Research: In Search of the Answers to Questions Unknown*

Research: In Search of Answers to Questions Unknown

Hilarious! Note: not my meme, not my typos. 😉

Today, Mystery Novelist Margot Kinberg visits Murder Blog to discuss how she does her research. Regular readers of the blog might remember Margot from her post Untrue Crime I always find other writers’ process fascinating, especially when it comes to research.

Welcome, Margot!

Thanks very much for hosting me, Sue. Folks, you don’t need me to tell you how important research can be in making a novel feel authentic. And for many readers, authenticity plays a critical role in whether they enjoy a book. So, research can lead to better books. And writers know this. For me, research is especially important, because I have an academic background. Spend even a short time in academia, and you’ll soon learn that ‘doing your homework’ is essential to writing anything. So, it’s often not so much a question of whether to research, but of how to go about it.

The answer to that question is different for everyone, because every novel’s different. That means every novel requires a different sort of research. That said, though, here are a few lessons I’ve learned about researching for novels. Hopefully they’ll be helpful.

Expertise can be hidden just about anywhere.

It’s true. Here’s an example. Not very long ago, I attended a large, university-wide meeting. During one of our breaks, I happened to be chatting with a colleague. It came out that he’s not only a lawyer, but also a former police officer. I’ve served on committees with this colleague, and never knew that before.

Lesson learned: you never know who might have expertise or background that you may find helpful. People don’t always advertise what they’ve experienced, where they’ve been and what they can do. So, I’ve learned to be open to what others have to offer.

People won’t know you’re interested in their expertise if you don’t tell them.

This was a little more difficult for me, because I’m an introvert by nature. But it’s important. Remember that colleague I mentioned? Once I found out about his background, I took a chance and told him that I write crime fiction. It turned out to be exactly the right decision. Not only did he show interest in my work (always a great moment for a writer), but also, he offered to serve as a resource if/when I need real-life facts about local police procedure or state legal issues. What a wonderful offer! And I wouldn’t have been able to tap into it if I hadn’t told him what I do. What’s more, we had an enjoyable conversation about crime fiction, cop shows, and more.

Lesson learned: Tell people you’re a writer. Doesn’t matter if you’ve been published. You never know what rich resources you’ll find unless you do. Besides, lots of people think that being a writer is exciting. These people have likely never written a query letter. 😉

Most people are delighted to be of help.

One of the things I had to get past was the myth that people wouldn’t be interested in answering my questions. And there are people like that. However, the vast majority of people are like my colleague. They’re glad to help, pleased to have been asked, and grateful that you have enough respect to want to get things right.

Case in point: A visit I paid to a local shop. I was looking for information about video surveillance (it playsResearch: In Search of Answers to Questions Unknown a role in my second novel, B – Very Flat). I’d worked in retail years ago, like many young people, but my information about theft prevention and video security was woefully outdated. So, I went to a local shop where I’m fairly well-known, and asked one of the management team about it. Turns out she was extremely helpful about what that store does. I learned a great deal.

I also learned a lot from a visit I paid to our local police department. I had some questions about police procedure with respect to searches and interviews, and wanted to get it right. The officer I spoke to couldn’t have been more helpful and more willing to answer my questions. There were, naturally, certain things she couldn’t tell me. But what she did share was valuable.

The same goes for the very helpful staff of the Valley Forge National Park. Some of the Joel Williams novel I’m revising takes place there, and I had some questions about police jurisdiction in US national parks. It’s more complicated than you might think. So, I asked my questions, and the staff member I worked answered all of them, promptly, courteously, and accurately. She even took the time to check her answers with another expert before getting back to me.

Lesson learned: Most people really are happy to help. They appreciate that you respect their knowledge, and they’re flattered that you see their expertise. So, go ahead and ask. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. This isn’t easy if you’re an introvert, but it’s worth the effort.

Fair enough. But what about those cases where asking people isn’t going to work? For instance, one of the issues I address in Past Tense is the very painful and personal topic of abortion. It’s not the sort of thing people generally bring up, and even close friends may not want to talk about it.

In cases like that, I’ve found that there are rich online resources that have informed my writing. There are certainly plenty of strong opinions posted on the topic, and some people have shared their personal experiences online. I found it extremely helpful to read some of those accounts and opinions.

Research: In Search of Answers to Questions Unknown

Margot’s new release. I’ve added this to my TBR pile.

