A.K.A. Research for Mystery Writers (and Readers)
You have a great idea for a mystery. Your detective talks to you. She’s feeding you great plot ideas. The problem? She says she’s an arborist. That has something to do with trees, right? Beyond that you know nothing, so you must research the topic. For help in finding the information you need to write your mystery, use the following principles and tips.
# 1 the Kinsey Millhone Principle: Write down what you know.
The detective of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries usually makes notes on a case after she’s worked on it for a while, but starting a research project with a writing session on what you know helps you identify what you need to find out.
Tip: Buy a loose-leaf binder that will hold 500 to 700 full sized pages for the photocopies and print-outs you collect. Soon, you’ll have a customized reference book for the project.
# 2 the Ellie Haskell Principle: Start big.
Like the protagonist of Dorothy Cannell’s THE THIN WOMAN before she went on a diet, start your research big and broad. That is, get an overview of the subject from a general source like an on-line encyclopedia or other reference book. Though you probably won’t use this type of source in your mystery, it will give you ideas of where to look for material you will use.
Tip: the Writer’s Digest Books Howdunit series provide overviews of assorted areas of investigation. Titles include Anne Wingate’s SCENE OF THE CRIME: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRIME-SCENE INVESTIGATION.
# 3 the Kay Scarpetta Principle: Get close.
Sooner or later, you’ll have to get up really close to information. If not Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner’s microscope, then at least you might need a magnifying glass to figure out, for example, what exactly that street name was in your photocopy.
Tip: buy 3” x 5” cards and a file box for them to record the specific sources you’ve consulted during your research so you don’t keep consulting the same ones.
# 4 the Stephanie Plum Principle: Shoot your mouth off.
In mysteries like ONE FOR THE MONEY, Janet Evanovich’s bounty hunter gets her family members, one or both lovers, business associates, and all sorts of acquaintances in on the action. When I’m working on a project, I tell lots of people about it–the sooner the better and the more the better because I can’t predict who knows some piece of information I could use in my mystery. Note: when you use the Stephanie Plum Principle, you create a sort of contract with everyone you’ve told about your project, so you’re more likely to complete it.
Tip: give business cards or bookmarks describing your project and your contact information to everyone you meet.
Tip: tell experts in the field you’re researching about your project. For instance, one of my former students, now a police officer, told me exactly what the first officer at a crime scene must do.
Tip: tell a librarian what you’re working on. Once I complained to a librarian that I couldn’t find old maps for my historical mystery. Within seconds, I held a microfilm reel of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of my city, block by block, as it was in the late 19th century.
Tip: Don’t limit your research to print sources.
# 5 the Emily Andrews Principle: Know your settings.
Like the protagonist of Maddie Hunter’s Passport to Peril mysteries, go to the places you’re writing about. Walk along the streets. Visit the buildings, outside and inside. Sniff the air around the vats in that brewery you need to include.
Tip: Take your camera, preferably digital.
Tip: Take at least one friend with you to notice things you might not and to drive while you look.
Tip: If you can’t travel to a setting, Google it. Cyberspace offers a wealth of information about places including virtual museums and access to photograph, postcard, and map collections.
Tip: check your phone directory. For instance, I’ve discovered that my community has nearly fifty museums including the world’s only Hair Museum.
# 6 the Helen Hawthorne Principle: Do it.
The heroine of Elaine Viet’s Dead End Job mysteries learns by doing. Even if you never perform the process yourself, you should have a clear idea of how to do any process you want to include in your mystery.
Tip: Check out craft classes, re-enactment groups and living museums for hands-on demonstrations. For instance, an indigo-dyeing workshop taught me something I couldn’t imagine: as you pull yarn out of the dirty-diaper-brown dye bath into the air, a glorious, vibrant blue runs up the yarn like magic.
# 7 the V. I. Warshawski Principle: Hang in there.
The dogged protagonist of Sara Paretsky’s mysteries follows clues, interviews witnesses, visits and revisits the scene of the crime, places all the bits of information she’s gathered into a pattern, survives beatings and other perils until she solves the case. In like fashion, you must persist in your research through several drafts because, as you write, you’ll discover more subjects to research.
Tip: don’t wait to start writing till you’ve researched your topic so exhaustively you’re bored with it.
Tip: If, as you write, you come upon a scene that requires considerable research like a field trip, note down the subject you need to explore later and move on to the next scene. Thus, you won’t interrupt the flow of writing or write a scene you have to scrap later.
#8 the Beatrix Potter Principle: Live it.
In writing THE TALE OF HILL TOP FARM and others in the Cottage Tales series, Susan Wittig Albert is recreating the life, times, the city and countryside of Beatrix Potter. Most remarkably, Albert is making the mind of the beloved children’s author and illustrator come back to life.
You too must immerse yourself in your subject and learn everything you can about it until you can walk the walk of your characters, talk their talk, breathe the air of their world, and think their thoughts. And if you employ well what you learn from your research, your readers will live in the world you make for them.
(Under the title “Research for Mystery Writers: General Principles and Specific Tips,” this article appeared in the December 2011 issue of InSinC, the national Sisters in Crime quarterly newsletter.)
Next time: Bernard Cornwell’s DEATH OF KINGS
Meanwhile, happy reading and writing. Best, Juliet