The Other Tools of the Trade

The things we do for research!

Last week, our “techie,” Paul Doiron wrote about some of the software he uses to organize material when he’s writing, and Gerry Boyle blogged about making a video trailer for his new book. I admire their modern spirits. I’ve already downloaded Scrivener, though I haven’t opened it yet, because I’m afraid of change. So today, I’m weighing in as the group’s Luddite. The one who uses old fashion notebooks to organize my material. Who tapes pictures up on the wall. Who looks things up in books and when I can’t find what I need, calls out to a librarian for help. Who carries a little digital camera and a small Sony digital recorder, because words and pictures may need to be collected and save.

Right now, as I’m finally finishing a true crime tentatively called Death Dealer, I’m sitting here at my desk

A true crime writer's essential tools: pocket-sized camera and a tiny digital recorder.

surrounded by notebooks and reference books. My central notebook is over five inches thick. It contains the case summary. A time-line. Charts of weather data from the night the murder is presumed to have taken place, and weather data for Eastern Canada during the month of January, 2003. I have multiple interviews with the detectives who worked the case and thick sections of interviews with the friends and relatives of the victim. I have interviews with the Maine wardens and MESARD volunteers who drove hundreds of miles and many hours into another country with their trained cadaver dogs to help out a police agency who desperately needed to find a hidden body.

In my fat notebook, I have crime scene photographs. An aerial photograph of the trail system that needed to be searched, with little yellow stickies on it to mark significant spots. I’ve got photographs of search and rescue dog training. Newspaper stories. Articles about training search and rescue dogs and the various expertises that these canines and their handlers have to master. Notes from a book on training cadaver dogs, Cadaver Dog Handbook: Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains.  I’ve followed the MESARD volunteers, been a subject for both MESARD and Maine Warden Service canines to find. I’ve watched in awe the powerful bond that exists between handlers and their dogs.

A little light reading from my shelves.

A few years ago, I wanted to get a good book on homicide investigation, so I asked my local library to get me a copy of Vernon Geberth’s cannonical tome, Practical Homicide Investigation, through interlibrary loan. When she handed over the book, the librarian whispered that the pictures were just awful, and was I sure I wanted the book. Yes, I wanted it, and it has been an invaluable tool on my shelf of reference books. It helps me shape my questions, understand techniques, and write my crime scenes better. I have a whole library of such books. Books about interrogation techniques, including one suggested by my local police chief called We Get Confessions. The police detective who is my primary source up in Miramichi, Brian Cummings, told me I had to read a book about statement analysis, Mark McClish’s I Know You Are Lying, and then walked me through part of the lecture and interview clips he uses at the police academy.

I can spend endless hours with police detectives, asking my questions, and I’ve been the lucky recipient of a lot of time and advice, but different jurisdictions have different process, as do different police agencies. Sometimes my advisors are too busy to get back to me for days, or even weeks. So I also have my friend Lee Lofland’s book on my shelf, ready to consult when I have a question. Lee’s blog, The Graveyard Shift, he answers questions for writers out there who want to get it right. And for those who can’t get enough of police procedure and the opportunity for hands-on research, Lee has organized and runs a Writer’s Police Academy, in Jamestown, North Carolina each September.

Maine Warden Lt. Pat Dorian

I’ve set myself a deadline of October 15th to finish this book, and just this week, I needed some more information, so I turned to that invaluable writer’s tool–the telephone. Soon, my little digital recorder and I will sit down with one of my personal heroes, Lt. Pat Dorian, Maine Warden Service (ret.), and get some final details about organizing and managing the search operation that resulted in the discovery of Maria Tanasichuk’s body, six months after the January night she disappeared.

In the end, the ultimate tools are discipline and imagination. But they will be aided, as I’m sitting at my desk at 2:00 a.m., trying to meet my deadline, by the carefully captured voices of all the people I’ve spoken to over the past few years, By my recordings, my reference books, and my photographs. When I’m done, this book will need an entire drawer in my filing cabinet. It’s little enough space to give to some heroes, Canadian and American, who collaborated to take a heartless killer off the streets.

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5 Responses to The Other Tools of the Trade

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Kate, although I, too, envy Paul’s digital savy, your research and organization techniques are much closer to mine! I do envy one of your tools – and skills — alot: your repeated ability to find the right law enforcement expert to give you just the right bit of key information. I’ll admit I’ve called and written and .. all too often been turned down or just ignored. So — for those of us who are shy … what’s your secret to getting those doors to open?

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Secret, Lea? Being blonde? But then, so are you. Seriously…I tend to use the six degrees of separation thing. I find someone I know who has a contact, and then kindly ask that contact if they’ll mind talking. One expert seems to lead to another. And the truth is that I’ve had such generosity and good luck just by being deeply interested in what people do. LEO folks tend to be cautious and distrustful of civilians, but if they know you’re not out to get them and genuinely need and want their help, they usually come through.

    Like you (though I would never believe this of you, since you’re so socially adept) I’m very shy. That’s why I sit in my room and write.I’ve had to force myself out to do the kind of interviewing necessary to get the book right. And sometimes I’ve gotten that cold blue-eyed stare that freezes you right to your bones. Then you pull yourself back together and look for another source. For my Portland PD contacts….I started with their website/web master. Many agencies have public relations people whose job it is to interact with the public.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Gerry here. I think I’d feel at home in your study, Kate. I have the camera. The recorder. My monitor sits on a book: A Guide to Homicide Investigations. Good for you for doing the legwork. Crime writers, like reporters, must have insatiable curiosity.

  4. Pj Schott says:

    I love the tech stuff … already using one of Paul’s recommendations. But there is a lot to be said for Luddite technology. When I have to figure something out, something really hard. I get out pencil & paper. Something about the brain-hand-paper connection.

  5. Wow, Kate, this sounds like it is going to be a fascinating book. Thank you for sharing with us the tremendous legwork making it happen!

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