Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Internet - prime source for research

By Chester Campbell

The Internet is a great source for research on a mystery novel. When I started working on The Surest Poison, my new book due out next month, I had the basic idea for a plot contributed by a friend who’s a PI in Nashville. She’d worked a case a few years back that involved the dumping of a large amount of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene, commonly known as TCE.

My first step was to Google the chemical compound to see what it was like, how it was used, and what effects it would have on public health. I found both government and non-profit organization sites devoted to information on various pollutants, including TCE. I copied pages of details on the chemical and its health effects. I also found it was used as a degreaser in cleaning things like auto parts. All vital information for use in the novel.

I decided to locate my fictional chemical dump behind a small plant in a mostly rural county on the west side of Nashville. The other adjoining counties all had large populations and at least one moderate-sized city.

Back I went to the Internet to gather all the information available on Cheatham County. I found enough to steer me in the right direction when I made my first on-scene visit.

Since I put my protagonist, Sid Chance, in my home area of Madison, a northeastern suburb, I didn’t need the Internet or anything else to handle that area. However, I gave him a female sidekick who had inherited controlling interest in a lucrative chain of truck stops from her father, a French Canadian import.

I wanted Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux to live in a French Colonial mansion in an affluent section on the other side of Nashville. I did a search on French Colonial houses and came up with one I used as a model. I also did a Mapquest search, both street and aerial views, to check out the Franklin Road area for a likely spot.

I also used Mapquest to look into several other areas, including the small town of Centerville, where I had them make a helicopter landing. It was also useful to figure how long it would take to drive from Jaz’s house to the location of a climactic event. And when I did the helicopter flight, I looked on the Bell Helicopter website to pick out the Jetranger III for the ride.

I set a few scenes in the fictional town of Lewisville, where Sid worked as chief of police until false accusations of bribery ended his career. I named it after explorer Meriwether Lewis, who died on the Natchez Trace near where I placed the town. I checked the Internet to be sure I had my facts correct on the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s chief.

I used the Internet in countless other ways to check out minor points. The common advice is to be careful of the facts you get off the web, as there is plenty of misinformation out there. If it was something I needed to be sure of, I always chose a reliable source, and on occasion checked another to confirm what I found.

Another use I made of the Internet was to ask questions on listserves or through emails to people like Dr. Doug Lyle, the forensic guru, or in one case, ex-policewoman Robin Burcell.

The Internet has made researching for a book as easy as sitting down at your computer. It can save hours of time and miles of travel. I recommend it highly.


Anonymous said...

Good article, Chester. Reminds me of telling a sister that I was doing some research for my book-- a simple cozy -- and she gave me a puzzled look and said,"Why do you have to do research?"

Why indeed? You don't know how much you DON'T know until you start to write a book.

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

Too true, Pat. You also find that a lot of things you thought were true aren't quite. Newbie writers are sometimes skittish about approaching cops and people like that. It's very impersonal on the internet, and you can ask anything you want.

Jean Henry Mead said...

The Internet is a wonderful place to resesarch if you check`the facts from more than one source. I live quite aways from a library and I love to be able to research any time of day or night. My last book involved drugs and all the information was readily available online. It saved an enormous amount of time and legwork.


Chester Campbell said...

That's right, Jean. I live close to a library, but I can do most of my research without leaving my office. There's still more to be done on scene, of course, and in talking with some local experts, though a lot of that can be done by phone.

Ben Small said...

I also use Google Earth, to get an overview of site locations. In my view, the internet was the best thing to come out of the 20th century, and it's just getting better.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of local experts, Chester -- if they know you, they probably don't take you seriously. When I was still living in California,I asked my longtime doctor if you could tell whether a skeleton had belonged to a male or female.

He laughed and told me no, which was a bald-faced lie.
Another writer answered the question for me, and I double-checked it with a fantastic book that I found on the Internet.

The book is "The Archaeology of Human Bones" by Simon Mays. First published in London 1998. Mays is (or was) a Human Skeletal Biologist in the Ancient Monuments Laboratory, English Heritage.

My advice on asking advice from local experts: ask a stranger!

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

I agree, Ben. Sure glad Al Gore invented it.

Pat - I haven't had that problem. My expert friends have been engineers and that sort who just give you the facts, ma'am.

Beth Terrell said...

I'm also a huge fan of internet research, though I've been very fortunate in that my friends who are "experts" in various fields have been very generous with their help.