brand name for flunitrazepam (a benzodiazepine sleeping and date-rape drug) a recognised trade name in the States?
Are there any oil refineries currently operating within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska?
Nothing exactly earth-shattering in that lot, is there? Nothing the entire story hinges upon, but all important little bits and pieces that help round out the story and settle it in its surroundings. Nothing a few Internet searches can't probably pinpoint without too much difficulty. At least, I'm hoping that's the case!
I should point out, by the way, that I have not put these up as an idle way of short-cutting my research – although if anybody does know the answers I will certainly not stuff my fingers in my ears and go, "La, la, la. Not listening!" There will be a nice mention in the Acknowledgements, of course ;-]
But, I just wanted to highlight what strange little bits of information go into writing a book. And, my question is, what's the oddest inconsequential bit of info you've required when you've been writing, and if you read a book where the answers to any of those questions – or ones like them – were incorrect, would it spoil it for you?
This week's Word of the Week is psychopomp (from the Greek, pompos, a guide) meaning a conductor of souls to the other world. And if I haven't finished this book by next weekend, I may need one …
Snow willing, I should be out on a shoot today, but will answer all comments as soon as I get back.
I’m an RN at a university medical center in Florida, so if you ever have any questions I might be able to answer feel free to ask.
Rohypnol is a recognized trade name here in the States, btw, and the street name I’ve heard most often for the drug is “roofies.”
I don’t know if it’s inconsequential, but I did once ask a Coast Guard SAR pilot the best way to bring down his helicopter with a heavy caliber sniper rifle. He was a very good sport about it.
I agree wholeheartedly with your appreciation for both crime-thinking friends and the internet in our research. But my biggest question back to you is: since you’re close to finishing your book and don’t know the ending yet, does that mean that you send it to your editor in it’s first draft stage? Or is this deadline of yours a self-imposed one that means that’s when you have to start your rewrites? I can’t imagine sending anyone my first draft. It would be readable but illogical. Decent but nothing worth publishing.
Bless you for caring about what some would call inconsequential minutiae. Things like this can be left out, but, when added, provide so much texture and context to a story. Unfortunately, too often writers think they’re inconsequential and get them wrong, which disrupts the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. I recently read a well-received book where a lawyer got his client off by convincing the grand jury his confession was coerced (lawyers don’t speak with grand juries in the US); and visited a prisoner awaiting trial in Raiford (FL) prison, when no one goes to Raiford until after conviction.
A few freebies:US schoolteachers specialize for grades 5-12. (Sometimes 6-12, depending on the school system.) Geology would probably fall under the discipline of a general science teacher, though her major area of study could well have been geology, or it could be a hobby.
The average February high in LA is 70 degrees; average low is 50. A temperature in the low 60s sounds about right for early evening. (Averages courtesy of http://www.weather.com, which can also provide sunrise and sunset info for every day of the year, if needed).
American cops will probably refer to a Homeland Security guy as “Homeland Security, ” or DHS. If he has a specific, spook-like function, they may have a special name, and the nicknames may vary by department a little, bu the generics are Homeland Security or DHS.
A Greyhound bus from LA to San Francisco can take anywhere from 7:30 to 12:30, depending on which bus you catch. (Courtesy greyhound.com)
Quickest route from Newark to Manhattan in morning rush: oil company helicopter 😉
Google no doubt can give you the Greyhound schedule, the route across the Hudson, and a picture of an Econoline.
CA front license plate? not required, although the police pay more attention if you don’t have one.
Hunting animals? Would probably depend on if you mean hunting, or exterminating–ie, are you aiming at deer or coyotes?
US schoolteachers specialization–depends on the level. If you mean elementary level (up to age 11) then no. Middle school, there is generally some specialization, depending on the size of the school. A middle-sized school (say, 800 kids) for grades 6, 7, and 8 might find the English teacher also doing social studies, or the math teacher overlapping in science. High school usually it’s fairly precise, an English teacher teaches English, although that can be both grammar and literature, depending again on the size of the school and the interests of the teacher. A high school science teacher might teach a class in geology, but geography might well be assigned to the history or social studies teacher. If your school is small, the probability of multiple areas of expertise is higher. And of course it would depend on the money: a well funded private (ie, public in UK) school might have all sorts of experts, depending on what that particular school’s thrust is. A public school, however, is less likely to have separate courses. In any case, I venture to say that geography s an old fashioned concept, now incorporated under :world studies: or some such. Geology, of course, would come under earth sciences.
