By Jordan Dane
Before I started writing, I never realized how much an author had to research. Even a relatively simple story can involve a diversion into the library, or an internet query, or face time or a phone conversation with an expert. And I often donít take the first answer I get. Many times I want confirmation from several sources before I write about something. But research broadens my own experience and allows me to delve into anything that might interest me.
∑ If you want to put yourself into the shoes of your characters, try and scare yourself. Seriously! Trek through a cemetery at night by yourself. Okay, so maybe not by yourself, but with your BFF. And pay special attention to how your body reacts to fear. The escalated heart rate, the panting, the sweat, etc. Sometimes we all have to be reminded what itís like to be hunted. Iíve tried scaring myself many times. My mom thinks Iím nuts, but if something bad happened to you, what would you do? Do you know what itís like to be truly afraid?
∑ Okay, back to more normal stuff. When it comes to forensics and police procedure, get it right. Donít fake it.
∑ If you have to fake it because you donít feel comfortable with the details, then stay in the point of view (POV) of a character who is not an expert. Make them a witness or an amateur sleuth outside law enforcement. Getting in over your head will show if you donít do your research. And if you think editors wonít catch procedural errors, think again. Savvy editors have read enough crime fiction to pick up on the details.
∑ Walking the line between real life and CSI TV Ė sometimes for fiction sake you have to ignore reality in favor of a readerís perception. For example, most cops will tell you that it takes weeks (or even months) to get DNA results back from a crime lab, depending on the lab backlog or if itís a state lab located somewhere else. I may not turn it around in minutes (like they do on TV), but I might prolong the test for a week or not use DNA evidence to ID the killer. I might find another way (a different type of clue) that is more plausible, given any tight time constraints.
∑ Most cities have a website link to their police department. The site will be filled with good information, including their ranking system, their station street locations, the hierarchy of their departments, the name of their CSI department (not all go by CSI), the area of coverage for each station, uniform descriptions, and much more. When I have access to this type of information, Iíll either use it or be purposefully vague if I think my readers might perceive the details as too much. But after hearing from some, Iíve apparently got police officers, FBI, and other government types reading my books. I wouldnít want to disappointment them.
∑ I often research futuristic surveillance or weapons technologies, then project forward what I think the weaponís capabilities might be in a new and improved 2.0 version. Iím not Tom Clancy with his insider contacts, so I have to make do with my own resources.
∑ As Iíve stated, I tend to investigate a number of sources and not just rely on one personís opinion or one resource. Below are ways to research crime fiction.
∑ Books/Resource Library
∑ Hands On Experience - Training
∑ Online Classes
∑ Field Trips & Tours
What Iíve done for research:
∑ Do yourself a favor and see if you have a local police academy. I was fortunate enough to have one in my small town. Classes can be up to 11 weeks long, meeting one night per week for a few hours. We toured police facilities, heard presentations from department heads (including homicide & SWAT & the K-9 Unit), and fired weapons and blew up stuff with the bomb squad at the firing range. I also met my first technical advisor there.
∑ Iíve also toured a state of the art crime lab. Do you have any in your area? You should check.
∑ Iíve been to several firing ranges to shoot several types of weapons with my most recent trip to the FBI range at Quantico in Washington, DC.
∑ On my trip to DC, I also visited the CIA at Langley, the State Department, and the U.S. Postal Inspectors. These tours were organized and hosted by the Kiss of Death Online Chapter, an authorís group of the RWA. Each location gave presentations and allowed us to speak to agents and see the facilities. An amazing opportunity.
∑ Google Maps (street view) Ė If you want a 360-degree view of a particular street corner, building, or intersection, Google it and look around. Itís a really cool feature. Look for the little yellow man and try it out by clicking and dragging him to the location you want to see on street level. This can add authenticity to your setting descriptions or give you ideas on where to stage scenes. I used this feature in a book once and found a deserted old warehouse that was perfect for my novel. How cool is that?!!!
∑ Iíve taken online classes in forensics and crime scene investigation. The RWA Kiss of Death online chapter offers workshops on various topics like this. And there is also the Writers Police Academy, hosted by Lee Lofland and conducted in North Carolina.
∑ Over the years Iíve accumulated my own small library of forensics and crime investigation books, usually based on recommendations from professionals. And I add to it all the time. Two I would recommend are: Forensics for Dummies by D. P. Lyle, MD and Crime Science Ė Methods of Forensic Detection by Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer.
