Mystery Research

Hmm. That title looks as if I mean that the research itself is a mystery. Like I open a phone book, close my eyes and try and point to a forensic specialty that looks interesting. I may actually do that one day. In the meantime, let me tell you how I research my mysteries.

You’ll notice that the picture accompanying this post is different than the last. That’s because the research tends to be different for each genre. Romance demands more ambiance. Suspense demands calibers and dimensions. The similarity is how I research. When I began to write, I realized that research was my biggest weakness. I had lots of friends who wrote historical fiction, and spent their time in libraries(that’s how old I am. They didn’t even have internet then). Well, I’m a nurse. And nurses don’t do libraries. We play with things. So I had to figure out how to use my strengths rather than my weaknesses. Which is why I am trained in death investigation, forensics, and tactical medicine.

I do my best research hands-on–as you can tell from the picture. That was taken at Tactical EMS School at Camp Ripley in Minnesota, where I took the training to be a medic on a SWAT team for my suspense With a Vengeance. Yeah, oh yeah, it was tough. I’ve been gassed, I’ve been flash-banged, and I’ve stood on the top of an 8-foot ladder and fallen backwards into a crowd of medics, assuming they’d catch me(they did. The only problem was that one guy, who really wanted to keep me safe, was 6’5″. We hit heads so hard I still can’t remember my social security number). But I can’t begin to tell you what a difference it made for me. Because I need to use all my senses in research. I need to taste it, see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. I need to find the symbolism and ritual in what I’m researching as much as the details of the science.

A good example is the research I did for my first suspense, A Man to Die For. I have a good friend who was a St. Louis City homicide officer.
“John,” I said. “Would you take me down to homicide so I can research?” I asked.
“Why?” he asked.
“So I can smell it.”
As you can imagine, there was quite a silence. “So you can smell it.”
“Uh huh. What does homicide smell like, John?”
Another silence. “Homicide.”
Just so you know, at that time, the St. Louis city homicide bureau, which was in a building erected in the 1920s, smelled like coffee, cigarettes, floor polish, and air freshener. That kind of thing cements a place, a job, a scene for me. Not only that, but as I was sitting there, two of the detectives had to leave. They stood up and picked fedoras off of a hat rack.
“What are the hats for, John?”
“Tradition. When you get transferred to homicide, you go down to Levine’s Hat Shop on Tucker Blvd and get a fedora, then have the brim trimmed to 3/4”. It’s called a Stingy Brim. Then you flip up the back like a duck’s ass.”
“But why?”
He laughed. “Do you know how messy a jumper scene can be?”
I shook my head. “Wow. By the time we get them, we worry about our shoes.”

Yeah. The entire conversation went into the book. More important, the hat went in. It became the symbol for my character, who was an ex-Marine, ex-Jesuit cop(and before you ask, I met one at the homicide department). Ritual and tradition are vital to him, as they are to most cops, most Marines and most priests. I think that stingy-brim hat says it all.

That’s why I do hands-on research. I’m in the process of putting an outline together right now for my next suspense. I’m afraid I’m too superstitious to tell you what it is(the big thing right now is for an author to have a fresh idea nobody’s done. I think this is fresh. So I don’t want anybody to see it before I sell it). And as I put the outline together, I’m lining up my forensic research. In fact, I’m going to be spending the day in Philadelphia with one of my experts I was able to train under last year. I’ll also be talking to my police and ME friends, a forensic psychiatrist, a regular psychiatrist, and a stained-glass maker. For some reason, my heroine makes stained glass. So I have to learn how to make it, so I can make her behavior as real as I can. I have to see what it smells like to create stained glass(does soldering smell?).

I truly believe that there are some things about writing that are fairly universal: characters, motivation, plotting, outlining, that kind of thing. But I believe that every author has to find his or her own way to getting all that stuff done. I had to find mine. I had to adapt it to each genre I write. And I had to adapt it to my own strengths and weaknesses. But I think I’m going to talk more about that in my next blog.

So come back next week, and we’ll discuss learning styles, Meyers-Brigg personality tests, brain hemisphere dominance, and research. Oh, and I may even discuss ADD. Because at 54, I was finally diagnosed—evidently I was the last one to find out. And I finally got to admit that there are very good reasons I have to do my work in a certain way.

But that’s for next week. In the meantime, if you write, think about how you research. Think about how you think you might enjoy researching. I think I can explain why. Next week.

eileenkathleen, the evil twins

8 thoughts on “Mystery Research”

  1. Cathy S. says:

    Stained glass – oh yes, soldering smells, and if you hit a pocket of flux it sizzles as well. Then there is the grating sound of the glass cutting wheel when you score the glass, and the “click” of breaking the new piece off from the original pane.

    My mother used to make stained glass sun-catchers to sell over forty years ago. She would let us make small pieces with her leftover glass. One of the highlights of our year would be her annual trip to the Bronx and a studio where they made huge stained glass church windows. (It was her glass source, she would by their scrap pieces.) We would go up in the loft where they would have the huge “cartoons”, live-sized plans of the windows that they used for cutting and laying out. Really neat.

  2. How cool is that? I’m envious. And I can’t wait to be able and wade into all the sights and sounds you describe. Because that’s exactly what makes a book work for me. Those little, telling details. Thanks.

  3. orangehands says:

    that is really cool. i like the idea of hands on research. (though the jumping backwards thing; i was supposed to do that once. i think my words were something like “are you out of your f-ing minds?”)

    my mom is going to take a stained glass course this summer. hopefully i can join her. sounds like fun.


  4. Wendy says:

    Let me just say – I adore your writing. You are extremely talented. Also, being from St. Louis and recognizing the locations in your book is so much fun.

    But what prompted me to blog was your editorial in last week’s Post Dispatch about Josh Hancock. Your letter hit the nail on the head. VERY well said. Thanks.

  5. wendy,thanks so much. As you could tell, I feel very strongly about the subject. I’m just sad that the reaction has been just as I’d feared, pretty knee-jerk. You can’t blame bartenders who try their best to keep a guy from driving and get turned down. In the end, the drinker is an adult and makes his or her own decisions.

  6. Glenda says:

    Hi, I have a question. Have you ever wrote The Story Of THe Binkley Brothers by L. Wood Dowd that you had excerpts in A Rose For Maggie? It sounds like a good book storyline to me.

    Glenda Fleming
    The Ridiculous Book Store
    Gulfport, MS

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