We’re Not (Quite) Making This Up . . .

Kate: Before I started writing, I used to think that writers sat at their desks and made it up. But writing crime novels often forces us out into the “real world” for research. Sometimes that research takes us strange places or puts us into interesting circumstances. As an example, a few years ago, to better understand the Portland, Maine police officers in my Joe Burgess books, I took a citizen’s police academy. On the night that we got to play cops, and our instructors got to be the bad guys, I was doing a mock-traffic stop. Getting out of my cruiser in front of the whole class, I caught my nightstick on the door handle, tipped forward, and smashed my nose into the window. Red-faced and smarting, I walked up the window of the car I’d stopped, asked the driver for his license and registration, and he laughed. “Look at that little girl cop,” he said. “Isn’t she cute?” I was instantly in the shoes of a real rookie cop.

Sarah: A lot of the time, I do sit at my desk and make it up. But when I’m not doing that, I’m often doing some old-house repair chore that naturally also goes straight into what I’m writing. Depending on whether or not I know how to do the job I’m attempting, hilarity may or may not ensue. Starting out trying to install a new faucet handle, for instance, once ended with my having to call a plumber and an electrician on a Sunday afternoon. (This is an old house, remember; touch one thing and half a dozen others go down like dominoes.) And although the experience was embarrassing, it did double duty in the research department, teaching me: (1) why you never start a plumbing repair, however simple, on a Sunday afternoon, and (2) how kind Eastport people can be to newcomers.

Gerry: I always start writing before I know what I think I need to know because if I waited until the research was complete, I’d never write the book. I learned long ago that research is endless and deadlines are not so I learn enough to launch myself into the subject and book and then pause every few chapters when I hit a gap in my knowledge. Then I can ask myself: do I need to know the minute details of whatever is going on? Or should I push on and not let the pace of the book flag, the narrative meander while I explain? I have a saying when it comes to writing fiction: A lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing. As a former and now-sometimes journalist I know that reportage is an important part of being a crime novelist. But it’s just as important not to show readers everything you know. Hold some of that research close to your vest.

Jim: I do a fair amount of research mostly during the writing process. One of my favorite research stories started with the fact that the body of the victim in The Chill of Night was found frozen solid in the trunk of her BMW on the Portland Fish Pier. “How,” I asked myself, “do you autopsy a frozen corpse.” Naturally I Googled “Autopsy Frozen Corpse.” Over one million hits. The best was an article titled “How Do You Autopsy a Frozen Corpse” that was written by a forensic pathologist in Charleston, SC. The article was not available online but her email was. She was kind enough to send me the article and agreed to become a regular research resource online. I’ve probably asked her over a hundred autopsy-related questions since.

Barb: Wow, Jim. That is a great story. I was on the phone with an oncologist this winter and I said, “I need some kind of cancer that women get, that if symptoms are ignored can kill you in a matter of months.” So he made a suggestion and went over it in detail to make sure I understood it and I’m asking–What would the symptoms be? How might you end up in the emergency room? How long would the tests take to determine someone has this? Finally it got to me and I let out sort of a nervous giggle and said, “This is a ghoulish conversation.” “All in a day’s work to me,” he said and kept right on going.

Kate: Barb & Jim…I think we should wear little “Be Careful What You Say” buttons when we’re out in public. When I was working on my fourth Thea Kozak mystery, An Educated Death, involving a student death at a private school, I found myself at a Harvard reunion lunch with the Principal of Exeter. I borrowed some paper from our hostess, sat down, and proceeded to ask her a zillion questions about how they’d handle an unexplained student death. She went through the list–counselors, reassurance, bringing the student body together, making faculty and advisers available. And food, she said. Put food wherever they will congregate. It will be comforting. At the same party, I found an ER doc and, like you, Barb, started asking about the physical effects of wild hemlock poisoning. I left with a list of symptoms, including pulmonary edema and hallucinations. “She will be breathing air, and it will feel like she is drowning.”

Kaitlyn: One of the things I love about writing contemporary mysteries (as opposed to the historicals I’ve done as Kathy Lynn Emerson) is that there is so much less to research. Not only am I writing about, literally, my own back yard, with the fictional Carrabassett County tucked in between Franklin County (where I live) and Oxford County, but I have an in-house expert to ask questions of, my retired deputy sheriff/probation officer husband. Example: In A Wee Christmas Homicide, which involves smuggling items from Canada into Maine, I needed to know how easy it would be to slip across the border. I knew there was no fence, and that border crossings were few and far between, but I had a sneaking suspicion there was something to deter “alien” invasions. The in-house expert had the answer. Trees are clear-cut on both sides to mark the line between Maine and Quebec in northern Franklin County. At first I wasn’t too happy, since I needed to sneak a snowmobile across, but in the end that detail ended up adding a whole new dimension to a crucial scene.

