Today’s guest blogger is Janet Christian, author of the Marianna Morgan PI murder mystery series (she’s working on book two at this time) and the soon to be published Virgilante paranormal mystery. She also has a dystopian science fiction novel, Born Rich, which she’s expanding into an epic, so it’s currently not for sale.
Janet served as 2003 President of the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime in Austin, and became a published author in 2012. She also maintains an author’s blog.
Janet and her husband Eric Marsh live on a 100 acre ranch near Lockhart, TX – 30 miles south of Austin. They have four goofy dogs, an ever-changing population of cats (usually around 10), and a small herd of spotted-wool Jacob sheep. When she isn’t writing, Janet creates pottery art pieces in her combination pottery studio and tiki bar.
Janet, welcome to AMW!
Three steps to research success
I was inspired to write this article after conversations with several writers who said they just wanted to write, and factual details weren’t that important to readers, anyway. The writers were willing to do limited online research, but had no inclination to talk to experts or visit locations. Research can certainly either be the bane or the joy of writing, regardless of genre or time period of the story. But research is always important, so why not find ways to make it work in your favor, and perhaps to even be enjoyable.
I understand that we writers tend to be a solitary bunch, but please make the effort to do thorough research beyond just surfing the web. You’ll be happy that you did. And so will your readers. Besides, at least to me, one of the joys of writing is learning all those amazing and cool facts and bits of trivia.
Here are three tips to help ensure your research is thorough, useful, and hopefully fun to acquire.
1. Surf the web
Google and other search tools are amazingly complete storehouses of information, but searching can be tricky. If you want to know what year an event occurred, one search usually provides the answer. But if your goal is more esoteric, it can take dozens of searches, tweaking the keywords each time, before you find the information you seek.
Like most writers, I’ve attempted searches for some pretty obscure facts. And once recently my search resulted in the message “No results found.” I’m both simultaneously tickled and frightened that I “broke” Google. Maybe I need to rethink that plot twist.
While search tools are powerful, and can provide a world of search results, you should not count on it as your sole research tool. We all know the internet is chock full of not-quite-true “facts” and information. But the biggest reason is because of the amount of results one search provides. It can be overwhelming to sift out the clutter and get to the specific facts you seek. You can also find search results that directly contradict each other. (Try searching “are vaccines safe” or “is global warming real” for proof of just how contradictory results can be.)
Use a search tool as a springboard for where to go next. For my first novel, The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, I wanted my protagonist, Private Investigator Marianna Morgan, to search for a stolen Brown Bess musket. In fact, my novel was inspired by a newspaper article about a long-lost Brown Bess being donated to the Alamo. Online searches gave me many facts about the musket, including images of its wooden stock and unusual triangular, cross-section bayonet. But there were many variations of the musket. And nothing online told me what condition it would be in after having been buried for thirty-five years. This is the point in research where it’s good to move on to step 2.
2. Contact an expert
I was fortunate in the case of my Brown Bess research that my sister has a business acquaintance with Dr. Richard Bruce Winders, Historian and Curator of the Alamo. I was granted an appointment with Dr. Winders and had the privilege of holding the actual Brown Bess mentioned in the article that inspired my murder mystery. Dr. Winders also described in detail how I could safely hide one in my story.
But don’t let your lack of a direct or indirect relationship with an expert deter you. When I needed to research how the abduction of a child would have been handled in an unincorporated area near San Antonio in the days before 911 emergency service existed, I called Chief Don Davis, who was the Police Chief of Terrell Hills, Texas at the time I was writing. He was more than happy to see me. The accuracy and detail I included in my novel were a direct result of Chief Davis’s informative and helpful answers.
I’ve interviewed many other experts as well, covering topics as diverse as reptile exhibits, how many UPS drivers are assigned to a given geographic area, vintage Mustangs, and what would happen to a koi pond if a decomposing body were buried beneath the rubber liner. Some experts I met in person, others I talked to on the phone. I recommend face-to-face where possible, but phone calls are a perfectly acceptable alternative. I’ve yet to contact an expert who wasn’t happy to help, and all patiently answered my many questions. I always make sure to thank them in the back of the book and send them a signed copy once it’s published.
Whether you’re writing contemporary or historical mysteries, and regardless of whether they’re cozies or hard-boiled, there’s always an expert who can provide those gems of detail that really bring a story to life. And bringing reality and life to a story is where the third tip in research comes in.
3. On site visits
In addition to my expert contacts on reptile exhibits, I visited the Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo near San Antonio. It was an hour and a half drive, but well worth it. Because of that visit, I was able to add multiple sensory experiences to the scene where Marianna visits a roadside reptile exhibit while tracking the bad guy. I believe my experiencing the assault of smells, sounds, and sights in person gave the scene in my novel a realism I could not have created any other way.
An actual on-site visit may not always be practical, but when it is, take advantage. If you’re writing a mystery that takes place in London, unless you have an extensive travel budget, you may not be able to visit. And if your story is set in 1800s London, a visit may not be all that useful, anyway. But sometimes there are other ways to accomplish a sense of “being there.” And even those alternatives can be invaluable.
Want a feel for Victorian England? Visit the largest Renaissance Faire you can find within a reasonable drive. Setting your charming cozy in a small town populated by quirky characters? Visit two or three cool small towns.
We’ve likely all read stories where it was clear the author published without doing any research. Even little mistakes can throw a reader out of a story. Did a football fan buy your mystery because it involves a murder during a Super Bowl? You can bet they’ll write a scathing review if you set the story in 1966 (the first Super Bowl was in 1967), or even if you describe the wrong concession foods. But if you’ve done your online research, talked to a football expert, and actually attended a football game (even a high school game, especially in Texas, will give you the sense of the crowd’s excitement and behavior), your story will “ring true” and that football fan will love it and look forward to buying your next book.
Isn’t at least one of our ultimate goals to have readers who love our books and can’t wait for each new release? Research can be one of the biggest keys to helping that happen.
Thanks Janet! You can find more of her writing at www.janetchristian.com