1.) What kind of research do you do on your books? (Please share some of your favorite resource links.)
2.) How long do you spend researching before you begin writing a book?
By Sue Coletta
Crime writers do their research in various places. Many of us have experts we can call on, but I hate to bother friends unless I can’t find the answer elsewhere. A great place to look is Quora. Numerous LEOs volunteer their time to answer questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Quora, you can follow topic feeds, like Police and Law Enforcement, and scan the Q&As. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask a new question.
Because I write about serial killers I also follow Psychopathy and Psychopaths. Some of the information is valid, other times alleged “real” psychopaths write in. Although it’s not unheard of for psychopaths to brag, Quora allows anonymity. Any time the poster doesn’t need to reveal their true identity, the information becomes unreliable.
Even if the poster has a valid profile, still double check the information. I recommend confirming with least two or three reliable sources for any internet information you intend to use in a book. Two of my favorite sites are Psychology Today and Explore Forensics, depending on what I’m looking for. I also need to give a quick shout-out to my dear friend Garry Rodgers, RCMP (Ret.), weapons expert and forensic coroner, who blogs at Dying Words. Quora also has its place in the pecking order.
In the Q&A below, I did not edit the answers for two reasons:
1. It’s not my writing; full credit goes to the poster;
2. The voice, including grammar and/or spelling errors, helps with the overall mental image of the officer who’s answering. After all, that’s one of the best parts of eavesdropping.
How many of you have listened in on a conversation while shopping or out to eat? You may not be able to see the person, but their language paints an image in your mind. As you read the following stories, I want you to imagine the officer who’s speaking. There’ll be a fun exercise at the end of this post.
Please note: the s-word is used a few times. Cussing and cops go together like peanut butter cookies and milk. You’ve been warned. 🙂
As a cop, what are the weirdest things you ever experienced?
Scott Conroy, 17 year veteran of law enforcement, answers:
Years ago some construction workers found some human bones in a a concrete patio that they were tearing up in the Venice Beach Area. In looking into the concrete we noticed that there were cavities in the concrete that were made by the now decomposed body. We summoned the Scientific Investigation Unit (LAPD’s version of “CSI”) and we came up with an idea to inject latex rubber into the cavities to get the body contours. Lo and behold we pulled out a latex rubber hand impression of the person to whom the bones belonged.
The detail of the latex replica was amazing. We could see defensive knife wounds and more importantly we saw fingerprints on the latex. We printed the “fingers” of the latex cast and discovered they belonged to a teacher who had disappeared around the time the concrete patio was poured. The ensuing homicide investigation revealed that the primary suspect in this homicide was a nephew who had worked in construction and on that particular patio job.
Epilogue: The suspect, however, had suffered an industrial accident a few years before the discovery of the bones in the concrete and was existing in a vegetative state. In the interest of justice, he was not charged or put on trial for that crime.
What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a police officer?
Jim Lee, Former Military Police officer (8 years) answers:
I was running a solo unit one unseasonably cold (for San Diego) November night over 20 years ago when dispatch sends me to an on-base bowling alley; apparently, security personnel were dealing with a D&D (Drunk/Disorderly) individual running around the parking lot half-dressed and beating on cars. I arrive on scene 5 minutes later and see the contact, and something wasn’t right about the situation. As I attempted to make contact with the individual I already didn’t like what I was seeing: no shirt in 40 degree weather but still sweating like a pig; dilated pupils; blank thousand-yard stare and wandering aimlessly. I’d seen these symptoms before, and they had jack sh!t to do with alcohol from what I’d remembered.
As I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to this guy he starts toward me in a threatening manner; I decided to deploy my collapsible baton and warn him off, but he wasn’t listening. That’s when I realized what I was looking at: My new “friend” was on PCP (aka “Angel Dust”).
Officers who have experience dealing with contacts on PCP are familiar with the dangerous situation I found myself in. But for those who don’t know: PCP prevents the actions normally caused when a neurotransmitter, called glutamate, attaches to its receptor in the brain.
It also disrupts the actions of other neurotransmitters. PCP distorts sights, sound and other senses. The user may experience “out of body” sensations that are related to the dissociative effects, feel like they are “floating” with strange impressions of space and time, or imagine things that aren’t real. Some abusers experience euphoria and invulnerability while others experience drowsiness and calming sensations.
PCP is dose-dependent and the effects on the brain intensify with greater doses depending on the methods of consumption and certain biological or psychological factors of the abuser with effects, generally, last from 4 – 6 hours. While the intoxication effects on the brain may be short-lived, the disruptions in neuronal activities can cause the person to feel unpleasant symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings, and general dysphoria when the intoxication effects subside.
I threw the baton to the security personnel; I knew, thanks to the effects of PCP, that I could beat the brakes off this guy all night long and he wouldn’t feel a damned thing, so the baton was absolutely pointless. I requested a cover unit to the scene; it usually takes several officers to subdue someone who is on this stuff, and I couldn’t trust the barely-trained security personnel, so I knew I’d have to keep the suspect at bay for a few minutes until “real” help arrived.