Favorite Research Links & Email Loops:
1. Weapons_Infoemail@example.com (Send email here to subscribe)
Ask questions about guns, blades, poisons, etc. in self-defense, military, flying, hunting, law enforcement, competitions, crime, and so on. General survival, firefighter, medical, forensics, law enforcement, hunting, disaster recovery, and MacGyver-esque questions can also be answered. Brief moderators' and consultants' biographies are available.
2. firstname.lastname@example.org (send email here to subscribe)
A forum for asking and answering crime scene investigation, applied forensics, and police procedure questions for fiction or non-fiction writers. Writers post questions and crime scene investigators, forensic scientists, and medical practioners answer them.
3. https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html (CIA World Factbook)
This site gives information on other countries that Iíve found helpful too.
4. http://www.crimelibrary.com/index.html Crime Library-Great for Ideas
5. http://www.apsu.edu/oconnort/ (Criminal Justice Class Notes Ė Austin Peav State University at Ft Campbell KY) Good police procedural info here.
6. http://www.fbi.gov/ (The FBI)
7. http://www.lawandfiction.com/ (Law & Fiction) Good for questions on legal issues
8. http://www.dplylemd.com/ (Author Dr D. P. Lyle, MD Ė The Writerís Medical & Forensics Lab) Doug Lyle is very generous with his time. Heíll answer questions and provides wonderful information on his blog. Heís also the author of Forensics for Dummies, among other non-fiction books.
9. YouTube and Vimeo can be great places to find expert testimonials. Hereís a recent link I used: http://vimeo.com/11471243. This link is a video diary of John Beedeís climb up Mount Denali in Alaska, a great way for me to see his entire expedition as I was writing my current YA project where a teen boy does the same climb. Of course, thereís plenty more details I need to have, such as equipment and training required, but Iíve got friends who have made the trek and other links for that. Getting multiple sources of information wonít be a problem.
10. http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ Lee Loflandís Graveyard Shift is a terrific blog for writers that posts insightful information for crime fiction authors. Lee also is involved with the Writerís Police Academy.
11. Also, if youíre already a national member of RWA ($85 membership fee), you can join the Kiss of Death (KOD) Online chapter for a nominal membership fee of $20. KOD has a great email loop that focuses on research and the industry and supports its members. And they also conduct some pretty amazing online workshops (Killer Instincts & Murder One) and research trips held during the RWA national conference each year. Thatís how I got to see the FBI, CIA, and State Department in Washington, DC in 2009. And KOD also hosts the Daphne du Maurier Contest for published authors as well as unpublished ones, a contest focused on mystery/suspense/thrillers, with both contemporary and historical categories. And because they are an online organization, anyone can join easily if you have access to the internet. They are definitely a professional organization worth checking out.
12. A list of the TOP 50 BLOGS for mystery readers: http://www.bestcollegesonline.net/blog/2010/50-blogs-for-mystery-readers/ And Iím proud to say that my group blog, THE KILL ZONE, was included on this list.
13. http://www.truecrimereport.com/ A true Crime blog that could conjure up a story or two.
14. http://health.discovery.com/search/results.html?focus=video&query=Dr+G The Discovery Channel has episodes of Dr. G Ė Medical Examiner. These can be graphic, but she gives insights into what decomposition looks and smells like, or she talks about tools of her trade, or toxicology. Even the background scenes can give you insight into what a cop would see at an autopsy.
15. http://www.modelmayhem.com/ This site can help you come up with character images. You input your search criteria for age, hair color, skin color, etc. and model photos will pop up. A fun site to look for inspiration. (Beware. Over the years, Iíve seen these photos turn pretty sexy or explicit, but this is still a good tool to use for character images. I found a photo of my YA teen girl dressed in the exact clothes I had imagined her wearing. That photo completely inspired the book.)
Please feel free to post questions on anything youíve read in this session. Iíll respond during the week of Oct 11-17th. But for those who donít have specific questions, please share your thoughts:
1. What great research links, books or other sources have you found that youíd like to share?
2. For those of you writing paranormal, are there any sites you find helpful to research demonology or rituals? (Even contemporary detective stories can use good paranormal links from time to time.)
Copyright Material Ė Jordan Dane