But if you need the same person to do both, it’s easy enough to justify.
Feb temp in LA? Pretty much whatever your plot requires, since Feb is one of those months that varies wildly. Shorts and tanktops one week, heavy coats and scarves the next. The only unlikely thing is snow, and even that has been seen on the hills.
Rohypnol is the US trade name, also known as Roofies.
If you can’t find the Alaska info, you might ask Dana Stabenow.
There, half your work’s done.
And I don’t even require an acknowledgment, just buy me a drink the next time we’re in a conference bar, okay?
Enjoy the snow, it’s been shirtsleeves weather here.
Yes, 405 has an HOV lane, but I don’t know if it goes the entire length of the freeway.
Mountain lions and bears are all over the mountains, and they have been seen in suburbs. Bird hunting is a big sport throughout So Cal, but there are severe restrictions to all hunting regarding time and place. Deer as well, but not as popular as in the past It’s illegal to hunt mountain lions in California; therefore, our deer population has plummeted (my BIL is a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, if you have specific animal questions, let me know!)
PS, you should have seen my list regarding search warrants and jurisdictional issues I sent to a retired FBI agent . . .
I can’t even begin to list the weird questions I’ve asked experts, but my favorite was the body in Radnor Lake – I called and told them I was dropping a body in their lake, and she completely missed the preface – I’m a mystery writer writing a fictional scene near you… the tone of her voice when she said “For real?” was priceless.
I do the same thing, Zoe – leaving the blank until I can get the answer I need. I usually have 2-3 pages of random questions by the end of draft 1.
Geez, I wish you’d written this post six months ago. When I hit the spots these types of questions arise, I’ve been THINKING, “I need to remember this question.” Ha! At this point, I’m just hoping I notice the same spots when I read the whole book through so I can note I still need the answers.
Greyhound, LA to SF:
Select Departure Schedule for Thursday, February 5, 2009Select Departs Arrives Duration Transfers Carrier Schedule08:55pm 05:35am 8h, 40m 1 AAU 9206
I’m going to have to differ slightly with what Laurie says about Cal. license plates. I always thought they were required. But even if they are not, EVERY California car has one.
Last night the temp here in LA in the evening was in the mid 60s. Tonight supposed to be around 60 even.
The HOV lane on the 405 (which locals would call the four-oh-five) does not go all the way. Hit and miss, I think. Depends on what part of the city you’re talking about. Also we would not call it an HOV lane, it would be a car pool lane.
Not sure on the air ambulance thing…another LA person might know that. Tried a quick google but nothing sounded familiar.
If you need anything else on L.A. feel free to shoot me an email!
from Newark airport, the quickest route might depend on two things. First, where in Manhattan are you going, downtown or midtown and the traffic into the Holland vs. the Lincoln tunnel.Since you might not know the radio station to check the traffic, I would fall back on the destination…if midtown go with the Lincoln, if downtown, go with the Holland. Now if WAY uptown, you might go with the GW Bridge.
Bottom line, I agree with the helicopter.
Brett, I call it the “commie” lane. Long story . . . but you’re right, I’ve never heard it called HOV anywhere in California. Car pool or diamond lane.
I just thank my readers that I no longer have to commute . . .
On the CA plates, they ARE required, but I drove my car for five years in Los Angeles without one, past plenty of cops, pulled over once, and no one mentioned it. Then, I was driving through a small town and was pulled over and ticketed for it. No fine though.
On the CA plates, they ARE required, but I drove my car for five years in Los Angeles without one, past plenty of cops, pulled over once, and no one mentioned it. Then, I was driving through a small town and was pulled over and ticketed for it. No fine though.
Thank you for that – very useful. I’m using this in a medical context, so the full name is more appropriate than the ‘roofies’ street name!