This is when things went sideways.
The suspect immediately went for my 9mm Beretta sidearm. I knew I had to keep him from getting to my service weapon at all costs, even if it meant taking an ass-kicking; a bloody nose or broken jaw would pale in comparison to what would happen if he were to somehow get hold of my pistol. Fortunately there were two things going in my favor:
With a simple “bear hug” I was able to slam this guy on the pavement, as I was hoping to knock the wind out of him for a second. That was the easy part.
But now the fun was about to start.
Remember what I said about PCP’s effect of the human body’s nervous system? I finally got to see this effect first-hand; no amount of punching, arm bar holds or pressure point manipulation was going to stop this freak. It took all I had just to wrestle this guy and hold on for dear life (namely, mine). Despite the fact that I outweighed him by such a large amount I could barely hold this guy down, and he was determined to get his hands on my weapon. I’m not sure how long it took the cover unit to finally show up; it was probably about another 5 minutes but it felt like an hour.
Fortunately the officers in the other unit (they were riding a partner unit, thankfully) immediately recognized the situation I faced and helped me hold the drug-crazed nutjob down while security personnel contacted a paramedic unit under our orders. Upon the paramedic’s arrival it took no less than five of us to apply restraints to the suspect, “hogtie” him and prepare him for transport to the medical facility for treatment and evaluation. A subsequent search revealed that he was also armed with a 4-inch blade; I wondered why he didn’t use it but was relieved that he must have forgotten about it (otherwise this story would have been about a police shooting).
After I was also examined by the paramedics (and found to be still intact) my watch commander ordered me back to the station to take a rest and start my report. Good thing, too, because that was probably the longest 10 to 15 minutes of my life at that point; I was worn out, and someone just tried to kill me.
Yeah, fun times.
Benjamin Bender, Retired Police Detective St Louis Metropolitan Police, answers:
For me its almost getting thrown off a 6 story bridge that was over a freeway while fighting a guy who outweighed me by 100 lb or watching a Woman burn alive 3 feet from me that I would have saved if I had arrived literally 10 seconds earlier.
Bridge incident story starts as all my stories do. One day while on “routine” patrol (again on a day my permanent partner had a Kelly Day…which was a common thing for me to get the call of the century while he was off….drove him nuts).
I got a call for a “vehicle accident” on the Freeway, I-55 near the North Bound exit onto the Poplar Street bridge. Traffic often backed up on that on ramp and rear end collisions were common. I was in an area not my normal one because my partner Blake was off I got stuck in a sector car that a guy was off and would be deadheaded. When I got the call it was crucial that I take one particular hidden on ramp to arrive at the location the quickest. I unwisely chose to go to one that was 2 blocks further (because the other was hard to find off an alley hardly marked and it was dark).
When I pulled up 3 cars had been in an accident. A drunk in the rear slammed into a guy who slammed into a 3rd car in front. The furthest car in front had a Mother in Law in it. The Son in law was the middle car. Drunk as I said..in the rear ramming and causing it.
Well as I pull up the Mother in laws car erupts in flame from gas leaking out of the tank by the back bumper. She is trapped in the car but nobody had got her out by breaking the window. Nobody noticed the leaking fuel. By the time I run to her the flame is fully over and in the back seat of the car. I break the window and cut her seat belt …go to pull her 100 LB body out like a kid but just before I can the flame billows over and engulfs both of us…the entire car bumper to bumper. I drop away and lose most of my exposed hair and a shirt. She burned alive in front of us..and the Son in law. I then had to take him to the station and sit there while he called his wife and told her he just rear ended her Mother and she died.
If that was my beat or I knew that exit better she would have lived. 100%
Second was a Home Invasion robber wanted for many crimes was leading Cops from 6 or more jurisdictions on a high speed chase through the City and County. I was listening in on the radio and correctly guessed he would go for the bridge over the Mississippi to get to Illinois. The chase went on for over an hour and I correctly deduced he was circling the rabbit hole to get home to Illinois and couldn’t find the bridge on ramp.
I went to the easiest one for him to get to based on his location north of the city. I then cause a traffic jam on the 1 lane on ramp by ordering 1 car to stop on the ramp and not move until I said ok. 10 Min of round about chase later…sure enough…here he comes. Goes on the side of cars as much as he can till its blocked..gets out on foot and starts running up the ramp to the bridge on foot with me 10 feet behind..letting him run a bit and get tired before we fight.
So…he gets higher up and apparently then did get tired and want to fight. When it didn’t go well for him he tried to jump off the side of the bridge (he didn’t realize that the earth rise fell away to a long drop the higher you went up…he thought ground was about 10 feet down or something). I instinctively grab his forearm as he went and I held a second. Then I felt his weight pulling me over. I knew I was going over now…I saw the terror in his eyes as he realized he had screwed up and was about to get very hurt and or dead. I then made the split second decision to let go. I saw his eyes go wide as saucers as I said…”bye”…and let go. He fell 60 feet and shattered both legs and his pelvis and lived. Almost got ran over too. That scared the shit out of me. He came sooo close to pulling me over head first…not feet first like he fell.
