Let’s talk research.
I’ve never been a proponent of the old adage, write what you know. In fact, I think it’s kind of silly. It’s the rare crime writer who has witnessed a crime, let alone investigated one. I’ve been fortunate in my own life to be able to look back on some exciting times in the fire service, and in the hazmat business, but those are not the exciting times I write about. While I’ve been shot at, I’ve never been a position to shoot back. Basically, I am the three-time survivor of poor marksmanship. There is a point in every book where at least one of my characters is scared shitless, and those are by far my most autobiographical passages.
Yet I’m pleased to report that I frequently get emails from readers who live the lives I write about telling me that I got it right. Those letters are always thrilling—way more thrilling than the emails I get about the typo on page 237.
It’s all in the research. So let’s talk about that. How can writers learn what we need to know to make our characters smart enough to do the things they do in the stories we write? It doesn’t have to be as difficult or complicated as some might have you believe.
Research Hack One: Cheat.
The easiest way to pull off the illusion of knowledge is to eliminate the need for reality. For example, despite have lived pretty much my whole life in Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Virginia, I choose to play out my Northern Virginia police work in Braddock County, Virginia, which does not exist. That way, I can develop whatever standard operating procedures best serve the story, eliminating a huge research burden. I don’t need a tour of the jail, I don’t need to know which firearms they carry, what the command structure is, or how shifts are organized. Do the cops carry their shotguns propped up vertically, or under the front of the seat? I can make it however I want it to be. Because the place where the story takes place does not exist, neither do the police agencies, so I can by definition never get any of those details wrong.
Research Hack Two: Stick to the coast you know.
More times than not, it’s the smaller details of research that screw an author up, and even if you make up cities and counties, you’re going to have to root the reader somewhere in the world. I’m very comfortable making up locations in the South because I’ve lived here for so many decades. It’s always the tell of a West Coast writer when a character looks for a “freeway” and gets on “the 495.” In Virginia, we look for a “highway” and get on “Route 50” or just “50.” Heading north or south on the Beltway says little unless we know whether you’re on the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop. For natives, the airports are “National” or “Dulles”. Maybe DCA for frequent travelers. Never “Reagan.” At least not for true locals. Oh, and we “go to” meetings or “attend” them. We do not “take” them.
Places like New York and L.A. (and every other famous city, I suppose) have traditions and colloquialisms that can get you in trouble. So, stay close to home if you can.
Research Hack Three: Think like Willie Sutton
When the gangster Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”
So, where are the repositories for the information you want to know? Let’s say you’re writing about a cop. To be sure, there are great established resources available to you, such as a citizen’s police academy, but remember that there you’ll be getting the view of the agency that the public affairs office wants you to see. A better choice, in my opinion, would be to attend a conference like Writers Police Academy, where you can get to know the far more interesting underbelly of police agencies. Exchange business cards and you’ve got contacts.
Can’t afford the money or time to fly to a conference? Try chatting up a cop. The less formal the circumstance, the better. In my experience, everyone—Ev. Ry. One.—likes to share stories about what they do. Find out where cops gather for drinks after work and go there. Just hang out and listen. Actually, that’s a strategy for just about any specialty. Want to write about quilting? Go where quilters go and then shut up and listen.
When I’m in DC, one of my favorite places to go for soft research is Union Station, the AMTRAK/Metro terminal that is maybe 500 yards from the Capitol Building. There are restaurants there. If you park yourself near a couple of Millennials in suits, there’s a 90% chance that they’re oh-so-self-important staffers to a member of Congress, and the inevitable one-upsmanship is fascinating. The best eavesdropping spot near the White House is the very cozy bar of the Hay Adams Hotel, though given the proximity to the presidential palace, the gossip there tends to be less juicy.
One bit of advice for eavesdroppers: Don’t take notes. For the ruse to work, you’ve got to seem disinterested.
Research Hack Four: Get a superfast Internet connection and use it.
I understand that professors are loathe to accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source, and when the time comes for me to submit a dissertation, I’ll keep that in mind. Meanwhile, I’ll remain devoted to it as a bottomless source of really good information. Never once have I been disappointed when seeking the finer points of weaponry, for example. I don’t get into the depths of gun porn in my books, but when arming my good guys and bad guys, it’s good to know how much the weapon weighs, how many rounds it holds and what it looks like. Want to see the same weapon in action? I guarantee that YouTube has at least two videos of somebody shooting something with it.
Google Earth and its Street View feature are a godsend. The closing sequence of Final Target includes a chase down the rural streets of Yucatan. Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to travel the entire route with a three dimensional view, all without the burden of having to go to a place where I’d rather not be.
Research Hack Five: Know the difference between a research trail and a rabbit hole.
We’ve all been there, I’m sure. You start out looking for the year when the Ford Ranger went out of production, and an hour later, you’ve chased links to a sweet video of singing penguins. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The secret to doing my kind of research is to abide by a certain self-imposed intellectual laziness. When I’m writing a scene and I come across a place where I realize there’s a hole in my knowledge, I drop out to the Interwebs, find out exactly what I need for that scene, and then back out. Remember this: It’s not important that you know how to do all the things your characters do—or even to know everything they do. Your job is simply to convince readers that the character knows enough to pull off the story they’re starring in.
Research Hack Six (and maybe it should be Number One): Respect your sources’ time.
As a weapons guy, I’m happy to help people choose a firearm for their characters, but it’s annoying when the discussion includes the difference between a pistol and a revolver. That kind of basic information is available anywhere. It is many times more fun to talk about important details with someone who has already done a reasonable amount of research. Use your human resources for the esoteric details of verisimilitude, not for the 101 level of whatever you’re researching.