Vicki: Are the rest of you ever worried that if someone searched our computers’ histories they’d think we were responsible for a whole host of heinous crimes? I know that I spent a heck of a lot of time researching multiple stab wounds (along with wicked mojito recipes) for KILLER LISTING…

Kate: I know that I was about to hook up with a bomb expert to learn how to blow up the Portsmouth Bridge (fictitiously, of course), but then 9/11 happened and I felt I had to tone it down. But yes…I’m sure that if anyone searched our computers (or hacked our phones?) we’d been in deep trouble. BTW, are you going to share those mojito recipes or do we have to read the book?

Kaitlyn: I don’t have any bomb stories, but I have used poisons a fair bit in my historical mysteries. In fact, since the Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls is this weekend, I am reminded that I once used our infamous official state soft drink (which you either love or hate) to hide the taste of a near-lethal dose of morphine. This relates to our research topic because this scene is in Lethal Legend (w/a Kathy Lynn Emerson), which is set on an island off the coast of Maine in 1888. I had to do some digging to find out how Moxie was packaged back in the days when it was considered a cure for all kinds of ailments, and also to discover how difficult it would have been to get hold of opium and morphine. As it turned out, both were alarmingly easy to buy in the late nineteenth century.

Paul: I have a familiar hobbyhorse that I ride from time to time whenever I get asked to be on a conference panel. Thorough research is absolutely indispensable, and the last thing I want as a writer is to ruin a reader’s experience by including some stupid error in a book that breaks the suspension of disbelief. But I read too many crime novels where the author is trying so hard to be “factual” (“and then I pulled up Form 5D on the department’s antique Dell laptop”) that my eyes start to roll. Wasn’t it Hitchcock who said that “drama is life with all the boring parts cut out?” Personally, I find lots of crime novels overflowing with boring parts. Knowing what to leave out is another way of establishing your authority as a storyteller. I guess I am echoing Gerry here.

Kate: And Elmore Leonard reminds us to leave out the parts that people skip.

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9 Responses to We’re Not (Quite) Making This Up . . .

  1. Gerry Boyle says:

    So I guess my “take-away” is to know more than you tell. I’ve canoed stretches of the Kennebec, talked to DHS workers, talked with many cops, eavesdropped on many conversations (courtrooms are great for this. Sit in the back and listen to your row-mates), fired a lot of guns, had lunch at the Harvard Club, morning beers at a Whitey Bulger hangout in Southie (the bartender, a woman with red hair and painted eyebrows was scarier than any criminal I’ve ever run across) . But I always try to make the story come first. The story is the thing!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Gerry…I always think of it as the “tip of the iceberg.” We learn a lot so we know what the background is, and then include only those few details which make it feel authentic and work for the story. One of the worst mistakes a writer can make is to stop the momentum of the story to do a data dump just because he’s learned all this cool new stuff.

  3. Gerry Boyle says:

    Exactly right! And it’s always a temptation, because you have an urge to pass on all that cool stuff you’ve just learned. I’ve been doing some cop stuff lately and it’s all fascinating. I’ll keep the iceberg thing in mind as I move forward with this book!

  4. Fun blog – enjoying this!
    Kate, I remember you talking about ‘research’ you did to discover how your character would feel locked in the trunk of a car… you got in and had your understanding husband drive around a bit. I was so impressed.

  5. Pj Schott says:

    Great stuff.

  6. One of the types of research that’s important to me is to put myself in the physical situation so as to see what sort of visual and sensory details I want to convey. (Although I’ve never gone do far as to lock myself into a car trunk! Kate, you are hard core.) I’ve slogged through the snowy woods near my house at twilight, gone to my small town’s 4th of July celebration, watched the ice on the Saco River breaking up and wandered through old New England cemeteries with their crumbling stones. Info on guns and state prisons I can look up, but I need to know the sound of falling snow in order to write it.

    I also agree with Paul that info dumps can so tempting, and so deadly dull. Reminds me of something I heard at a writers conference: What’s the different between a thriller and a technothriller? In a thriller, a guy pulls out a gun and then he fires it. In a technothriller, a guy pulls out a gun and you get the history of the gun manufacture, the technical specs, the chemical composition of the ammunition and an explanation of the physics of a bullet traveling through air. THEN the guy fires it.

  7. Dianne Herlihy says:

    So glad you guys have created this blog. What a fun read!

  8. lil Gluckstern says:

    I am enjoying your blog as well, and I’m glad you are putting the link on DorothyL. This way I don’t forget to read it. Can’t wait to get to my growing TBR pile.

  9. Coco Ihle says:

    Great post, gang! Personally, I love research, but you all are right, only a small part gets into the book. Just enough for the reader to feel they are there in the scene, all senses alert. Thank you for sharing your experiences in research and for mentioning this blog on DorothyL.

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