A question frequently asked of authors is how they do their research for their books. Answers are as varied as the books they write. Some might spend months doing research. Some have budgets that permit travel to research exotic locales. While I take advantage of any travel I do, I've yet to reach the point where I can write it off as a legitimate business expense, since I'm pretty sure the IRS expects you to have a contract, or at least expressed interest, for the book in question.
I don't plot very far in advance, so for me, research is an ongoing project. I want the details to be right. At the very least, I want to be the one deciding if I can stretch the truth for the sake of the story.
Sources? I tend to start with Google if it's a topic about which I know nothing, or very little. Their map feature helps me verify things like terrain, routes to and from locations, and local landmarks.
View Larger Map
Using a site such as the Farmer's Almanac, I can check sunrise, sunset, and phases of the moon for the time of year in my book. Even what stars will be visible to my characters as they stand on the porch and gaze heavenward.
I also rely on people I know, whether for their professional expertise or because they live where I've set my books. My sister-in-law will attest to countless emails from me with questions like, "What street trees are blooming in Salem in May?" My daughters provide the music my characters listen to, since they're closer in age than I am.
Since many of my books involve law enforcement officers, I've cultivated sources to make sure the information is accurate. (No, CSI is NOT a reference – more on that later)
I belong to several Yahoo groups made up of professionals who will answer questions. A favorite is Crimescenewriters. Another invaluable site is "The Graveyard Shift" hosted by retired detective Lee Lofland. When my agencies are fictional, I still try to adhere to proper procedure for that state/county. When writing Nowhere to Hide, my hero was an Orange County deputy. I felt obligated to be as accurate as possible, because these were facts that could be checked. Things like uniform color, and the different uniforms worn by patrol officers versus the motorcycle cops. The fact that nametags show both first and last names. That the department issued weapon is a Glock. And I know that one does NOT thumb a safety off a Glock.
Most agencies have a Public Information Officer who will answer questions. Sometimes whoever answers the phone is intrigued when you introduce yourself as an author, and they'll direct you to someone who can help. I also enrolled in the Civilian Police Academy and made some wonderful contacts there (including Detective Hussey, whom you've probably met on this blog).
I went to a firing range and had hands-on experience firing a variety of weapons. I did a ride-along with a patrol officer (note: I deliberately picked a relatively quiet sector and shift, hoping I'd have time to ask lots of questions. Which I did.)
Details keep the reader on the page. Even the little ones. I read a book not long ago where the character was on the South Beach diet. A scene showed him going to the vending machine for a packet of almonds and then counting out fifteen of them. Seems like a minor detail, but if it had been a different number, anyone familiar with the diet would have been pulled out of the story.
Sometimes you can't help the 'mistakes.' I set a scene in a local restaurant, but by the time the book was accepted, the restaurant had gone defunct. Or, sometimes your publisher's legal department doesn't want you to use real places or people to avoid possible litigation. You've got no control over that. (Other than finding another publisher.)
Sometimes you stretch the truth because it is, in the end, fiction. And nobody should be using fiction as a research source. Which brings me back to CSI and The Graveyard Shift. There's a very real phenomenon, the "CSI Effect" that creates all sorts of problems in the judicial system. People see what the actors do on television and assume it's that way in real life. Lee Lofland has been having fun analyzing the hit television show, "Castle" for police accuracy. He will review each week's show, but his commentary is strictly about the police work and forensics. It has nothing to do with whether or not he likes the show (he does). He provides these insights so authors won't take something they see on the show and assume it's how things work and include it in their books, thus perpetuating the error.
Sometimes the hardest part of research is knowing what to look up. In Finding Sarah, I wanted to make it impossible for her to escape, even though she eluded her captor. Fine. She's found his car keys. But he drives a stick shift, and she doesn't know how to use a manual transmission. To make sure, I had the vehicle parked facing a tree, so she'd also have to back up to get it moving. Reality: you can't start a modern manual transmission vehicle unless you depress the clutch. She wouldn't know this, so the car wouldn't start at all. BUT. I had no clue that the make and model of the car I'd chosen didn't come with a manual transmission. Lucky for me, a crit partner pointed this out, so I was able to save that embarrassing error from appearing on the page.
And at the moment, I'm awaiting an answer to my current plot question about what my cop should do when one of his officers thinks "something isn't quite right" when she checks a local residence. Is the bad guy inside? Does he have hostages? Or did the residents simply not answer the door because they were asleep? Does he go in guns blazing? Knock on the door? Wait for enough backup to surround the house? I don't want a reader to say, "No cop on earth would ever do that" when they read my books. I don't mind, "Well, not the BEST choice, but I can buy it."