Love the dark humor, love the voices. I hope you enjoyed them as well. Ready for a fun exercise? Take one of these fascinating stories and describe the officer who told the tale. No clicking the name to peek at their profile picture!
By Sue Coletta
First, let’s define the word “muse.”
A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.
An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.
What happens inside the brain?
Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.
Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?
First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.
Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.
The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.
During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?
Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.
The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.
What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer?
Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.
Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …
During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.
High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.
You can read the full report here.
Let’s break it down in easier terms.
The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.
“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”
He discovered more differences.
Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.
Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.
What’s the best way to summon creativity?
Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.
Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?
The Bells were a turbulent Scottish clan that stopped throwing rocks at their enemies long enough to move to Ulster during the great Scot migration of the 1600s. After several generations in Ireland, one of us, William Bell of County Armagh, decided to give America a whirl, landing in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s. From this line your humble correspondent emerged in the far-off land known as Los Angeles.
A couple of weeks ago I went with my wife and daughter to Ireland, to see what I could see. I thought I’d share a bit about the trip, and how it relates to writing.
Since we really wanted to get to know the place, we decided to rent a car and drive around the island.
Which meant driving on the left side of the road.
Do you know how hard that is for an American? Especially on these twisting former bridle paths they have the temerity to call roads. My wife was constantly saying, “Too close!” as I consistently veered toward the shoulder. That’s because I was trying not to get hit by the oncoming vehicles, several of which were TOUR BUSES. These behemoths didn’t even slow down and took up every bit of space between lane line and whatever was on the other side: stone wall, grass, dirt, the occasional cow. Driving in Ireland feels like a 300-pound man going cave spelunking. I survived the ordeal through a combination of quick reflexes and sheer terror.
Which is how writing should feel sometimes, yes? If you’re never a bit scared of what you’re writing you’re not going far enough. And just like these automotive jaunts brought us to a new and wonderful location, so too will your risky writing take you to story stuff you would have missed otherwise.
My favorite part about a research trip is walking around, listening, seeing, drinking it all in. Speaking of which, the pubs were a delight. Like at the wonderful Sin é in Cork. Here’s a bit of it:
Our barman, Tony, welcomed us with a big Irish smile and was more than happy to offer some tips on seeing Ireland. “Don’t do just the tourist stops. Stop in the little towns and villages and walk around during the day. Then go to the pubs.”
So when we walked around, I looked around. Some of the things I noticed:
Irish eyes really do smile. I saw some of the most gorgeous eyes on the lasses, and dancing eyes on the lads. There’s an old saying that a fellow has “the map of Ireland on his face,” and it holds true. There’s a distinctive Irish look, especially on the men—the kind of face you can imagine with a pipe, regaling you with a story about the banshee or the little people.
I found something else to be true: the Irish love to talk. There were a couple of occasions when we needed to get on the road. But an inn keeper here and a villager there kept up with friendly gab. We’d probably still be in Ireland if, on our last morning there, I hadn’t grabbed old Aidan’s hand (“I worked thirty-five years for Aer Lingus. Then was in Mozambique and oh, that was somethin’ all right …”) and said, “Thanks, but we’ve gotta run.”
We Americans always gotta run, which is the source of some amusement to the Irish.
Lesson: Lap up the sights, sounds, and smells on your research trips—and especially listen to the people.
Find the Gold in the Obstacles
My favorite encounter occurred by way of an inconvenience. Our rental car started acting funny, and the key card had a “low battery” warning. Luckily we were near the Kerry airport and went in for a word with the Hertz man. Who was not in his trailer. (Kerry airport is about the size of an elementary school playground.) So I went next door to see the Avis man, who told us the Hertz man should be back “in a bit.” It was more like three bits, but he finally arrived.
The Hertz man made a call and told us, “Go out the exit there and turn left and go to the top of the hill. Turn left again and go until you see a shop on the right. On the other side of the shop you’ll see a sign for Tom Murphy’s place. He’ll fix you up.”
Dutifully, we followed the directions and pulled into a dirt yard full of haphazard cars, piles of old tires, and a couple of trailers from a 1959 surplus sale.
No one was in either trailer. Then from an old house next door came the biggest Irishman I’ve ever seen. Think Hagrid from Harry Potter, only with a haircut. He also had the thickest Irish brogue this side of Barry Fitzgerald. And he talked fast. So after replacing the key battery and test driving the car he rat-a-tatted, “No worries about the motor andlikethatyasee? If there’s somethin’ wrong with the motor ye’ll see a yellow light andlikethat, yaknow? But if ya don’t see it it’s no worries andlikethat, okay?”
Okay! I wasn’t about to argue with the man.
