Research – It’s What’s For Dinner

JT Ellison

I’m stymied. Frustrated, aggravated. I have a
straightforward little question that’s going to take maybe ten minutes to
answer, and no one will get back to me.

When you’re like me and you need some research on the fly,
you get the name of the person you need, get in touch, ask your question, they
fill you in and you go on.

Sometimes, it doesn’t go that smoothly. Current problem,
case in point. I have what seems to me to be a basic, simple question. But what
seems like a nothing line of questioning to me certainly seems important to
someone else. I’m having to go through “channels”, to get “permission” to talk,
to “clear things through legal.” Everyone’s heard these terms when they’re
doing research. The trick is how to navigate them, when to be a bulldog and
when to back off.

This has happened before. Last year, I was working on ALL
THE PRETTY GIRLS
. A major plot point focused on child kidnapping. Who else
better to talk to about child kidnapping than the FBI? Right? Well, I amended
that to my state Bureau of Investigation, because that’s where the answers
were. I called their offices, told them what I was about, and asked who would
be the best person to talk to.

They forwarded me to said person, who gave me some
information, then suddenly got suspicious. I mean, I can understand the
reticence of a Law Enforcement Official to give information to a complete
stranger about child kidnappings. But it wasn’t like I was asking how to kidnap
a child. I was looking more for the emotional impact of the scene – how the
special agent in charge would feel, how the parents would react, the personal
side of things that lends true credibility to a fictional scenario.

Everything was going well, said person suggested I put my
request in writing and email it in. I did. Nothing. I waited a week, called
back. Therein started what I fondly refer to as – The Runaround.

I ask you, does Patricia Cornwell get The Runaround? I think
not.

In the end, I had to drop the entire plot point because I
couldn’t get the research I needed in a timely manner. It happens. It’s
frustrating, but it happens.

Research is a vital tool when your writing crime fiction.
The advent of crime shows, fictionalized and real, have educated our readers.
They expect the writer to get it right. There is no better way to lose a reader
than get a major forensic point wrong, or defy a logical progression in an
investigation.

Which is good for me, because I love to do research. I
prefer hands on, in the field, to everything else. The Internet is wonderful,
and I couldn’t do without it. But sometimes, it’s just more important to go out
in the dark on B-shift with your favorite patrol officer and get blood on your
boots.

How do you do that, you ask?

Three years ago, I was a lonesome writer with no friends. I
was working on my first book (horrendous, by the way) and feeling my way
through research, basically flubbing things left and right because I was trying
to do it on my own. My main character is Homicide Lieutenant Taylor Jackson. At
the time, she was tall, blond, two dimensional and boring. I was writing about
the police, but I’d never even talked to a cop. (Other than a couple of
speeding tickets. Seriously!)

So I screwed up my meager courage and called our local
Homicide office to ask if any serial killers had ever preyed on Nashville.
Through a stroke of fortuitous luck, the Homicide Detective who happened to
answer got interested in my line of questioning. Next thing I knew, he’d
invited me on a ride-along. With Homicide. I remember the way my heart felt
like it was going to burst from my chest. It was my first success as a writer.
I thought I was the bee’s knee.

Nothing happened.

No one got shot, beat up, kicked around, even arrested for
violence that night. I was bummed. And enlightened. Granted, we’re in
Nashville, which doesn’t have the worst crime statistics in the country. There
are nights that Homicide doesn’t get called out. It was a blessing, really,
because I wasn’t as ready for an adventure as I thought I was.

I wanted more action. So the guys sent me out on B- Patrol
in the worst part of town. That night, a lot happened. I did get blood on my
cowboy boots. I watched a stabbing victim bleed on the ground with his friends
and family wailing while they tried to shove his intestines back in his
stomach. I got to see the arrest, the weapon, the drugs. A stupid drug deal
gone bad, and this kid gets to bleed to death over it. Talk about frustrating.
At the end of the evening, I wanted to slap some sense into a few people, trust
me.

Now, with several ride-alongs behind me, buddies on the
force and a very close friend in Homicide, I can look back and laugh at my
naïveté. I’m a little hardened to it, surprisingly. I’ve looked through murder
books, been educated on the finer points of an autopsy, dissected crime scene
photos, crime scenes, the works. And I’ve yet to meet a fine law enforcement
officer of any kind who isn’t willing to give me a few minutes of their time.
Ask nice, and they’ll let you take them to dinner, and you can get lots of good
stuff out of them. Beer helps.

