Doing Your Homework

Reminder: My NOOK con­test will end June 10th. Don’t skip a chance to win a NOOK Sim­ple Touch. And, I’ll have gift cer­tifi­cates for sec­ond and third place win­ners. You can’t win if you don’t enter. Rules are here.

Write what you know, every­one says. If I did that, I’d have writ­ten one (maybe) very bor­ing book. Write what you can learn is a much bet­ter piece of advice. Since I’ve never been a cop or a covert ops spe­cial­ist, I have to rely on research to make my books ring true.

The Inter­net makes doing research much eas­ier than it was in days of hav­ing to go to the library, but it’s not your only resource. It’s a great place to start, but some­times you need more.

I’ve been work­ing on a sequel to DEADLY SECRETS. As read­ers of this blog know, I’m not much of a plot­ter, so I don’t do a lot of research until I come to a place I need the details. After all, if I don’t know what’s going to hap­pen next, I can’t very well be look­ing it up, can I?

DEADLY SECRETS is set in a small town. Not want­ing to get into the Jes­sica Fletcher/Cabot Cove Syn­drome, I didn’t want another graphic homi­cide to be the back­bone of the new book. After all, the mur­der in DEADLY SECRETS was the first homi­cide in decades in my made-up town of Maple­ton, Col­orado. Thus, I decided to use a cold case as the basis for the new book.

NOOK Simple TouchNook Con­test Ques­tion #7 (Remem­ber to use the Con­tact Form to answer the ques­tion, and put “Nook Con­test” in your response.)
What tele­vi­sion show do I credit with my start in writ­ing?

And now, back to today’s post:

First deci­sion was to fig­ure out how the cold case comes to the atten­tion of my cop hero. I decided to have it based on a dog dis­cov­er­ing a bone. I wrote about 5 chap­ters before I con­sulted one of my expert friends to find out whether my cops had done an accept­able thing in dig­ging up the area where the bone was found and bring­ing every­thing back to sift through the dirt in more favor­able conditions.

What he told me was that if there was any pos­si­bil­ity the bone was human, that the cops would have to call in the Coroner’s Office imme­di­ately and leave the bone where it was. Yikes! Who knew?

Now, I could have had the per­son who found the bone (an Ani­mal Con­trol offi­cer) not know this and bring the bone to the police sta­tion, but my expert told me that every­one would have been trained in pro­ce­dure, and the last thing I wanted was to have my cops be stupid.

Rewrite. Note to self: check facts before writ­ing 5 chap­ters based on an assump­tion, no mat­ter how log­i­cal it seems. I ended up hav­ing a very infor­ma­tive chat with some­one at the Coroner’s Office. After I apol­o­gized for tak­ing up his time, he said he was more than happy to help some­one get things right, since there’s so much wrong infor­ma­tion out there, espe­cially on television.

Next plot point to research: one of my eccen­tric char­ac­ters was blow­ing up tree stumps on his prop­erty. Is this legal in the county on which I’m bas­ing my book? If it’s not legal,ll my cop will behave dif­fer­ently than if it is. An Inter­net search of the Sheriff’s Office’s web­site yielded a con­tact infor­ma­tion offi­cer. I emailed her and she was happy to pro­vide me the answer I needed, plus a lit­tle bonus information—I’d given my char­ac­ter 30 acres, but the PIO informed me that if he had 35 acres, he’d avoid a lot of zon­ing reg­u­la­tions. Find/Replace. My char­ac­ter now lives on a 35 acre property.

Some tips:

1. Cul­ti­vate sources. These can be your friends, peo­ple you meet at con­fer­ences, on line, on an air­plane, in line at the movies. You can ask a doc­tor, your nail tech—anyone who knows more about the field in ques­tion than you do. I belong to a num­ber of Yahoo groups that are filled with experts will­ing to help writ­ers get their facts straight. These focus on crime fic­tion, but there should be groups you can tap in any field.

2. Use the Inter­net to find the local agency/organization/expert. Most will have con­tact infor­ma­tion. If you’re shy, email is a great way to start. But, if you explain that you’re writ­ing a book, I’ve found most peo­ple are happy to help. For ROOTED IN DANGER, I searched Face­book look­ing for a pilot who would answer a cou­ple of ques­tions, and he not only responded, but took an active inter­est in help­ing me get things right through­out the book..

3. Use the phone. Usu­ally, the per­son who answers the phone isn’t going to be the per­son you need, but they’ll know where to trans­fer your call. And, with only 1 excep­tion, I’ve always been called back.

Next week, I’ll be back talk­ing about what to do with all these facts you’re going to get.