Which is to say, the best part about research for me is finding something unexpected and delightful, which often happens when you meet an obstacle and are forced to push through it.
Times Are Always Tight For Poets
In Galway, we strolled along Shop Street, known for its (shockingly) shops. We really wanted to see the much-touted buskers, but I have to say the fare was, this day, disappointing. Several single acts (guitar, sax), and one fairly good trio. I was hoping for somebody like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now that’s a busker.
Anyway, toward the end of the street, we came upon a poet, with his little table and typewriter, offering to write a poem about anything upon request. Saw no one take him up on it, and then it began to spit rain. The poet had to gather up his things and run for cover.
Lesson: write poetry for fun, not profit, and bring an umbrella.
There is much more I could tell you about the trip, but I fear I’d end up like that friend who comes to dinner with 500 slides of his visit to Sri Lanka. Instead, I’ll leave you with one of those happy occurrences that come when you least expect it. It’s a title.
That car I told you about? Well, it went fritzy (yasee?) in the tiny car park in Galway (tiny car parks are all they have in Ireland. One false turn and you scrape off your side-view mirror). The car would not start. So I called Hertz, who called roadside assistance, who sent out a couple of fellas who arrived about forty minutes later. One was a squat, bald bloke who looked a bit like Michael Chiklis. He was chatty and charming, asked where I was from. I said, “Los Angeles,” and he said, “Oh, posh! Beverly Hills and all that!” I merely smiled, as I wanted him to get to work.
The other fellow was a tall red-headed lad in a rugby shirt. He was the serious one, told the chatty fellow to pop open the bonnet and try starting the car. It chugga-chugged but didn’t turn over. Rugby Lad fiddled with something and told the guy to try it again. It started. They stopped and started it one more time.
“Should be all right now,” Rugby Lad said. And with a wave and a smile from the jolly bald fellow, they were off.
I summoned my wife and daughter, who were waiting at a nearby restaurant. When they joined me my wife asked what had been the matter. I told her it was something about the injection system.
“Do you know what to do if it happens again?” my wife sensibly asked.
“Well,” I said, “I saw where he jiggled.”
To which my daughter, sitting in the back of the car, said, “Out of context, that sounds really strange.”
We laughed. But I did have my title: I Saw Where He Jiggled: My Trip to Ireland.
And … it’s good to be home!
So what’s a serendipitous event that occurred during one of your trips, research or otherwise?
Today I have the pleasure of hosting a long time and active member of TKZ – Sue Coletta – and featuring her May 3rd release, CLEAVED, published by Tirgearr Publishing. I pre-ordered her book at the great price of $0.99 ebook and can’t wait to read it. By the time you read this, her book will be officially OUT!
Sue is a talented crime fiction author of memorable characters, who writes in an evocative style tinged with horror. She’s here to talk about torturing characters and how far an author might go…on purpose. Yes, Sue would scare most normal people, but we’re writers. We can take it.
Take it away, Sue.
Being a crime writer tends to spill into everyday life. Not only do I go out of my way to drive by secluded swamps, woodlands, or bogs for potential body dump locations, but I’m also keenly alert and aware of the people around me. The shady guy who takes a few minutes too long while pretending to read magazines in the convenient store he intends to rob. The dude with white knee socks and sandals who sits alone at the lake, his gaze roaming the shoreline from behind the morning newspaper. He doesn’t fool me for a second. Obviously he’s scouting for his next victim. Then there’s the poor woman who’s clueless to her surroundings. In a few days, a breaking news report will confirm she’s Sandal Guy’s latest victim.
Do we really need to discuss driving by a wood chipper? I mean, c’mon! How many of you haven’t thought about stuffing a body in the chute?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
When crime writing burrows into our DNA, the world morphs into a place of perverse secrets, malevolent acts, and sinful deeds. We can’t help but see the signs. Okay, so maybe “normal” people don’t envision quite as much danger as we do, but I think it makes us far more interesting. Our spouses get caught up in our warped realities, too. My husband’s been known to point out perfect murder sites. Or he’ll hear about a desolate locale and ask if I want to take a ride, knowing I can’t resist.
“You mean that, honey?” I skip out the door, and my excitement bubbles over. “Woohoo! Road trip!”
Research is another matter entirely. When we have no real-life experience to pull from, we’re left with two choices: research until it feels like we’ve lived the scene, or put ourselves in the same position as our character. For me, the latter is much more fun.
My new psychological thriller CLEAVED opens with a woman trapped inside an oil drum. I’ve never been ensnared in any confined space, so I found it difficult to tap into the emotions of the scene. My solution? Lock myself inside an oil drum and hang out a while.
The conversation with my husband Bob went something like this…
Me: Hey, do we have any oil drums?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: Are they empty?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: What size are they?
Bob: 30 and 50 gallon. Why?
Me: If I climb inside, will you close the lid for me?
Me: Awesome. Let’s do this!