But cultivating your local police isn’t the only resource
you’ll need. I wrote a scene where a skull is found in a field. Knowing
virtually nothing about how to identify bones, I sought out the Forensic
Odontologist for the State of Tennessee. His name is Michael Tabor, and he is a
stellar, selfless man. He went to Ground Zero after 9-11 to help ID victims.
He’s that kind of guy. He let me take him to lunch and pick his brain about everything
teeth, skull and skeletal related. Then he invited me to join him and a few
colleagues at the Medical Examiners office to look at a skeleton that had been
found in a field, so I could really get a taste for what I’d be writing.

I walked away from that with a solid knowledge base and an
understanding about how important getting the information right truly is.

To me, doing research is like going back to school to study
your favorite subject. I remember a comment someone made a year or so ago, saying
they were sure that I spent a lot of time in the library getting all of my
research together. I stopped to think about it, and realized I’ve yet to sit
down in the library to do research. I go out in the field, call people, beg,
borrow and plead, but try to experience what I’m learning so I can bring it to
life in my books.

So where do you get contacts? Everywhere you can. Talk to
your dentist about how unique dental radiographs are. Call the morgue, tell
them you’re a writer and ask for a tour. Talk to your local police (being in
good standing in the grand scheme of things does help there). Show respect,
interest and a sense of humor, and they’ll let you call them anytime you get
stuck.

Always be up front about why and what you’re trying to find
out. In person, that’s not such a problem. But researching online is relatively
anonymous, and there are plenty of chat rooms and list serves that deal with
any research topic you may need. If you’re going to get involved anonymously,
be honest about what you’re doing so you don’t alienate or hurt people.

How do you deal with a situation like I’m having right now?
Well, keep digging. I know there are other people out there with the expertise
to help me. If my local folks aren’t going to be willing, I can go trolling on
the list serves, see who has that little nugget that I’m searching for. If the
list serves don’t have the answer, I can call other cities, see if they are
willing to talk. This isn’t like the earlier situation, where I had to rewrite
the book because I couldn’t get the level of information I needed.

There’s one major rule to cultivating contacts. Never, and I
mean NEVER, burn your contact. If they ask to remain anonymous, keep it that
way. If they want a free book, give it to them. Give them a thank you in your
acknowledgements. Don’t brag about your newfound relationship and share their
phone number with your friends. I see the relationships I build with my sources
as sacrosanct. They are going out on a limb for me, and I won’t let them drop.

Wine of the Week – Yellow Tail Shiraz

P.S. As I was posting this column, I received a call
from the people I needed to get in touch with. We have an appointment next
week. See, perseverance does work!

7 thoughts on “Research – It’s What’s For Dinner

  1. Tammy Cravit

    I always laugh a little when I see people on the Internet asking basic research questions about police procedures to a group of other writers. My standard response is, “why not pick up the phone and call your local police department and ask them directly?” You can get much more authoritative information — including the priceless “blood on the boots” kind of experiential stuff — talking to real people than you can picking the brain of other writers.

    Case in point: I needed to learn about TASERs for the book I’m writing. (My first work of book-length fiction, incidentally.) I e-mailed the media contact at my local police department, and got a call two or three days later from their firearms instructor. I was able to meet with him, get all my questions answered, find out what a TASER actually looks like, feels like, sounds like. I have the discharged dart cartridge on my desk as a souvenir, along with the one dart I was able to dig out of the cardboard target. I have real-world experiential knowledge of how TASERs work and how they’ll work in my story. And I have a source, who’s offered to let me pick his brain again should I need to.

    Reply
  2. Sandra Ruttan

    Glad to hear your perseverence is paying off JT. I approached local professionals through letters, let them check me out, and it worked really well. The guy in the RCMP I needed to talk to would call me long distance on his cell phone to discuss the scene, and he read what I’d written and told me all the ways I’d gotten it wrong. You might think that’s frustrating, but the truth worked even better for what I wanted to achieve in that scene, so I was thrilled.

    And if it wasn’t for diligence in research, I’d never know what the local ME’s office uses pruning shears for, would I? Truth really is stranger than fiction!

    But it is frustrating to be kept waiting.

    Reply
  3. Brett Battles

    Great info, J.T. You are truly a top notch researcher. Can’t wait for you to sell that book, so you can go through rounds of editing, so you can get blurbs and reviews, so you can plan your launch party, so it can finally be published, so I can read it!!! (I hate all that inbetween stuff…I just want to read it, can’t you tell?)

    I’m taking notes on this post because you are the researching master!

    Reply
  4. JT Ellison

    Hey, Tammy! Welcome to Murderati! Glad you came by, and you’re right. I don’t go out to the lists unless I’ve completely exhausted all other resources first.

    Reply
  5. JT Ellison

    Brett,You and me both, my friend, you and me both. Folks, Brett’s book will be out next Spring and looks fantastic. Put it on yout TBB piles.And Sandra’s will be out soon. Is it this fall?May Isuggest that you guys check out both of their blogs for more info. Great writers — both!

    Reply

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