Friday, January 9, 2009

Research - the Backbone of Your Mystery

Research provides the backbone of a mystery novel. In her book Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville says unless you’re a professional in a field that lends itself to solving crimes, the choosing of your protagonist starts with research into the type of people who do.

When I started my Greg McKenzie series, dealing with a retired Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent, I read all I could find about the OSI, then arranged an interview with the Special Agent in Charge of the OSI office at Arnold Air Force Base south of Nashville.

I spent a couple of hours with him, going over the agents’ backgrounds, the types of cases they worked, how they operated on the job. With the knowledge I had gained as an Air Force intelligence officer, that interview gave me enough information to predict how my protagonist would act when he faced the problems I had in mind with my plot.

Getting into your main character’s head, though, is just the start. The major research effort will provide you with the details you need in setting the stage for your story. Back to that first book, Secret of the Scroll, I needed to know about ancient Hebrew parchment documents, how they are handled, something about their translation.

I went to the library and checked out books on the Dead Sea Scrolls and biblical archeology. After absorbing several of those, I did a telephone interview with a professor at Emory University in Atlanta who went to Israel each summer and worked on translations.

In talking about the book with a writer friend, he asked if I was familiar with the Bible Codes. I’d never heard of them. A trip to the bookstore got me a book that seemed to cover the subject with an honesty I found refreshing. It gave me a plot point that was exactly what I needed.

Since the book began in the Holy Land and wound up there (after several chapters around Nashville), information on Israel was vital to the story. I got the original idea on the way home from a trip to Israel and Jordan, and I had brought back lots of information. That included three hours of video I shot during the tour. But I bought a couple of guidebooks to refresh my memory and fill in some details that would help color the writing.

One I used spoke of the Israeli-born Jews called Sabras. It said they have a distinct character like the prickly pear, from which they got their name, spiky on the outside but sweet on the inside.

Being set partially in a foreign land and dealing with a historical subject, this book required more intensive research than any of the others I’ve written. It gave me a good introduction to the requirements for research, however, which has carried over to my later novels. Since a lot of my information gathering has involved interviews, my newspaper background proved helpful. But any writer can do it.

If you want your story to sound realistic, do the research and gather all the facts you can. You won’t need to include them all, but they will give you the factual background to satisfy those who know a lot more about the subject than you do. If you'd like to get a taste of the research I did for that first book, click on the link below.

Secret of the Scroll Opening Chapters


Morgan Mandel said...

I admire you for doing all that research. It's one thing I hate doing in a novel. I save it till the end, then fill in the blanks.

Morgan Mandel

Annay Dawson said...

I have to agree with you. If you don't do the research how can you expect the reader to fall in love with the book? They have to believe that what they are reading has some kind of merit.

Chester Campbell said...

I'm a history buff and love doing research. In my early writing days, I free-lanced non-fiction for magazines. In those days you could go back into the library stacks and read original copies of old newspapers. Some days I spent hours just pouring over them.

L.J. Sellers said...

That is the one thing about writing a series that I miss—the research and exploration of completely new subjects. Of course, I do research for each series book too, just not as much as I do for standalones.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I recently read the Secret of the Scroll and was amazed at the amount of research you did for the novel, Chester. It was an excellent read and I couldn't put the book down until I finished it. My husband also enjoyed the book.

Dana Fredsti said...

I generally write with a base in what I know (theater, fencing, movie making), but it's amazing the little things you run across when writing that requires research time. I wrote a short story set partially in a carnival and realized I couldn't remember one actual ride name. Google, thank you!

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jean. And I know what you mean, Dana. I'm currently stewing over whether to do the research needed if I stick with the idea for my next book.