Dumbfounded, he followed me out the door. Turned out, he’d loaned the 50 gallon drum to our neighbor, so I started with the 30. The first problem I encountered was this. I couldn’t just step inside and squat. It’s way too narrow. Instead, hung on to the sides, hiked my knees to my chest, and then lowered myself to the bottom. Once crammed inside, I gave my husband the signal to lower the lid, but not secure the hasp. No need to get crazy, or give him any ideas he might regret later.
Pure blackness struck me hard. Also, my ankles and neck bent at odd angles. Pain seared bone-deep. My knees pinned my chest, laboring my breath. No matter how hard I tried I could not slow the adrenaline coursing through my mind, body, and spirit. The oxygen thinned with every patter, patter, patter of my heart, my mind spinning with scenarios of dying this way.
What an awful death—trapped, alone, unable to move more than my arms.
Every few minutes Bob asked if I was okay, which really ruined the ambiance. In order to concentrate, I sent him back inside. Later, he told me he watched from the window. Though as far as I knew at the time, I was alone. No one around to save me. Perfect.
Closing my eyes, I envisioned the scene. The darkness of night. Tree frogs chirping in the canopies of leaves around the marsh. A far off screech owl’s predatory cry pierced the frigid air. The subtle swish of water lapped against my unforgiving grave, rocking me from side to side.
Next, I concentrated on how my body responded. The pressure on my lungs was like being caught under a steel girder, squeezing each pocket of air dry. No longer did I control my breathing, my chest heaving much faster than I could regulate. Thoughts of death consumed me. My remains could stay undiscovered for days, weeks, months, even years. The psychological torture alone could be enough to destroy someone. My only chance of survival was to break free.
That question lingered. Numerous “What if’s” flitted through my mind. I won’t ruin the scene by telling you how, or even if, my character escapes. Since it’s the opening chapter you can find out by reading the “Look Inside” feature HERE.
After about 20 minutes or so, I emerged from the barrel. Next, I sent Bob to ask the neighbor if the 50 gallon was also empty. I needed to experience the difference because the character is entrapped in a 50 gallon drum, not a 30. After the “incident” of begging Bob to bury me in the backyard (story for another time!), the neighbors are all too familiar with my research stunts, so this request didn’t surprise him in the least. In fact, he was oddly excited to participate. I let him duct tape the lid close. This was really more for his benefit than mine since duct tape doesn’t stick well to steel.
Compared to the 30 gallon, my new digs felt like Club Med. Much more spacious, but the body position remained unchanged, ankles and neck seared with pain, knees compressing my lungs. All in all, my time spent inside the two oil drums turned out to be very educational and I wrote a much better scene. Win win!
Some may call crime writers unique or even weird, but no one can say we’re boring.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
Author Sage Quintano writes about crime. Her husband Niko investigates it. Together they make an unstoppable team. But no one counted on a twisted serial killer, who stalks their sleepy community, uproots their happy home, and splits the threads that bonds their family unit.
Darkness swallows the Quintanos whole–ensnared by a ruthless killer out for blood. Why he focused on Sage remains a mystery, but he won’t stop till she dies like the others.
Women impaled by deer antlers, bodies encased in oil drums, nursery rhymes, and the Suicide King. What connects these cryptic clues? For Sage and Niko, the truth may be more terrifying than they ever imagined.
Some authors attend real autopsies, spend nights in haunted houses, or travel to exotic places.
I’ve toured FBI: Quantico and CIA: Langley, shot various weapons at the FBI Academy firing range and watched a bomb squad blow up stuff at my local police department. I’ve had a flash bang grenade blown up at my feet to see what it was like, and I’ve blindfolded myself to fumble around in a dark room to see if I could sense walls.
Writers do peculiar things in the name of research. Tell us about your most memorable experiences, what you learned, and how you used it.
I heard Phil Klay on MSNBC talking about his fiction book entitled – Redeployment – and I was intrigued. The first thing that grabbed me was the fact that the book is fiction, a group of short stories. Klay is former military (see more about him below) and from what I’ve seen, many war books written by young men of his experience/background, they tend to write non-fiction, so he had me hooked. I also noticed his book was a 2014 National Book Award Winner. Very impressive.
I wanted to read Klay’s book for research. I’m currently writing a few Amazon Kindle World series books involving the military. Reading pure romance books on the subject of military lifestyle wasn’t satisfying my need for authenticity, especially when I’m in the head of my male characters.
I’ve been watching online videos on snipers and reading books written by Navy SEALS. Klay’s anthology is my latest attempt to get a feel for an authentic voice for the character I will be writing shortly. Since my market is generally women readers, I have to temper any research with how I would write a story for women, but I do love discovering male voices that connect with my own life experiences, similar to the guys I worked with in the oil fields. (Yeah, I have stories.)