“I don’t know if it’s inconsequential, but I did once ask a Coast Guard SAR pilot the best way to bring down his helicopter with a heavy caliber sniper rifle. He was a very good sport about it.”
I’ve read your books and that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d expect to find in there ;-]
I usually end up asking people the kind of questions that have them backing away from me slowly …
Useful post, Z. Thanks very much. I tend to do the same things except I sometimes use WAY too many little post-it notes.
Oh and Zoe, as far as free walk in clinics in Manhattan, here’s a link to two of them.http://www.drwalkin.com/locations.html?gclid=CI32iIqUxpgCFQsMGgodLWkczw
Does this mean I get my name in the Acknowledgments now? ;-]
“But my biggest question back to you is: since you’re close to finishing your book and don’t know the ending yet, does that mean that you send it to your editor in it’s first draft stage?”
Ah, I said I know *what* happens, but I’m not entirely clear on *how* it happens. I plot before I start, and I do a rolling re-plot, several chapters ahead at a time, as I go, so I’m constantly re-working out what’s happening now (in light of new developments that have cropped up during the writing process) and what’s about to happen, as I write the book.
But, until I actually write a particular scene, I don’t know exactly how that storyline is going to present itself on the page. I want to surprise myself – and hopefully the reader, too.
So, yes, I know exactly how this book’s going to end. I always know how they’re going to end, almost before I start to write (and this one ain’t going to be pretty). In fact, it’s probably the most gut-wrenching ending I’ve ever had to attempt.
I’m just hoping I’m up to the task when I get there …
“Quickest route from Newark to Manhattan in morning rush: oil company helicopter ;)”
And you were doing so well up ’til that point … ;-]
Seriously, thank you for all this wonderful info. And yes, I hate it when I get things wrong, so I’m not keen when other people get silly little things wrong as well. I once had to put a book down when two characters continually described a young female horse as a colt. It was a complete aside to the main plot, and totally irrelevant in the story, but it just kept annoying me …
You’re a wonder!
“And I don’t even require an acknowledgment, just buy me a drink the next time we’re in a conference bar, okay?”
How about I do both?
Thank you very much for the offer of the loan of your B-in-L, but for the purposes of this one, what you’ve given me is more than enough. If the whole of the plot hinged on it, I would have found this out at the beginning.
I seem to remember that Mills & Boon (Harlequin UK)used a hunting example as ‘what not to do’ on the old cassette they used to send out to would-be romance writers. It concerned a writer who’d sent in a manuscript based on the hero’s hunt for a man-eating tiger in Australia …
Thank you again!
“PS, you should have seen my list regarding search warrants and jurisdictional issues I sent to a retired FBI agent . . . “
Yeah, I had some SWAT questions that I emailed to someone a while ago, but I’m always very careful, when I’m asking for info about how to storm a building or some such, to put clearly in the email ‘for the fictional purposes of my next novel …’ just in case anyone’s monitoring for key phrases … ;-]
I love the “For real?” query.
A friend of mine, Lesley Horton, was researching one of her Inspector Handford series and needed to know all about shoplifting, so she asked the security people at her local shopping centre. She said they were very helpful, explaining exactly how to go about it successfully to beat the tagging system employed by most stores … but completely omitted to ask why exactly she wanted to know!
“At this point, I’m just hoping I notice the same spots when I read the whole book through so I can note I still need the answers.”
I used to do that, but then I’d forget, by the time I’d finished, what facts I’d checked and what I hadn’t, so I just make a note when they arise. Otherwise, I get this horrible feeling of panic at pageproof stage that I’ve got it all utterly wrong!
Thanks for the bus info – ‘nearly nine hours’ fits the bill nicely!
“If you need anything else on L.A. feel free to shoot me an email!”
Thank you – I may just take you up on that. And, likewise, if there’s anything Brit I can help you with, please let me know.
