Saturday, February 23, 2013

Research with a Punch!

by guest debut author Colby Marshall

Today I went out to eat with my husband, and the owner of the restaurant happened to be someone who recently read my book. He asked me, “So, do people really get paid that much for performing a professional hit?” I laughed and told him yes, assassins of the caliber of those in CHAIN OF COMMAND can probably afford to either buy the silence of anyone who finds them out or to pay a dozen lesser hit men to get rid of the guy when he won’t take the hush money. The restaurant owner then asked me how the heck I knew that sort of thing. The answer to that question is both incredibly simple and insanely complicated at the same time: research.

It’s something every writer is familiar with to a degree, those who write mysteries and thrillers even more so. In stories set in the real world where crimes are committed, investigations are solved, and the bad guys are prosecuted, it’s important to get the details right. After all, your audience of readers may very well include a cop, a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, a gun owner, a soldier—any person, in fact, who might just know you’re blowing smoke if you don’t know what you’re talking about when you lead your readers through the complex logic that explains whodunit and how. If you haven’t done your homework, a reader like that can poke holes in your masterpiece faster than an asteroid can poke holes in the Russian terrain. But never fear! You needn’t start raising money for med school so you’ll know about trauma wounds or recruiting your own personal team of special force operatives to train you in your backyard in order to make sure your story rings true. Here are five important tricks I’ve learned that help make sure your research packs a punch and is efficient at the same time:

1.) Bring in the nerds. Or, as most people would call them, “the experts.” If you’re writing about a cop, think about friends or family who might work in law enforcement or have a spouse, friend, or colleague who knows someone who does. You’ll quickly find that people, when asked, are happy to talk all about their jobs to someone who finds what they do intriguing.

2.) Read before you interview. Whether you pick up Crime Scenes for Dummies , an in depth book about the history of insider trading in the U.S., or read a dozen articles about the effects of cyanide on the bloodstream online, before you interview the expert in the field you need to know about, learn as much as you can about that field first. Don’t waste your interviewee’s or your time asking him or her questions you could find the answers to on Wikipedia. Gather a basic knowledge of the field you’re researching, because then you’ll know what to ask the expert in order to get those gritty details that will make readers think you’ve been analyzing blood spatter patterns since you exited the womb.

3.) Even if the knowledge you seek is so secret that it’s guarded better than the events surrounding Kennedy’s death, don’t let protected information be an excuse for laziness. Someone knows something about this clandestine knowledge you’re seeking, or else you yourself wouldn’t even know to write about it. It might not be easy to obtain the going rate for heroin on the street, but think outside the box. You don’t have to run out and try to buy something illegal to learn what it might cost. Again, law enforcement who deals in this type of thing every day will know how many mortgage payments that kilo of cocaine in your novel would make you miss. And if they don’t know, they know another person in law enforcement who does.

4.) Prepare open ended, discussion-oriented inquiries rather than asking yes or no questions. While most people, if asked, will agree to an interview and be happy to talk to you about their work, everyone is different. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself interviewing a subject who, for all of their valuable know-how of the area of expertise you seek and their willingness to sit down with you at Starbucks, might be about as outgoing as a prisoner sentenced to life without parole. Sticking to questions like, “Can you find out whether or not someone is narcissistic from their handwriting?” will only lead to frustration with Dr. I. M. Quiet. Instead, pass him a piece of paper and ask him to give you some examples of what types of loops or slants he’s seen in the past that have caused him to determine the subject of the analysis had an overly-inflated ego. Steer clear of questions like, “Have you ever known someone to want an entire face transplant?” because a quick shake of the head might be the end of that line of inquiry. Rather, try asking Dr. Anita Plastic to tell you about the most extreme plastic surgery request she’s ever had or heard of in her line of work.

5.) Be ready with your bad pickup line. While “Have you been lost? Because I’ve been looking for you all year” might not be the perfect way to go, stand poised at the end of your interview to hit up your interview subject for his or her e-mail address and ask if, during the course of research a new question should arise, would he or she mind if you snapped off a quick e-mail to ask a follow-up. Chances are your subject will agree. That said, don’t abuse the privilege. Refer back to item number two and make sure Google doesn’t have the answer before you call for a second date. Quick questions to an expert won’t bother this person who has already invested time in helping you out, but just like calling a potential romantic interest, if it’s too aggressive or imposes too much, your subject will start avoiding you like you did that annoying blind date who blew up your voice mailbox ten minutes after you got home from date one.

And don’t forget: when all that research comes to fruition, give credit where credit is due. If you have an acknowledgements section in your book, make sure to include your fantastic interview subject and if possible, send him a copy of the book containing his well-earned shout out. Not only will it nearly always guarantee he’ll feel appreciated enough to grant future consultations, but your newest expert pal will finally understand exactly why you needed to know if the color of urine changes when someone is poisoned with too much Excedrin PM.

What books have most impressed you with respect to the author’s attention to detail? What have you read that left you thinking the writer fell short in the research department?


Jennifer Walkup said...

Great post! I'm so impressed by the level of research in many books. Also, as an author, I'm often worried that some of my searches will land me on the FBI watch list. LOL!:)

cindy said...

i think research can help ignite so many ideas for a writer. thanks for a great post!

colbymarshall said...

Jennifer- I've been worried about that list MANY times ;-)

Cindy- it's so true. Sometimes when I'm stuck, reading a little about the field can spark something new.

Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks for the valuable advice, June. I love research, but I often feel shy about asking.