I feel I must warn readers interested in this amazing book. It’s taken me awhile to read through it. The first person voices in these stories are intimate, poignant, and gripping. They are presented without judgment. It’s a stark reality without any solutions or answers, but I found an honesty to it. These stories have gotten me down and I find I have to pace myself in reading them. I read at night and there are some days I can’t pick up this book, but I love the rich distinctive style of the voices in this anthology. I highly recommend this book. No question. This book would make an interesting read for anyone looking for a good character study.
5 TIPS ON RESEARCH:
1.) GET IT RIGHT – Research is important for authenticity, to insure your book doesn’t get thrown against a wall. There are women readers serving in the military, so I would have to “get it right” for them, yet still appeal to a woman’s desire for romance.
2.) NEVER OVERDO – Too much jargon or acronyms can bore a reader. In my crime fiction books, I will use police procedural language in dialogue, but find a quick way to explain what things mean after I first mention it. It can be tricky, but reviewers have liked the subtle way I do this, without overkill that can slow the pace. It’s all about balance.
“You have TOD, doc?”
Chambers knew the medical examiner would be challenged to estimate time of death, given the conditions of the body.
3.) CAPTURE THE ESSENCE – Read research related books or watch videos to get a general feel for an attitude, lifestyle, or the types of characters and their backstories you want to portray, but NEVER copy another author’s work. To prevent the temptation, when I read books like Klay’s, I jot down notes of ideas for my own book, then set the research book down for days/weeks before I start on my story and I never read books like this WHILE I am writing. In fact, I don’t read books in the genre I’m writing while I am in the midst of a project. Your mind can put words onto the page subconsciously. Your story MUST be your own, to retain your own voice.
4.) NEED VISUALS – For action scenes or locations, search online for your own visuals. Practice describing what you see, to get your own interpretation as seen through the eyes of your character. If you have video, use your ears too. What sounds do you hear on location? What other senses can you pry from your own experiences? Using all the senses can be a rush, especially if they spring from your own life.
5.) FILL IN THE GAPS – Once you get your character’s voice in your head, add other things that fill in around him. How does he or she dress? How do they live? Who are his/her friends? Who does he/she trust? What baggage does he or she carry? What’s the last thing he or she would do, then make them do it in your story – to face their demons. This gets into character – another topic – but my natural next step after I get a distinctive voice in my head, is to fill in a visual of my character’s life. Then I’m ready to write.
1.) What research books have stayed with you long after you’re written the book?
2,) Do you have any recommended reading for me on authentic military action, jargon, and dialogue?
ABOUT THE BOOK
Phil Klay’s Redeployment takes readers to the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos.
Phil Klay – Author Phil Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer. His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times,Newsweek, The Daily Beast, New York Daily News, Tin House, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Klay is a 2014 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Honoree.
“In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory of the human condition in extremis. Redeployment is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”
–Dexter Filkins, The New York Times Book Review
So the other day I was sitting in my living room, taking a short break from the keyboard. I think I was putting on some shoes. I don’t wear shoes if I can avoid it. For me, flip flops are a form of dressing up.
And then boom.
I mean, a literal boom, contemporaneous with a slight shaking of the house.
Having grown up in L.A., and been shaken and stirred many times, my immediate thought was that we were having a small earthquake. But what was that boom? It sounded like an over-caffeinated UPS guy trying to get me to the front door.
I sat and listened and waited. No more shakes. No more booms. A quick look out the window. No UPS guy.
Back to work. Half an hour later my wife comes home and says that the major street near us is completely blocked off, with cop cars and fire trucks all over the place. She asked me if I knew what happened.
I reported the boom and said, “Let’s go see.”
We walked around the corner and found yellow police tape across the intersection and a traffic cop diverting cars. We walked to the opposite side of the street and down to where all the action was. Somebody said a house had caught on fire.
I went up to an LAPD officer and told him about the boom. He took my statement. Then a news van pulled up at the corner and a reporter with her camera guy comes striding toward me.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she says.
I told her about the boom and the shake.
“Can I put you on camera?” she asked.
Twist my arm. It took her camera guy about fifteen seconds to set up. And then it was a go. She asked, “Tell me what you heard.”
I said, “Well, I was sitting at home working on my latest James Scott Bell bestselling thriller, when …”
Uh, no. I let that opportunity slip away. I merely reported the facts.
What had happened was that a detached garage blew up and caught on fire. They pulled out two charred bodies. Which had me thinking meth lab or some other illicit activity gone bad. But there were no immediate answers.
That evening I was on the news. You can catch my five seconds of fame here:
Two days later Cindy and I decided to walk past the scene from the alley, where the garage door faced. There we encountered a man in boots and heavy gloves, raking the debris. We introduced ourselves to Tom Pierce, an independent fire investigator with about forty years experience. He was most friendly, and when I subtly mentioned I was a thriller writer, he gave us a little seminar on his investigatory techniques.
Turns out the victims were a mother and son, Guatemalan. She was in her seventies, he in his thirties. The arson team didn’t find enough butane or propane for a drug lab, but there was a heavy smell of gasoline. One theory is that the guy was cleaning something with gasoline and the fumes built up and someone struck a match. Whatever it was, there was instant conflagration, and the two residents didn’t have a chance.
