Adventures in Research

Kate Flora: When I embarked on my crime writing journey back around 1983, I naively thought that what a writer did was sit at her desk and make things up. It didn’t take long for the crime writing (and reading) community to set me straight. In our world, we are writing for a sophisticated audience. Our readers pay attention to details. They analyze our plots. They watch us like hawks. We quickly learn that we’re supposed to get things right.

You want to poison someone? You probably ought to get a book about poisons. I remember at one of my husband’s Harvard reunions, I found myself sitting next to an ER doc, so I described the poison I was using in the book and asked what symptoms my character would experience when she showed up in the ER. She was happy to answer the question. As to poisons, we in the mystery world are extremely lucky to have a friendly toxicologist who is always willing to answer questions. Luckily for all of us, “the poison lady” doesn’t find our questions disturbing at all.

Which is why, when I was writing my novella, Girls’ Night Outwhere a woman’s book group takes revenge on a serial date rapist by drugging his drink, I was able to learn what combination of drugs, including herbal performance enhancers, would incapacitate him.

When I decided to write police procedurals, I had a lot to learn. There are no cops in my family. Like most people, my only interaction had been once when blue lights appeared in my rearview mirror. Now I had to spend time with cops and, hopefully, establish enough rapport to ask my questions. On my first ride-along, the officer who set it up basically said, “They don’t want you there. So keep your mouth shut and just watch.” It worked for a while, but there were things I needed to know, so I asked, “What are you seeing that I’m not seeing?” It opened the door to a fascinating night on the streets of Portland.

One adventure in research resulting from my casual remark that I’d never fired a handgun resulted with me in the basement of a police department. With no ear protectors to be found, I was given two bullets to put in my ears. Yes. Seriously. This really happened. It seems that sometimes my law enforcement teachers have more faith in me than I have in myself.

Another adventure, while research Finding Amy,  involved walking down a crumbling

Wardens walking down the tote road to search for Amy.

woods road to the spot where her body was found. The day had gone from brilliantly sunny to gray and icy and I stopped on my way to Portland, ran into Goodwill, and bought a jacket. It was spooky and unnerving but it gave me a better understanding when, in my interviews, the detectives described the cold, dark December night when they finally found and exhumed the body.

In doing research for Death Dealer: How Cops and cadaver dogs brought a killer to justice, I mentioned to the detective I was working with that I’d like to see where Maria Tanasichuk’s body was found. “Sure,” he said. He gave me a helmet, backed two four-wheelers out of the police garage, and said “follow me.” I had never been on a four-wheeler, but off I went. Going to the spot, passing the place where a witness lived, and seeing why it was so difficult for searchers and their cadaver dogs to find the body, illuminated the story in a way no imagination could have.

A few years back, at the marvelous Writer’s Police Academy, I got to go on a ride-along with a cop down in Greenville, North Carolina. It was a quiet night and we were in a semi-rural area. It looked like nothing was going to happen. Then we passed a man walking along the road and the officer turned the car around and went back and asked him some questions. Things seemed okay, so we went on our way, but when I asked about the stop, he told me a story.

A while back, he’d been patrolling this area and seen a man walking along the road. It was very late at night and there was nothing around, so he stopped. He said the man was carrying something like a little notebook or pouch. He got ID and went back to the cruiser to check and learned that the man was wanted on a federal warrant. When he got back out to tell the man he had to arrest him, the man pulled out a gun and started shooting. The officer wasn’t hit; the bad guy was, and back-up came and took the man away. He then went on to show me the dash cam video of the shooting and describe how the department had handled the aftermath. The emotional intensity. His call to his wife to let her know he was okay. Then we went back to the station and talked to his sergeant about it, and about how important it was to be aware of the trauma involved in a shooting. So that night nothing happened and I got an amazing insight into a police officer’s reality and into a deadly force incident.

A few Joe Burgess books ago, I was sending Burgess and Kyle into a convenience store. They saw a young wanna be gangster heading into the store with a tell-take bulge in his hoodie pocket that said he had a gun. I realized that I didn’t know: a) how Burgess and Kyle would approach the situation and b) how they would deal with the store clerk who was traumatized by being held at gunpoint. So I called my advisors, Joe Loughlin and Roger Guay, and asked them what to do. I’m pleased to say that only a bag of potato chips got injured in the confrontation.

I could go on with stories, but this gives you a taste. I’ve been extremely lucky that the people I call my “training officers” have been so willing to trust me and share their stories. It definitely illuminates my work.



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5 Responses to Adventures in Research

  1. John Clark says:

    Fortunately, fantasy relies primarily upon imagination.

  2. matthewcost says:

    This is way cool. The events of research often equal the act of writing in sheer fascination. Very awesome.

  3. Alice says:

    Your books are prime exhibits of the research and are tributes to your choice to not take the “easy” way. Readers do appreciate the difference.

  4. kaitcarson says:

    Great blog, Kate. When I started working with police in Florida it amazed me how wrong TV and most books get it. When I moved to Maine I realized much of what I knew from Florida didn’t equate and it was back to square one. I am so grateful for the kindness of the officers – serving and retired, that are generously helping me get it ME right!

  5. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    This is a book in itself! What experiences!

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