Research Hacks: A Conversation

CONNIE: This week I’ve been blogging about research. Most crime writers aren’t law enforcement professionals or forensics experts. We’re not familiar with police procedures and lingo. We don’t know off-hand when rigor sets in or how long it really takes to get DNA results. This is especially true when stories are set in other countries or other times. So, fellow Miss Demeanors, what is your all-time favorite research tool, either hi- or lo-tech?

ROBIN: My day job gives me exposure to all kinds of interesting tidbits about crime, criminals, and law enforcement agencies around the world. When I’m researching a book, I tend to reach out to friends to make sure I get the details and the lingo right. A recent example: my Google-fu failed me when I was trying to find out what the lights in the grill on unmarked police cars are called colloquially (as opposed to their official name or brand). So I asked a couple of friends in law enforcement. They’re called wig wags, in case you’re wondering.

TRACEE: Wig wags! Now I won’t be up at night wondering. Actually, I’m glad you mentioned going to the source for information (the actual police, for example). When I start research on a project, I often don’t know what I don’t know. I talk to people involved with specifics. What does it mean to probate a will? Who responds first to a homicide? However, once I have the story laid out, I have to check the details with people in the know—and (this is important) in the place where my events occur. Apparently, in Louisiana, those who inherit (except a spouse or child) are called legatees. In Kentucky, they’re called heirs. A tiny detail, but one that will matter to some people—including my Louisiana connection (you know who you are!). Same with law enforcement. Detectives in Lexington, Kentucky, where my WIP is set, don’t have partners. They work in teams. I think the spiral of research takes us closer to the story, then the story pushes us to refine that research.

PAULA: As Tracee knows, the state of Louisiana is the only state in the country whose law is based on the Napoleonic Code.

CONNIE: Really? That may come in handy one day!

TRACEE: Can you tell I had a meal with the author Roger Johns, where he called into question my use of the word heir? Which necessitated double checking with Kentucky attorney friends. Ugh…Roger, what a trouble maker.

PAULA: He’s a trouble maker in the most genteel way. LOL.

ALEXIA: Choosing the right word also matters when discussing coroners vs medical examiners. They’re very different. Way back in the day I signed up for a critique session as part of a conference registration package. I was so proud of myself for having done the research into coroner vs medical examiner—which one was elected, which had to be a physician, etc. Then I got miffed when the author critiquing my pages didn’t believe me. (He could have Googled—the info wasn’t that obscure.) Then I got even more miffed when I discovered I’d put my coroner in a state that used medical examiners only—and the critiquer hadn’t noticed my glaring error.

CONNIE: Tracee and Alexia, you’re so right about the words used in specific places. This is always a factor when writing about England (or Switzerland, I’m sure). Fortunately, my protagonist is an American, so if she gets the words wrong, she’s forgiven.

PAULA: My favorite resource for the Mercy Carr mysteries are dog handlers and their working dogs. Whether a game warden and her lab chasing down poachers or a search-and-rescue volunteer and his standard poodle looking for lost kids in the woods, they have the best stories to tell.

SUSAN: I have to say my best research tool is chatting. I’ve come up with more story ideas and random bits of information by chatting with people sitting next to me. Just yesterday I was sitting in a doctor’s office, and a woman next to me, waiting for chemo, was there with her young son. She had to bring him with her because her babysitter conked out. There was something so tender in their relationship. She was telling me about her life, and I was thinking there are people who think they are brave because they climb mountains without ropes, but to me, real bravery is a mother fighting down her fears so she can tend to her young son. 

CONNIE: Susan, I love that. Even if you changed the exact circumstances of the encounter, the woman’s bravery will stay with you.

MICHELE: I’m with Susan on this question. Chatting—and as important, listening—to people are my favorites. Sometimes I will directly seek out a person with information I need for a book. I find most people very willing to share. Other times my listening is more covert. I am an enthusiastic eavesdropper and have developed techniques that are worthy of a mystery writer. For example, I will sit near people in conversation in public if I am interested in what they are saying, but I will sit with my back to them with a book in my lap so my presence doesn’t stifle their discussion. And even though I have practiced law for more than three decades, you will still find me in a courtroom observing the dynamics of conflict, the interplay among the parties, their lawyers, and a judge. It doesn’t get more real or original than that. 