This sad scenario is obviously fodder for the thriller mind. So were the details that Mr. Pierce shared with me—burn patterns, how he breaks up the scene into quadrants, the possible sources of ignition. All now safely packed away in my mental filing cabinet.
Because, for a writer, all of life is material. And it doesn’t have to be something as big as an explosion in your own neighborhood. It could be as small as a bit of snagged conversation, or the curious way one person is looking at another.
Everything you encounter can lead to ideas, plots, characters, scenes, bits, beginnings, endings. Keeping your mind in an open and unlocked position is easy once you get into the habit.
When you see something that lights a little fire in your imagination, add some wood to it (I can’t seem to get away from fire metaphors). The wood is What if? Let it burn.
When you’re in this creative state, let yourself go. Turn off your “inner editor.” Even more, push yourself off a cliff and grow wings on your way down (a favorite recipe of the late, great Ray Bradbury). Some of your best stuff will be found on that marvelous trajectory.
Finally, remember this bit of advice from Ann Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
So what about you? How often does “real life” play into your fiction? Your creativity?
I have a friend (hereinafter referred to as “Friend”) who is a brilliant and creative guy, one of the smartest and nicest people I know. Each and all of those qualities made it very difficult for me to hear the story he was telling me. Friend had a creative project (not a book). He needed some technical assistance to bring it to fruition; to that end he procured the services of a company (hereinafter referred to as “Company”) which is based outside of the state where he resides. Company, without Friend’s knowledge, outsourced the work he hired them to do to one of Company’s subsidiaries in another country. That subsidiary company has now hijacked the project. Friend now cannot access his project. Further, after tendering his payment to Company, he is not getting his telephone calls returned. After commiserating with Friend about this matter I did a bit of research and within sixty seconds found all sorts of reasons why Friend shouldn’t have come within five hundred miles of Company. Specifically, I found a number of instances where Company had outsourced work, violated working agreements, suddenly became non-responsive to client queries, and in at least two cases was sued for breach of agreement. Friend was shocked. He wondered how was I able to find out what I did, and so quickly. He asked me if I have access to some sort of super-secret website that only attorneys and private investigators can visit. My answer to that question was and is…
…no. There is a wealth of information available online, for free, to anyone, at anytime, which will aid a prospective buyer of services or seeker of soulmates in making a decision regarding same. Given that writers and authors (particularly independent ones) frequently outsource tasks such as (final) manuscript typing and/or editing, cover artwork, and the like, the availability of such information becomes particularly important before you entrust Your Precious, which you spent hundreds of hours bringing to fruition, to a stranger. You should be doing due diligence before you retain the services of a company or a professional, before you go out on that first or second date (or before your offspring does), or before you make a reservation at that hotel. There are a few ways that you can do it so and you don’t need to a Captain Midnight decoder ring or the keys to the kingdom to do so. I do these things before I deal with anyone. I am not a genius by any means, so if I can do it I am sure that you can as well. Or better.
My first step, in the case of services, is to look at online reviews. You can get these by searching, for one example, “(hotel name here) reviews.” While it is rare that there won’t be at least a couple of negative reviews for any business that you search, if you find several that list the same complaints (“roaches on the floor,” drug deals transacted openly in the lobby,” “sex industry workers trolling in the parking lot”), then you’ll want to go elsewhere, unless, of course, you’re looking for that type of thing. The same applies to a plumber, garage door repairman, or landscape professional. If most or all of the comments are negative, there is probably a problem with the service. There are paid sites that keep track of this sort of thing, such as Angie’s List, but the Better Business Bureau website is free and is a good place for further checking as well.
If you want to see whether the service, business, or prospective soulmate has real problems, however, the gold standard of information for the average citizen is the website maintained by your local clerk of courts. Note well: not every court in every jurisdiction has case information online. Many do, however, and if the court having jurisdiction of your area (or the area of the business or individual you are curious about) does it is worth doing a case search of your local municipal court and court of common pleas, for civil and criminal cases. Keep in mind that there are any number of reasons why someone may be the subject of a court action, or the filer of same. If, however, you find several breach of agreement actions in the case of a business, or a number of felony/misdemeanor charges filed against your prospective Romeo or Juliet, you may want to seek services or love elsewhere, or at least bring up what you’ve found to the object of your research and give them a chance to explain themselves. Doing so over the phone or in a public place is recommended.
Last of all…there is always social media, particularly Facebook. If that prospective date feels the urge to post every random thought that races through their head, including how nervous they are about whether the Wassermann test they are having tomorrow will be positive… well, their impulse to share everything with the world tells you something right there, does it not? And if they can’t resist posting selfies of their latest, self-administered tattoo, do you really want to get a look at that in real time? If they haven’t updated anything in six months, however, there is an excellent chance that they won’t be telling the world about the great time they had with you, when and if you and your prospective sweetheart reach the point where you’re, uh, having a great time.