Online articles, newspaper archives and so on were helpful to me in another way, too. The main plot point in Past Tense is a murder that took place in 1974. As I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, the world has changed dramatically since then. I wanted to do my best to depict that time authentically. So, I read articles and advertisements from the era. It helped me get a sense of the technology of the time, the burning topics (and there were plenty!), and more.

So, what’s the main lesson I’ve learned? I never assume that I know everything I need to know when I write. Arrogance does not serve a story. I’ve learned that reminding myself to be humble and ask, or look up, or something, is well worth the effort. Does it make the writing process longer? Yup. Is it tiresome? At times. But it’s also fascinating, even exciting. And the end result is a book that feels more real, and invites readers to be drawn into the story. I say that’s well worth the time. (Note from Sue: Totally agree, Margot! Looking forward to reading Past Tense.)

Thanks again, Sue!

Research: In Search of Answers to Questions UnknownMargot Kinberg is a mystery novelist (she writes the Joel Williams series) and Associate Professor. She has also been blogging about crime fiction since 2009. She has written three Joel Williams novels and is currently working on the fourth. Margot blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Excellent site for crime fiction lovers. Highly recommend!

Connect with Margot on Facebook and Twitter.

All book covers are linked, but you can also find her latest release, Past Tense here.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Calypso.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue's short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show "Partners in Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud contributor to The Kill Zone (see details in full bio -- menu bar).

33 Comments

  1. Hi Sue, I enjoyed the blog with Margot and your comments. I wanted to get a view of what other writers do with regards to research. My website is filled with news posts of sex crimes. I started it to do research about crimes against kids since I am a survivor and I wrote a memoir about it. Now I’m writing a novel I need more research for regarding crimes one of the characters has committed. The first book is about incest and sex trafficking and is raw and graphic. I was encouraged by “Marred”, Sue, and your lack of queasiness about dealing with graphic topics. Also, after our little conversation on Goodreads about the lizard brain (lol) I thought I would say hi. Hi to Margot too. I see you two hang out at MMO sometimes as I do. Both of my books are about crimes but not mysteries. You gave me some ideas about research I might not have thought of. Mostly I do research from books and internet and am kind of shy about the idea of calling persons in law enforcement for info. This is getting long so I’ll sign off. Best, MJ

    • Hi M.J.,

      I’m really lucky in that I have numerous law enforcement friends who are always willing to help. However, for CLEAVED, the sequel to MARRED, I contacted the State Police, NH Fish & Game, my county’s Medical Examiner, a taxidermist and a deer expert. What I’ve found is that most professionals (law enforcement or otherwise) are always happy to help when you tell them you’re a writer. I even received a few thank you notes for ensuring my stories ring true. Cops, especially, love that. I understand not wanting to reach out. It can be scary, at first. However, most times you’ll be surprised by how willing law enforcement is to speak with authors.

      I’m so glad MARRED encouraged you! I won’t sugarcoat crime; it’s ugly, it’s painful for the family, and when it comes to sex crimes, no one wants to talk about it. By showing the real, raw truth, I’m hoping to do my part to change that. And you can too!

    • Thanks for the kind words, M.J. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sue is definitely an inspiration, isn’t she? And I’m glad you stop by MMO. I think it’s a terrific site, and I learn a lot there. Wishing you much success –

  2. Sue, thank you for hosting Margot. Be it her own blog posts, interviews or guest articles, she adds great value to her writing and is generous with her advice, as she is here providing useful tips on research. I particularly like the idea of meeting people for specific inputs for a story or novel. It also makes the plot more authentic. Thank you, Margot.

  3. Truly great article. And I couldn’t agree more.

    People do want to help, I’ve learned this too. When you write specific matters, especially when they are often portrayed in stories and films and tv shows, most of the time inaccuratley, people are especially happy to help, because they have at heart to makes things right.

    Because I write about the 1920s, most of my research is done on different material, but this only outline the fact that we can really learn about anything if we put in the time, the effort and the willingness to do so.
    JazzFeathers recently posted…Give in to the Feeling – A dieselpunk novella giveawayMy Profile

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jazzfeathers. I’m glad you’ve found people willing to help you do your research. As you say, most of the time, they do want to help, and they appreciate the fact that you want to get things right.

      It must be really interesting to learn about life in the 1920s – what a singular time! It’s a long time ago, but the information is definitely out there if we do the work.