The HOV thing highlights one of the interesting little foibles of setting a newly transplanted Brit character into a US setting. We don’t have HOV/car pool lanes on UK roads. So, my character would not bring a Brit term with her. She would most likely use whatever’s on the road signs by the side of the road to describe them …
The destination’s midtown, so I’ll go with the Lincoln, as you suggest. I have US sat-nav, but that doesn’t take into account traffic conditions or local knowledge.
For THIRD STRIKE, for example, I wanted my characters to drive from the outskirts of Boston, to Houston. The sat-nav wanted to take them straight through NYC, but bearing in mind they were, technically, on the run at this point, I thought that taking them through a major city would be a bad move, so I detoured deliberately.
OK, no helicopters at this point in the plot ;-]
“I just thank my readers that I no longer have to commute . . . “
I wish, but today we had to fight our way out and go do a photoshoot in frigid Warrington. I get to see all the glamour spots in this job.
But on an at-home day, my morning commute is about ten feet, so I’m pretty lucky most of the time ;-]
Thanks for the CA plate info. And cops are a law into themselves when it comes to traffic offences. We’ve been stopped more times driving in the States than we ever have at home, and we cover huge mileages over here.
Plus, when we’re in America, we drive a LOT slower, and we even remember to use the right-hand side of the road …
“Does this mean I get my name in the Acknowledgments now? ;-]”
Of course – providing you mention me in the acknowledgements for YOUR book, when you get your mega-deal and it comes out ;-]
Zoe, I have no means to confirm this at the moment, but the most common helicopter in the American oil business (pronounced ‘ole biddniss’ among Texans) is the Bell Jet Ranger or Long Ranger. They’re jet turbine aircraft, and somewhat prone to transmission failures.
“Of course – providing you mention me in the acknowledgements for YOUR book, when you get your mega-deal and it comes out.”
You’ve got yourself a deal!
Behind. I understand that since I’m currently behind on DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN and writing furiously toward the finish…
I have the query file as well. Little things like “in what way does dust inside a silo become a danger?” to “how can it explode?” to “are there still panthers in the south Louisiana swamp?” to “what is the trigger weight–the pound pressure–needed to pull the trigger on a M110 SASS?” to “what type of hand-gun does SWAT use (and are they issued by the department, or individually purchased)?”
I interviewed the SWAT commander over all of Louisiana for this current book. When I proposed the way I’d get a bomb into a certain kind of area, he sort of blinked. And got real real quiet, because it could be done, exactly like I’d proposed. I do dissemble a bit somewhat in the book, because it was *too* do-able, and I didn’t want to lay out a blueprint for terrorists, but he commented, “Great. Now I have a whole new scenario to practice for.”
My oldest son just became a SWAT officer, though, so he gets most of the weird emails. He says everyone else’s mom writes asking how are their kids doing, how’s the weather, how are they feeling. *His* mom writes to ask about Remington sniper rifles.
Haven’t read through the comments yet, Zoe, so someone has probably already pointed this out, but yeah, Rohypnol is pretty well recognized over here. A lot of the kids will call them “Roofies” or “slipping her a Mickey”.
Growing up hearing it called that, you can imagine my confusion the first time one of Jo Rowling’s characters “took the mickey out of” another one. I had to go on context for that one….
A Bell Jet Ranger would do nicely. Particularly since I mention one ditching …!
“You’ve got yourself a deal!”
You are entirely welcome. It’s been fun answering your photo questions. The CWA has an Information Network of members willing to offer advice on a whole host of topics from Space Law to Falconry. I’m down as the person to contact on Photography, although I seem to end up getting more questions about guns!
Best of luck with finishing DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN and my sympathies on your rush to the end.
Still, inspiration is often born of perspiration. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself …
And while sitting around waiting for to photograph a Nissan R35 GT-R doing yet another power run on the rolling road today, I did manage to get about 12 pages of longhand notes written, which should take me nicely through the next three chapters, so it’s actually been quite a productive day ;-]
Those are the kind of questions that DEFINITELY make me want to read this book when it comes out!
How ingenious of you to engineer your son into a profession so useful to a writer of crime fiction … ;-]
And as for the weird questions, I’m sure everyone else thinks he’s got the coolest mum out there.
Thank you – yes, I did get an answer to the Rohypnol query. It’s a passing reference rather than an integral part of the plot.
