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.
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 plays 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.
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!
Margot 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!
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.