Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Left Coast Crime - Research

Thanks to Sherry Gloag for her great post yesterday. I'm looking for bungee cords to keep my muse in her seat.

And please - don't forget my next contest, and my special Tax Relief Pricing on When Danger Calls and What's in a Name? Click the appropriate tags above for details.

Other panels I attended at Left Coast Crime discussed doing research. Even though we write fiction and tend to make things up, we can't simply ignore doing our homework.
For one of the panelists, a former journalist, doing research is second nature, and he's not really aware he's doing it.

The question came up as to when authors did their research. One, whose background is in geology, which plays a part in her books, said she read books, collected maps, and was familiar with the setting before she ever arrived to do the "actual" research.

One author writes books based on things that actually happened. His publisher wouldn't let him use the name of a former governor because the man was still alive. The author reluctantly changed the name, but anyone familiar with the history of that state would wonder where that stranger came from. As he put it, it would be like reading a book where "After the Civil War, President Schwartz freed the slaves."

Even with research, mistakes happen. One source who was an "expert" on firearms gave an author misinformation. He realized his error and contacted her, but by then the book had gone to print.

Another caveat: if experts are reviewing your work, be sure you're not dumping too much details. A scientific identification of a specific species of ground squirrel would probably bore a reader (with the exception of the Hubster), regardless of how accurate it is.

Using made up towns can avoid disputes, even though they're based on real locations.

Reader (and author) expectation is something else to consider. One panelist had been using local police officers as resources, and she was invited to a homicide scene. Aside from wondering if she was nuts for being so excited on the drive over, she found that it was nothing like what she'd expected—mostly the cops hanging around and waiting.

Then there's the difference between "Google" research and "eyeball" research. One author was setting a scene in a mine, where he could stick his character in a dark, claustrophobic environment. But when he went down into a mine, he found that modern mines were excavated using machinery, so the walls were all straight. And they were beige in color, because they were coated for safety purposes. He found it less than scary to write about the "straight, beige walls closing in" on his character.

Research can mean interviewing people who know what you're writing about. Most of the time, they'll be glad to talk because they love their work and are thrilled that someone else is interested. What's important is that you know what you need to know—have your questions prepared. And sometimes, your subject might not want to talk until he knows you're credentials are valid. One author asked a police contact who'd been helping her if he'd mind reading her manuscript (this is rare—I wouldn't expect it, or even ask any of my contacts, but she'd been dealing with this one quite some time.) He actually took the day off to read it. Not only that, but he told his commanding officer that's why he wanted the day off. The author was surprised, but her contact said, "No problem. You make us look good."

So, armed with your research, the next step is to get it into your book. Again, you're writing fiction. Your goal is to tell a story, not impress the reader with how much you know. As one author of police procedurals said, there are thousands of steps in an investigation. You don't write all of them. Pick the ones that will move your story forward.

For a scene I was writing, I needed my heroine to pick up someone else's gun, and know whether or not it was loaded. Since she was a cop, she'd likely know this. All I "knew" was that it was a revolver, so I asked my son-in-law. He sent me about three pages of step-by-step information, greatly elaborated upon. What I wrote was, "She made sure the safety was off and that there were live rounds in the cylinder."

Sometimes, research is simply getting the "flavor" of the characters and their jobs. When I did my ride-along in Orlando, I picked what I hoped would be a quiet sector on a not-too-busy shift. It wasn't that I didn't want to see what cops did—I wanted to be able to talk to the officer driving with me. Likewise, when I invited detectives out to chat over beer. I had my questions, but I got just as much from watching they way they interacted with each other—and that's what takes up far more page time than the simple answer to my questions about procedure. There's a scene in Hidden Fire where three cops are having breakfast and discussing a case. The banter was lifted almost directly from the night we'd sat around the Ale House.


Carol Kilgore said...

I'm a research geek. Just this morning I commented on another blog about having to know all the details and usually write them in the manuscript on the first draft before I can go back and cut. Again and again, usually. It's so true about using only what moves the story forward.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Research can be tricky sometimes, too. I had to actually *go* to Memphis to discover that Beale Street is always barricaded off and there's no street parking. That was just something I'd never come across when I was reading about the area. Who'd have guessed?

Terry Odell said...

Carol - research is good. Writing is better. I don't research until I need to know something. This afternoon I called our local fire department to find out how they addressed the head guy. I've already finished the book, so it's just a matter of going back with my handy dandy find/replace.

Elizabeth - yes, sometimes "eyes on" is the only way to be accurate. And there would be readers who knew about the parking issue and call you on it.

Knowing you don't know something is sometimes harder than looking up what you know you don't know!