I always thought a Mickey (Finn) was chloral hydrate, named after the Chicago bar owner who used to lace his unsuspecting customers’ drinks with the stuff, before fleecing them and dumping them down the road.
‘Taking the mickey’ or, if you want to be posh, ‘extracting the michael’ is something else altogether!
“I can’t imagine sending anyone my first draft. It would be readable but illogical. Decent but nothing worth publishing.”
I realised that in my haste I only replied to part of your question. Because I edit furiously as I go along, by the time I reach the end, most of the book has already been rewritten (sometimes several times over) so yes, technically it’s a first draft, but only just.
I’m lucky in that my agent has her own in-house editor, and I would value her input before I start making any major changes to the initial version.
It will be worked on further, never fear, before it gets near a publisher!
Zoe,Technically you’re right, but kids these days just throw it all together and use whatever they can remember whether it’s right or not, it sometimes seems.
Oh, and as far as Geography, My wife is a World History Teacher (taught in the 9th grade, ie first/freshman year here in NC) and she incorporates a lot of Geography, though that’s more specific to her course. Geology, on the other hand, isn’t offered at our school, but I spoke to a buddy of mine and he said it used to be in their school, and was taught by the AP Environmental Science teacher. Hope that helps.
ROFLOL Toni. Now I have a new SWAT contact (once removed!) I came up with a money laundering scheme that my FBI contact told me they wouldn’t be able to catch unless someone turned state’s evidence. It’s in FATAL SECRETS and honestly, I couldn’t figure out a way for my h/h to figure it out without someone turning on the bad guy, so I had to come up with some tangible evidence the bad guy leaves (coded, of course, because I don’t want to make it too easy.)
My guest blog tomorrow tackles one specific question I had about bail — and the many answers I got. I think it’s a good follow up to yours Zoe, though we didn’t plan it that way!
“Technically you’re right, but kids these days just throw it all together and use whatever they can remember whether it’s right or not, it sometimes seems.”
It never ceases to amaze me what people will try and either take themselves, or give to others. A guy I met who ran a local nightclub told me he’d once caught someone in there trying to sell unsuspecting clubbers some little white pills that turned out to be dog conditioning tablets. They didn’t give you a high but they did give you a lovely glossy coat …
Oh, and thanks for the teaching info, Jake. I shall be looking into this one further, I think.
As mentioned, it’s an aside piece of background into one of the characters, but I still want to get it right.
Allison – if you ever turn to crime for real, they’d better watch out!
Seriously, I think mystery and thriller authors put far more effort into planning their ‘crimes’ than do real-life criminals.
I look forward to your guest blog on bail and I’m just glad I didn’t inadvertently stand on your toes!
Thank you very much to everyone who’s taken the time to answer these queries – either by posting a comment or via email. As I said, none of them are plot-breakers, but they all add colour to the story and, hopefully, anchor it just that little bit further in reality.
I ought to point out that I did not write this post with the intention of avoiding doing my own leg-work, but when I read down my Queries list, it seemed to contain some interesting and varied oddities, so I thought it was a good example of the kind of strange information we have to dig up while writing a crime novel – not always the kind of thing you *expect* to need to know.
Yes, there were other queries, but these were specific crime or medical that, if I’d asked them here, might have given away vital parts of the plot.
And, as I pointed out, if the entire story had hinged on any of these points, I would have made damn sure I dug deep into the subject before I began to write at all.
So, thank you again – my Acknowledgements section just got longer ;-]
Zoe,I sit in awe. Of course, I’m a little dumbstruck too. I’ve set a tight deadline for myself and can hardly think of anything else — am living and breathing the book.
But, the idea of having that file with questions that arise — AND NOT STOPPING THE FORWARD PROGRESSION OF THE WRITING — that’s gold for me.
I always have this sneaking little worry that I’m stating the obvious and people are going to read my posts and say, “Doh! *Everybody* has been doing that for years. DO try and keep up…” So bless you for that!
And best of luck with the book. Sometimes the bits I write in one long stream of consciousness are the bits I like the best in the finished work.