Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Research: Notes from a Congenital Geek

When I was seven years old, a television show called Sunrise Semester came on every morning just after Farm Digest. The show consisted of a university professor teaching college-level math and science classes. These were strictly lecture-style lessons--no bells, whistles, or special effects. I got up early every morning to watch it and sat riveted in front of the TV, despite the fact that I never understood a word of it. Recently, I shared this with my friend Cindi, who shook her head and said, "There was never any hope for you, was there? You were born a geek."

It probably tells you something about both of us that we considered this a compliment.

For a congenital geek like me, one of the great pleasures of being a writer is that it provides an excuse to spend hours doing what is generally called "research." Yesterday, for example, I researched how to pick up, hold, and release a venomous snake. This is an activity best experienced vicariously. (Never try this at home!) I also learned that a timber rattlesnake (Latin name Crotalus horridus) is a kind of viper, that the viperids have longer fangs than the elapids (such as coral snakes) and that, because of this, each type requires a separate and specific kind of hold. The number of people who keep venomous snakes (they call them "hot" snakes) is truly remarkable.

Why was I looking up ways to catch and release venomous snakes? In this case, there's a scene in the book I'm working on that involves an angry timber rattler and a very unhappy detective. I had very specific question in mind when I embarked on my virtual quest. That's the tye of research I do most often. I need to know something about how police process a crime scene or how to determine the time of death or methods of carrying concealed firearms, so I go in search of an appropriate site (check out for good information on autopsy procedures), an appropriate book, or an appropriate person to interview. The Writer's Digest Books Howdunit series is an excellent source of information for any crime writer. These include Lee Lofland's excellent book, Police Procedure & Investigation, Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon, and Forensics by D.P. Lyle.

There's another kind of research--the serendipitous kind. This kind of research can be likened to taking your camera and going for a liesurely ramble in the woods. You don't know what you might find, but there's a pretty good chance you'll turn up something wonderful. I think of it as "found research." Another great thing about being a writer is that everything you learn becomes grist for the mill. Nothing is wasted. It may not find its way into this book or next, but it may lead you to something that will. Or it may find its way into another plot line years down the road. You just never know.

A great place for a crime writer to do this type of research is truTV Crime Library. This site has a wealth of information about criminal psychology and modern and historic crimes. Want the real scoop on Bonnie and Clyde, Leopold and Loeb, or the real Sweeney Todd? This is the place to go. Reading through old cases can spark the imagination of a crime writer. I may not want to write about a pair of Depression-era criminals, but a couple of modern-day lovebirds with antisocial tendencies might be just the ticket.

But information doesn't have to be crime-related to be valuable to a mystery writer. A site about Native America legends might inspire a historical novel based on Native American culture, a modernization of the Blue Corn Maiden legend, or a mystery about a missing Native American artifact. A visit to a site that shows a line drawing of a woman being created from the skeleton outward might inspire a character based on the woman being drawn or on the artist who might be drawing her. For the congenital geek (or the self-made writer), everything is fodder.

So go ahead, take a ramble through the internet or through the shelves of your local library. Invite your muse to come out and play. After all, that's one of the great things about being a writer.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Beth. The drawing of the woman from the inside out blew me away.
Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

Very good post, Beth. The only thing more enjoyable than research is actually writing about the subject in question, as far as I'm concerned. :)

Beth Terrell said...

Pat, that drawing blew me away too. I came across it using that insidious invention "Stumble Upon," in which you clisk on the "stumble" button and the computer takes you to a random and often fascinating website.

Jean, I agree!