Let’s talk this week about a topic that, in the last few days, has become near and dear to my heart.
When writing, do your research
Seriously, take some time, and do your due diligence and make sure you at least know what you’re talking about.
Otherwise, imagine me staring at you with a glare. And then think about what you’ve done.
Jon Black does a fabulous blog every other Thursday–right here–where he give you insight and looks into what it takes to write historical fiction. If you haven’t read any of his posts, I suggest you do, because I find them to be quite interesting and he covers things I wouldn’t necessarily think about.
And while I’m plugging him, keep an eye out for his upcoming book, Bel Nemeton which is due out with 18thWall soon.
When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I came in to it not completely sure what it took to write a standalone book, let alone all the ins and outs of a police procedure. The time when I got the assignment, to the due date the publisher set, was less than 16 weeks.
I had my work cut out for me.
To focus, I narrowed everything down to two questions:
How do I write a police procedural?
And what do I need to know to write it?
This launched me into a month-long mass-research session. I grabbed a couple of books off of Amazon, grabbed FBI papers, another scholarly research article on serial killers, a couple of case studies on some of the more well-known examples, documentaries, anything at hand.
And I also binge-watched about eight seasons of Criminal Minds when I couldn’t handle real research. You might have noticed that if you’ve read my stuff, because my protagonists tend to use the term UnSub. I think Rosella even loosely gives the BAU credit for the term in Midnight.
I still have the books, and I’ve gathered more. I’ve got books on police procedure and investigation, forensics, private eyes, weapons, and a couple other topics. Research for Badge City: Notches was the backbone of research I take with me into every mystery I write. Now when I approach Rosella, I can study things in addition to that.
When I started to begin to develop the idea of Dr. Rosella Tassoni, I grabbed a couple of Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books. I also watched most of Bones (I need to finish the next to last and last season so no spoilers please and thanks–I’m also behind on Criminal Minds though I know a lot of their spoilers).
I even bought a forensic anthropology textbook. Honestly, I’m eyeing another one and might end up caving and spending the money on it eventually.
This isn’t me saying, I know everything. Because trust me, I don’t know about a lot when it comes to the field, but I learn more and more everyday. Google is my friend and I can easily find articles about various topics.
Do you realize just how small the internet has made the world? I can find a journal article from a British publication with one search and then turn around and go to a university on the West Coast with the next.
Different topics, different insights, all help me to get a well-rounded idea of what I’m talking about.
Every writer knows there’s some things you know about your characters, your world, your subject that your readers may never see. Information that you tuck away in case you revisit them or it just never comes up.
But we know.
And just knowing and feeling confident in what you know shines through in your work.
Because, if you don’t, it could drown out everything else in your writing. No amount of solid character development, no amount of carefully planning your plot can help.
We’d like to think otherwise. Shoot, even I’ve said people come for the plot and stay for the characters.
But if you are consistently getting things wrong. That might be all people notice or remember.
So where are some methods to collection information? Sure, we know the internet’s there. But how do you get great, useful information from it?
1) The Internet
Let’s take a moment to note that, yes, using scholarly sources is a good idea. Academic papers or articles are there for free. Others sites built up a reputation or are run by people who compile it into easy to read formats.
These are usually good for quick reference or to get a couple different views on something.
It’s made the world so small and let’s you check out information on far away places. For example, I set Badge City in California and was able to do research on the differences in their laws from what I’m used to and various policies change state to state.
Use the resource. It’s invaluable. Plus, there are other writers who spend their time writing blogs. I keep an eye on a couple, for various things. Here are some James and I especially recommend:
- The Crime Fiction Writer’s Forensics Blog
- Forensic Outreach (This is one of my favorite articles)
- Forensic Magazine (Online magazine whose subscriptions are free)
- How to Fight Write (So good, James contributes to their Patreon)
- Narrative Drive
Nothing beats an old classic.
And nothing quite beats the smell of books. Trust me, my room is full of them, they’re occupying various nooks and crannies battling it out for space.
But there’s valuable insights to be found and people have taken the time to write reference books on it.
Writer’s Digest has a ton of these resources and I encourage you to take a look. I have a handful of their books that I find to be very useful.
As a crime fiction writer, here are some of my favorites…
- Police Procedure and Investigation – Lee Lofland
- Howdunit: Forensics – D.P. Lyle (actually anything by him really – I wander to his blog now and then as well)
- The Writer’s Guide To Weapons – Bejamin Sobieck
- The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide – Martin Roth
- Amateur Detectives – Elaine Raco Chase and Anne Wingate
Sometimes I find stuff at used bookstores, or i pick up other’s from various places. Amazon is your best friend. I once grabbed two books (including an autographed copy of one) for less than 10 bucks (shipping included, if memory serves).
Fiction works along with non-fiction. Like I said above, I grabbed Kathy Reichs and enjoy reading her. Another one I enjoy is Andrew Carmel (see last week’s post).
Another thing that goes hand in hand with this is magazines. Does your character have a specialty with knowledge you might need? Is there a specialized publication for that? Chances are, yes. Then pick up an issue or two or get a subscription. You stay up to date on the field and as a result, so does your character. James’ subscriptions to various archaeology magazines have fed more than a few of my upcoming stories.
3) Ask An Expert
Some have blogs for such a reason as this. Others publish articles for various publications. Maybe you know someone, or the character is inspired after them. I couldn’t have written Badge City: Notches so well without having some friends and family on call to walk me through their day, or answer the questions that come up on a 3AM writing binge.
There’s no source quite like a real person.
And so many professionals would be thrilled to tell you about their work, and answer some basic questions. Just be sure to respect their time–and give them a signed copy of your book when it comes out!
A little research goes a long way when it comes to writing. Just like we strive to grow as writers throughout our careers, we should also strive to know more about our subjects.
After all, writing a novel is a long marathon.
Make sure you train properly.