17 thoughts on “Doing Your Homework

  1. Terry, I’m not much of a plot­ter either, so I do what you do — when I get there, I research it. I have to know enough to project myself into the scene — never mind if the infor­ma­tion gets into the novel (explic­itly) or not. For my cur­rent WIP, a sci fi novel, I researched the World Court and its mis­sion because one of the courts in the novel is sup­posed to have a sim­i­lar one. I usu­ally have to do the research before I can write any­thing about it {gri­mace} because oth­er­wise I’m not “there.”

    • I’m okay sketch­ing out the basics of a scene (right now, I’m writ­ing one on a search by a cadaver dog), but I get the ini­tial infor­ma­tion, then write the scene, then see if my con­sul­ta­tions with experts require tweak­ing. Of course, if I can reach my con­sul­tants first, that helps, but too often there’s a delay, and I don’t want to stop writing.

  2. Exel­lent post, Terry. Lit­tle jars read­ers more than hap­pen­ing upon a fac­tual error. It rips the reader out of the story and can destroy reader trust, mak­ing dif­fi­cult to read on.

      • Yes — and if you’re lucky, you’ll find these peo­ple BEFORE the book is pub­lished. I owe a crit part­ner dearly for telling me the High­lander SUV doesn’t come with a man­ual trans­mis­sion! Never thought to look that one up.

  3. Terry, excel­lent post and so true. My sec­ond book which is due out in Jan­u­ary 2013 Burn in Hell, A Jake Car­ring­ton Mys­tery was fun to write because I knew my sub­ject so well. I worked at a ceme­tery for over ten years as office man­ager and assisted in cre­ma­tions. So I took that, mixed it up a girl with a gam­bling prob­lem, who owes the mob money and to make mat­ters worse have her dat­ing a cop. Fun, Fun Fun.. PS I love your blog.

    • Thanks, Mar­ian — and I’m sure you talked to gam­blers and cops, too!

  4. Some­times, it’s all in the details. I had a plumber hero and had to research plumb­ing. I have a hero­ine look­ing for a spe­cific hand­bag and had to research the hand­bag because it was made in the six­ties. A hero baker–talked to a baker. It makes the dif­fer­ence. Good post!

    Mur­der she wrote? LOL

    • Vicki, yes, I’ve researched lux­ury vehi­cles, expen­sive men’s suits, and just about every­thing else. I’m lucky that my brother is/was a cook/chef with a pas­try spe­cialty. He was golden for Sav­ing Scott (and sev­eral of the recipes I share in that book are his)

  5. Great tips, Terry. I had to laugh at your “notes to self”. I have done the same thing when I dis­cov­ered an assump­tion was not cor­rect, or what worked in a pre­vi­ous novel no longer applies.

    • Writ­ing mod­ern day sto­ries means tech­nol­ogy will prob­a­bly be obso­lete before you get the book pub­lished. So, far, about 90% of my cadaver dog scene is “accu­rate” and the other details seem to be “could go either way,” but I’d never trust my instincts.

  6. Nice research tips. What has been your favorite thing to research?

    Nook Con­test

    • bn, I sup­pose my ‘favorite’ would have been the recipes for Sav­ing Scott. After all, some­one had to test them to make sure they were good!

  7. Hey Terry, I have found the same prob­lem. I fin­ished my book and began revising/rewriting it. Then I sat down brain­stormed with my brother-in-law he pointed out plot holes. Well darn that way won’t work. So I began again chang­ing loca­tions. I bogged down again. Then it dawned on me how to begin it again. I did con­tact Hon­olulu PD with some ques­tions, my story is based in Hawaii, about where the detec­tives would be located. I went to another loop for a ques­tion when sev­eral peo­ple poked holes in the way I had han­dled hand­ing off a tod­dler. By brain­storm­ing with two friends I found a way to work it. Now I’m happy to say I can keep most of what I’ve writ­ten with a few dele­tions and addi­tions. Good luck with yours Terry. I’m not a plotter/planner. :-)

    • the hard­est part of research is know­ing what you don’t know so you can research it.

  8. Hi Terry,
    Loved your blog today. As a reader, noth­ing irri­tates me more than really being involved in a book, totally lov­ing it & then all of a sud­den there is some­thing writ­ten that I know is com­pletely inac­cu­rate. It can make it dif­fi­cult to trust that what the author has writ­ten in the rest of the story is accu­rate. I can think of maybe two or three titles where it was bad enough that I was unable to fin­ish the book.

    Nook Con­test

    • That’s so true. Make one mis­take and the reader will won­der what else you got wrong. Reader trust is critical.

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