I write mysteries, which means someone will die. Probably in the first 15 pages. Does that mean I know how to kill someone? Well, sort of. But ONLY on paper.
The point of research is to learn enough to be convincing while remembering that I don’t have to be an expert. Think of a TV surgeon; she’s fed the lines. She doesn’t come up with: “I can’t give you any IV meds because of your hypotension, and this cardioversion is going to hurt.” She does know how to say the words correctly and pretend to start the procedure.
That’s the role of a writer: to do the research right up to the point of being an expert. In my case, to google, call an actual expert, and perhaps read every forensic science article the New York Times publishes (and along the way learn how they recently used DNA to decide that a single coyote is responsible for a series of attacks in the Bay Area).
For mystery writers, it’s also important to delete the search cache. No one needs to know that you spent the day querying how to knife someone; how to dispose of a body; discovering the impact of heat on decomposition; and how to hide a body in a compost bin.
Inside the mind of a killer / victim / survivor
How do I get inside the mind of a character? It isn’t possible to have personal experience on all sides of a situation.
I have been the victim of a domestic burglary. I can write from personal experience about the delayed reaction, disbelief, incomprehension – it took me longer that it should have to recognize that every cabinet and closet door open wasn’t my Jack Russell Terriers ‘getting into things.’ I was a classic case of someone confronted by the unbelievable and not believing. Next time – there won’t be a next time because I’ve got a state of the art security system now! – I’ll dial 911 in the first second, not the third minute.
The only upside to this experience: I am better able to extrapolate other reactions, from PTSD to the desire for revenge. (I had to leave town for a week to be able to sleep. On the subject of revenge, well, best to not speak of that here.)
There is also an embarrassing tape of me speaking with the 911 operator. I thought my dogs had been stolen or injured, however, there was a chance the burglars were still inside the house. The operator wanted me to wait on the police. I said: “I’m going back in!” Like the stupid heroine of every bad horror film.
I’m fortunate it all worked out. As a side note, my female Jack Russell was injured during her struggle with the burglars. She recovered and was able to lord it over her litter mate, the little boy who hid under the bed.
Enough is enough
Research is a rabbit hole. How much is enough? I go with the expert test. When an actual expert reads my manuscript he or she catches the obvious mistakes, the things that might cause a savvy reader to throw the book across the room. However, the final verdict is with me as the author.
Too much reality may cross the line from fiction to a connon-fiction how to manual. Writer and reader alike want a feel for the world, too many details turn into a bog, not enough and the scene isn’t set.
Pick your poison
Authors and readers alike, if there’s something you love, that little detail that you just want MORE of, then go to google or the library and nose dive into the research. Who knows, you might actually turn into an expert!
Is there something you’ve read in fiction that intrigued you so much you had to learn more?
I get way too involved in research. And I put too much into the first draft. In revision I removed all but what is absolutely necessary. I LOVE your top about deleting my research history. Must do that!
Note about deleting search histories: it’s only for your machine, so your loved ones won’t know you’re researching how to dissolve bones in a watering can. You also need to make sure you’re not signed into google (it saves your search history on ITS severs) or go into your account and make sure it never saves your history. And none of that will stop you from getting on an NSA list of one kind or another. We just have to resign ourselves that as people who research murder methods, we’re…. not invisible. But l do love the research!