    • Most do, yes. While writing CLEAVED I contacted so many experts, and all were thrilled to be of help. In fact, I even received emails thanking me for ensuring my stories ring true. Cops and crime writers seem to go hand-in-hand in an odd sort of way. Nice to see you, Sarah!

  4. I love posts about research and learning how others go about it. It’s also amazing the things we have to research. My current series is set in 1982 and 1983, and although I lived during that time (and should be able to remember much about it) I found myself having to do a good deal of research on the time frame.

    I’ve visited Point Pleasant where my series takes place and talked to several people about the town’s past. As Margot said, most are helpful and willing to share. (I did, however, encounter one very unfriendly person who had their own opinions about what I should be writing. Ugh!).

    These were all good tips from Margot. Thanks for hosting her, Sue, and thanks to Margot for an informative post!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mae! And it is amazing, isn’t it, how many things we don’t know for a fact, even if we lived through a given era. It really is important to ‘do the homework’ to get it right. I’m glad you found that most people are happy to help you. That’s what I found, too, even if there is the occasional person who – ahem – is less than helpful. As a rule, I’ve found it well worth the effort to at least ask. And after all, writers need to develop rhinoceros hides, anyway…
      Margot Kinberg recently posted…In Search of the Answers to Questions Unknown*My Profile

    • Your hard work shows in the books you write, Mae. LOL Don’t feel bad about the 80s. I had to research something from 2008!!! Crazy, right? In my defense, it was a TV series. Good thing I looked too, because it didn’t air till 2013. It’s always the tiny details that trip us up.

  5. Sue, thanks for hosting Margot on this fascinating topic.

    Margot, great advice. Research is a key element in a story to me as a reader. I especially like your advice about writing about something from years past. I hate to be reading a story set many years ago and the author slip up by having a character say a phrase or use a device that wasn’t around in that era. We get so accustomed to having technology at our fingertips we sometimes forget it hasn’t always been that way. Very informative post, ladies.
    Mason Canyon recently posted…In Mistletoe Release Blast {+ Giveaway}My Profile

    • Nicely said, Mason, and so true. I’m thrilled you enjoyed Margot’s post! She’s an inspiration, isn’t she?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. And I fully agree with you about historical novels. It really is important (to me, at least) that the dialogue, technology (if there is any) and so on be accurate. And that can be done, I think, without calling a lot of attention to it. I like historical novels to have that sense of authenticity.

  6. Great post, Margot and Sue! I know as a reader I can be completely thrown out of a story if something doesn’t ring true, so I appreciate when authors ‘do their homework’.

  7. What a fascinating post Margot and I appreciate all authors who put time and effort into their research – as you mentioned on your intro to this post on your own blog, there is nothing more likely to make me set a book aside if something that I know has been poorly researched – I find myself arguing with the book otherwise. As you say there are people you see often who have all sorts of untapped knowledge – anytime you want information on Patent Laws I’m your girl! 😉

    • Oh, thank you, Cleo! You’ve just given me a great idea for a story, and actually I find the law fascinating. I may tap your brain… I agree with you, too, about books that aren’t well researched. It strikes me as a case of the author not being conscientious enough to do the ‘homework.’ That probably is unfair (as an author, I know that research isn’t always easy). But I do think there are some basics authors ought to find out. Those sorts of inaccuracies do grate on me. Thanks for the kind words 🙂
      Margot Kinberg recently posted…In Search of the Answers to Questions Unknown*My Profile

    • Totally agree, Cleo. If the author didn’t do their homework, it ruins the story for me, too.

  8. Great post. Even I have to do a certain amount of research in speculative genres. Harder for me to interview an alien though. Some is easier, because murder happens in all genres too.

    • I’m glad you brought this up, Craig. Since this blog is geared toward crime writers we tend to focus on them, but you’re so right. Murder happens in all genres.

    • It certainly does, C.S. And I think even authors of speculative fiction have to research certain things. Perhaps not alien thought patterns (although that really would be interesting to know!), but plenty of other things. To me, one thing that really ‘makes’ a speculative fiction book is the sense that I can identify with the characters. And that takes research.
      Margot Kinberg recently posted…In Search of the Answers to Questions Unknown*My Profile

  9. Thanks for this great post. I am by nature quite shy and retiring but I now feel encouraged to ask more for help when it comes to research!

  10. Great post Margot and thanks Sue. I love a good bit of research. It’s the best part, apart from the wine at the launch party of course 😉

  11. Thank you so much for hosting me, Sue! 🙂

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