Unless you write epic fantasy—where the big challenge is convincing worldbuilding—most authors will need to set at least part of their novel in the real world. Since most of us have limited knowledge of the greater world, we need to research topics so our characters will know what they’re talking about.
As a writer who specializes in forensics and in grounding her series in a real and active police department, research and accuracy has become somewhat of a specialty. So what tips can I share about my research regimen? I mean, besides finding an amazing writing partner who takes on a good portion of research (lucky me!)…
• The Internet is a wonderful thing: From Google Earth and Google Books, to Wikipedia, to specific websites, the internet is a treasure trove of free facts, right at your fingertips. You might worry about that anyone can post information on the Internet and call it fact, but do enough research and you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of information out there is accurate (Wikipedia, for example, has the same accuracy ranking as the Encyclopedia Britannica because it is policed by so many experts). Now, if the NSA comes knocking because they’ve been following my web searches, I’m probably in big trouble. The web history of your average mystery writer is always a fascinating thing—from medical research, to burial techniques, to poisons, to bomb making—but it certainly could make you look pretty suspicious. *wink*
• Libraries are NOT outdated: Libraries try hard to keep their material current. And even some of the older books are still absolutely relevant depending on the topic. Libraries also have subscriptions to some specialized journals or to guides like the Chicago Manual of Style, which are pure gold for authors. My day job is at a university, so I also take advantage of several of the university libraries for more in-depth and cutting-edge scientific research and style guides.
• Talk to real people: I always hesitated to ask real people about their jobs because I was afraid I’d bother them. But the truth of the matter is that people love when you take an interest in what they do, and are flattered that you’d ask them. I’ve cold called police officers, a district attorney, fire fighters, a fire marshal, Witches, and many others. Not once has anyone been unwilling to generously share their time and knowledge with me. I now don’t have any compunction about picking up the phone to contact people… well, except for my contact in the Essex Detective Unit, part of the Massachusetts State Police. Detective Lieutenant Zuk runs the unit, and I’m always sure he should be out doing important things like catching real murderers, but he never fails to take the time to discuss protocols as well as legal and jurisdictional issues with me. People are simply amazing!
• Travel to where your novel is set: I can’t stress this point enough. If your novel is set somewhere other than where you live, do your best to try to get there. Google Earth/maps are fantastic, but it is nothing like being boots-on-the-ground in a real location. Our debut novel, Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It, changed substantially due to a trip to Massachusetts before we started to write. There’s a scene early on in the book where Dr. Matt Lowell, the team forensic anthropologist, is standing on the coast, looking out into Essex Bay, and something catches his eye. In reality, that was me standing in that exact spot, seeing the same thing. That moment changed the storyline of the book to something much stronger than our original outline. I’ve travelled to Massachusetts for each book that we’ve written, touring police departments, fire departments, Witch shops, museums, an observatory, and historic buildings. When you’ve stood in those places, you can believably write your characters standing there as well.
It’s so important to have your story anchored in its time and place. Failing to do so can jerk your reader out of the story itself, simply because they’ve tripped over an aspect that doesn’t ring true. Luckily, in this day and age, even if you can’t travel to where your novel is set, putting effort into your research can immerse your readers so completely into your story that they get lost there. And that’s the ultimate goal of every author.
A scientist specializing in infectious diseases, Jen J. Danna works as part of a dynamic research group at a cutting-edge Canadian university. Her true passion, however, is indulging her love of the mysterious through her writing. Together with her partner Ann, she crafts suspenseful crime fiction with a realistic scientific edge. Her Skeleton Keys blog has been listed as one of the top forensic blogs on the web. Jen lives near Toronto, Ontario with her husband and two daughters, and is a member of the Crime Writers of Canada.
The third Abbott and Lowell mystery, A Flame in the Wind of Death, was released in hardcover and e-book from Five Star in April. “At Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts, is a hot spot for Witch and tourist alike. But when a murder spree begins, a cop and scientist must team up to find the killer before a media circus unleashes, panic ensues, and more victims are killed…”