Thursday, October 29, 2009

Getting It Right

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.


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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)

Keep Reading...

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."

19 comments:

Crystal Clear Proofing said...

Wonderful insight on the aspects of researching! It's really fascinating for me to see this side of the working mechanism of writing!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Crystal. Maybe you can be a guest and let us know what things are like from your side.

Carol Kilgore said...

You write like I do, checking all these things. I've found most people to be willing to share information when you say you're a writer. It's hard work getting everything right.

Elena said...

Terry you and Carol have really hit it. I needed to know how to do an illegal wire transfer. Went to my bank where a very delighted woman told me all she knew, then called the vice-president in charge of security who took me out to lunch where I learned a lot more about illegal wire transfer, and he came up with an absolutely brilliant idea to cause the scheme to fall apart.
Research is so much fun.

Terry Odell said...

Gee, Elena - Took YOU out to lunch? I've always had to pick up the tab for my 'consults'. And cops can drink a LOT of beer. :-)

Terry Odell said...

Carol - it's even more frustrating when you get it "right" but people think you got it "wrong" because that's not the way it is on TV -- or where they live, or the way Aunt Matilda did it.

GunDiva said...

I love all of the research you did for your books. I met a very near and dear friend of mine while she was researching her series of books; she took a firearms class that I was co-instructing and a new Gun Diva was born :)

Maryann Miller said...

Great tips for researching. I especially like the idea of using the Internet to find places and get details from maps. Beats driving all over, which is what I used to do.

Terry Odell said...

Gun Diva - I also went to a firing range to learn enough about firing a weapon so I could write it accurately. I also got a 2 page description of how a revolver works from my son-in-law (distilled to less than two sentences for the book -- another caveat: don't let your research take over!).

Terry Odell said...

Maryann, I love using the map feature to calculate driving times from point A to point B so I keep the chronology real. Nothing like the way the CHiPs show had the cops getting from San Pedro to Mulholland Drive in 10 minutes!

Debra St. John said...

Research is so important, because there always seems to be someone who would love to point out the error of ours ways.

When I write about a particular location, I like to have visited the place myself if at all possible. That way details are authentic because I've actually seem them.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Terry,
Sounds like you have got the research thing honed to a sharp edge. I think research is vital, one mistake can put a reader off you for life.
Cheers
Margaret

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I use the internet a lot for my research, too. I don't know "The Graveyard Shift" site...thanks for the link. I'll be sure to check it out.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Terry Odell said...

Debra, Margaret - I also prefer to write about places I've been, or at least the general area, since I make up towns a lot.

Elizabeth, by all means put Lee's blog on your crawl. Monday - Thursday he gives all sorts of wonderful information. Fridays he honors the fallen, and weekends are road trips with great pictures.

GunDiva said...

Great tip about not letting research take over. I get so excited about it that I want to pass it on. Guess that's why I'm a teacher.

GunDiva said...

Also, thanks for your lead to "The Graveyard Shift". I love it!

Sheila Deeth said...

I love the detail about the car. My family love pulling details to pieces when we watch movies together.

jenny milchman said...

I envy you loving it and having such good experiences, Terry. I stumble sometimes, preferring to just make things up, but some of your experiences make me want to try a little harder...

Terry Odell said...

Jenny, so many readers get put off by mistakes (including me) that I strive for accuracy wherever possible. However, there are probably even more readers who don't know the difference. It depends on your areas of expertise. I go blithely through historical novels, totally clueless if an author has made a mistake, whereas others will throw the book when a character has a cup of coffee or piece of chocolate before it was imported to that country.