The lesson here? Before you commit your time, your manuscript (or anything else), your money, or your heart to something or someone…take a few minutes and do some research. It may save you from problems down the road.
Does anyone have any stories they would like to share about how researching a company or person helped to save them from a bad experience? Or where the failure to research caused them problems later? We’re not looking for complaints about specific companies or individuals here, so please…no names. Situations, however, are welcome. Thank you.
Today, I welcome to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, New York Times bestselling author, Tosca Lee. Because of the historical nature of so much of Tosca’s writing, I asked her to share her thoughts on research. Enjoy!
I’m asked often how I research my historical novels. I’ve steadfastly avoided writing about this topic until now I think because it’s such a personal process—one dictated by how a person sorts, digests, and stores information. None of us will do it the same. That said, having had to pack the equivalent of a dissertation’s worth of research into six months on occasions before, I have picked up a few tricks.
1) Start pedestrian. Do what everyone else does: Google. Wikipedia. YouTube. See what’s available on Amazon. Read and watch widely.
2) Acquire key references for your library. These are the staple works and experts that books, articles and documentaries about your topic refer to time and again. For the first century, it’s the historian Josephus. For period warfare, Carl Von Clausewitz. Find your staple information.
3) Find specialty outlets. This is where I divert to the History Channel. National Geographic. The Discovery Channel. Coursera. Two of my power tools: The Great Courses and the (in my opinion) less-utilized and under-appreciated iTunes U. These last two, in particular, are rich sources of highly-organized, consumable information by leading experts and ivy-league academics. True, the Great Courses are not cheap. If scrimping, look for the course on eBay, or order only the transcript. iTunes U. is free.
4) Identify your experts—the writers of the staple books (or their commentaries), the leading academics or specialists teaching the lectures or commenting in the documentaries. These may also be area experts or locals living in your setting (travel guides, bloggers and book authors are excellent for this) or doing what they do.
5) Recruit. I never write a novel without at least a small group of experts in my pocket to either point me in the direction of information I need or to directly and expediently answer a question as I’m working. Don’t be afraid to write and introduce yourself and how you came to find them. Be direct with queries and questions, and therefore respectful of their time. Curators of specialized information are eager to help someone who shares their enthusiasm. Offer them the gift of some of your previously published work if they express willingness, and a consulting fee if you have the resources. If you find yourself relying on their help at regular intervals, be gracious with a token of appreciation. And of course remember them in your acknowledgments and with a finished copy of the project. Having made friends with several of my sources, the research has become easier; when I start a project in the purview of one of them, I ask for a starting bibliography, which cuts down on steps 1 and 2.
Of course you need a general idea what you want to accomplish when you start researching. That said, I have found it most helpful to let the research inform my outline, particularly in writing historical fiction. I find it most helpful to let the political, cultural and religious climate of a point in history inform my characters’ backstory and upbringing. In fact, I have three rules as I create historical characters in particular: their lives must adhere to or put an interesting (but plausible) twist on their historical record; their lives and actions must be in keeping with their political and cultural setting (even a visionary is only a visionary relative to setting); and ultimately, their pains, joys and actions must ring true to human nature.
My research library for my first book consisted of some fifteen items. My library for Iscariot, more than 100. There’s an inherent risk in so much information and it is this: the temptation to put every tasty morsel of obscure but fascinating information into your prose.
Don’t do it.
Despite my telling myself this advice, my first draft of Iscariot was 800 pages. Part of that is my own habit of over-writing first drafts. The other part of that was an overabundance of interesting stuff. Too much clever innuendo that required first educating the reader.
Readers are not reading fiction to be educated, but entertained (or else they would be reading the same research material as you). Take the time to read and absorb everything pertinent—not for their sake, but yours. Sort your information in a way that you can find what you need when you need it. These days, I organize information by topic in Scrivener. But having absorbed everything I’ve read, listened to, and watched, I try to push it all away when I sit down to write. I let loose, keeping maps or immediate references nearby if necessary, but adding historical details in very small doses later—and mostly to the first part of the novel, where I am buying credibility with the reader.
Save yourself the trouble of hashing through a barrage of information by cutting to the heart of your story from the get-go. Because ultimately, the storyline that will draw and keep your readers is not the product of your diligent research (that will only keep you out of hot water with the critics)… but the emotional connection with a character’s hopes, dreams, failures and fears—the things that bind us all, regardless of time and place.
Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of Iscariot; Demon: A Memoir; Havah: The Story of Eve, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times best-seller Ted Dekker (Forbidden, Mortal and Sovereign). Her highly anticipated seventh novel, The Legend of Sheba, releases September 9, 2014.
Tosca received her B.A. in English and International Relations from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts with studies at Oxford University. She is a lifelong world adventure traveler and makes her home in the Midwest. To learn more about Tosca, visit www.toscalee.com.