CONNIE: We tend to think of research in technical terms, but observation of people is key for me too—especially in another country (like England). That’s why I jot down memories in a notebook, so I’ll remember them later.

LAURIE: My favorite period research comes from magazines from the 1930s. I love the ads and the articles because you get a glimpse of the little nuances that make that era unique. I love the ads for washing machines, radios, and gadgets. And especially the Thanksgiving ad pictured here in the first edition of Time Magazine (November 1936): “For digestion’s sake, smoke Camels!”

ALISON: I agree, Laurie. I love primary-source material that was never intended to last. Nothing makes me happier than finding a flyer or advertisement from the 1800s.

ALEXIA: My best research tool is the internet (including apps, social media, and email). It’s convenient and, these days, you can find just about anything, and it’s mostly free. I wish I had the time and budget to do more on-site research but that’s not my reality. You do have to be careful with what you find on the net—navigate to reputable sites and find information in multiple sources. But a lot of libraries and newspaper archives have digitized their collections so you can research primary sources in your pajamas. A couple of days ago, I was reading newspapers from 1935. I’ve accessed Irish school lunch menus, Irish sports, Irish law enforcement, maps, real estate information, sunrise and sunset tables, virtual tours of poison gardens and distilleries, drug information, racist-hate-group manifestos, Confederate apologists websites, genealogy sites, baby name lists, census records, and on and on….(Like most other writers, I hope no one ever accesses my browsing history.)

CONNIE: I’ve spent time researching common first and family names in England in the 1500s.  Which brings up another question: What’s the weirdest or most obscure research you’ve done? For my second book in the Kate Hamilton Mystery series, I researched how long it takes a body in the water to decompose. I’m sure my name is on some watch list now.

TRACEE: How about glamorous? Like my time spent at Basel World for A Well-Timed Murder, rubbing heels with the well-heeled and peeking into back halls and stairs like a criminal—I mean like a writer.

ALEXIA: Weird or obscure is tough. Nothing seems too “out there” to me. I did buy a Gaelic Athletic Association season pass so I could listen to Irish sports announcers try to explain unexplainable games. And I discovered the Forvo app. You can type in a word, choose a language, and listen to pronunciations of the word. I also go on ghost walks. But, honestly, I was doing that before I started writing about ghosts.

CONNIE: The problem with online research are cookies. I got a few internet jewelers all excited by researching the cost of various huge diamond rings. I’m still getting a few ads.

ALEXIA: Ooh, Connie, you reminded me of some weird research I’ve done—Irish slang. So many (usually unflattering) words for females and body parts and various bodily functions. 

SUSAN: As for obscure research, I once spent quite a bit of time trying to understand the world of poison bottle collectors. The bottles are surprisingly beautiful and can be expensive—but you have to hope someone washed them really well.

CONNIE: Susan, I LOVE the photo of the poison bottles! Now I have to restrain myself from wasting today by researching them myself.

PAULA: The most obscure thing I’ve researched? The hunting references in Shakespeare. Best source: Shakespeare and the Hunt, by Edward Berry, published by Cambridge University Press (just in case you’d like to take a look).

TRACEE: It’s cruel to point out a great book when YOU KNOW I should be working on my own—not-Shakespeare and non-hunt—project. I’ll have to forget this exists until a later time (as I simultaneously search the local university library database…).

ALISON: As far as obscure research goes, when I was baptized at the age of eight, I received a member number that gives me access to the LDS data base Family Search—you may know the gentile version, I can see what temple work has been done, changes in how polygamous marriages are recorded, when people were sealed to each other after death. It’s a real treasure trove! This Sunday, I got an email from Family Search, notifying me that my great grandfather served a mission in Scandinavia in the 1880s, something I didn’t know. Now I just need to come up with a story about missionaries in Sweden (or not).

CONNIE: Another danger of research—diverting your attention. Thanks, Miss Demeanors, for your thoughts on research. If those federal investigators do come knocking, we can vouch for each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *