Thursday, January 29, 2009

Research Opportunities for Mystery Writers

So you've got an idea for a really great mystery novel but you need to research it a little. Now what? Writers often shy away from research for a variety of reasons.

First off, research can stop the flow of words and you don't want to spoil that. Sometimes you may not even know what research is needed until you start writing something and realize you need to know more.

Secondly, it can be really hard to call an expert, identify yourself as a writer and ask questions. What do you do if they ask what you've written and then say they've never heard of you. Do you look like a want-a-be?

You can do this. If the words are flowing and you can write around the area that needs researching, then keep going, making sure to mark the area you have questions about with a comment.

As for identifying yourself as writer--hey that's a whole 'nother article, but maybe you don't need to go that far yet. You may just need to delve into research opportunities that you may not even have known about.

Let's say you need to know what would happen to blood splatter from a knife wound in a fire in a torched garage. That's something you probably want to ask an expert. Most police and fire departments have public information officers trained to answer questions. So if you want to just get this research done with a phone call, start there.

If you don't know exactly what you don't know, you can sign up for a police ride-along in your community. This is just what it sounds like--you ride along with the cop in the police car--usually for about half a shift (four hours). In my own city, citizens can do this once a month.

This experience can be invaluable. Think of it! You get to see the inside of a police car, without having to do time. Plus, you can get a good close view of what is included in a policeman's uniform, an idea on how the radio works (deciphering what comes over it is a trick) and maybe even some inside skinny on a cop's job.
You can ask the cop about just about anything there, and get a chance to see exactly what a shift is like.

For more in-depth information on police procedures and techniques, you can enroll in a citizen police academy. Many cities offer them now. They are usually a semester's worth of classes on a range of things that the police in your community deal with. One night you might get a demonstration on how police check out a call about a disturbance in a vacant building; the next class session might be a practice session at the shooting range. Plus most classes end with a call for questions from the class. The police department gets its own benefits from these academies. First off, informed citizens are more likely to be supportive citizens. And many academies use their alumni as volunteers for projects around the community.

Speaking of volunteering, don't rule that out as a way to learn, and help while you're doing so. Many police departments now use volunteer victim assistants. Victim assistants can help the police with victims of domestic abuse by counseling the victims on their options. As a volunteer, you might accompany a woman to court. Victim assistants can also help with child abuse victims. It depends on the police department but if you are willing to help, you can make a difference while seeing the inside workings of some police matters.

Okay, let's say you have the police/forensic angles covered. Your real research need is for medical information. If you have just a quick question, you can probably sneak it in to your own doctor when you're having your annual physical. But if you've got more in mind than that, or if you need to give your book more of a medical flavor, there is another alternative. Many medical schools around the country are now offering mini-medical schools.

Like the citizen police academies, mini-medical schools have grown in response to the public's desire to know more. Also, like the citizen police academies, these mini-medical schools are multi-class sessions--usually over the course of six or more weeks. Do your homework before you sign up. Although some schools advertise themselves as giving classes on a smattering of everything a medical student would study, some schools offer classes on whatever they could get a faculty member to talk about. All are quick to tell you that attending a mini-med school won't qualify you for a doctor's degree. Nor should you expect to get all the jargon from this setting. Since it is aimed at the public, most lectures in these schools will be at a level that the lay person can understand. As far as I'm concerned, this is a good thing.

Question and answer sessions are standard here too, so even if your exact question isn't covered in the lecture, you can still ask it afterward.

These schools are intensely popular though. Check out your local medical school now to see if they are offering something in the fall. The cost can be minimal or even nothing as many schools offer these as a service to the public. Don't rule this option out if you are not close to a medical school. Here in Colorado, the mini-medical school's lectures have been broadcast to smaller cities on the Western slope, so that people who are too far away to commute for the lectures can view them from community colleges there. Be sure to inquire about the possibility.

Last but not least, your local writer's group should be a resource for you. My local Sisters in Crime chapter helps the county sheriff's department by being victims in crime scene simulation scenarios. We've gone on tours at the local FBI branch, and had experts in to talk about everything from arson to psychology. You don't have to be a woman to be a member either. Mystery Writers of America or your local writer's group can offer similar opportunities. So get involved. And get that research done.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. She is an alumni of the Arvada Colorado citizen's police academy.


F. M. Meredith, author said...

Lots of great ideas. First ride-along I went on was with my son-in-law--hair raising. Then I went on two with another p.d., one with a female officer who really influenced my writing.


Anne Carter said...

For my WIP, a paranormal romantic mystery, I had the pleasure of tracking down and interviewing (by phone) one of the past lighthouse keepers for the lighthouse that I've based my story on. He was just delighted to be able to discuss his years at the remote, off-shore lighthouse and even sent me a great photograph of the station as a gift!

I think going on a ride-along would be extremely inspiring. Maybe I'll do that one day.


Morgan Mandel said...

I don't like research when I'm doing it, but after I get the info. I'm glad I did it.

Morgan Mandel

Patricia Harrington said...

I really support the idea provided about doing "ride-alongs." The information provided on the blog is very helpful to mystery writers. I've done quite a bit of it. Will share that I went out on a ride-along with a cop associate to homeless camps. (My protagonist Gus Maloney, an ex-cop, an alkie and unofficial mayor of a homeless camp called Mudflat Manor will be out in Seattle Noir in May). At any rate we went to new homeless camps, I learned much about the good work being done between TPD and Comprehensive Mental Health to get some homeless folks into good supportive surroundings. Also heard the fun cop stories and will include one in my next "Gus Maloney" story.


Pat Harrington

Chester Campbell said...

God stuff, Christine. In all my research, I can't recall but maybe once someone asked what I write. I always tell them now, but before I was published it was no problem. Like the police academy idea. Maybe it will spur me to do what I've long contemplated.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget the world-wide-library and the topical discussion groups. I know several bloggers here are members of Crimescenewriters,
which is a wealth of information of all levels of law enforcement from local to national, forensics, private investigation, and medicine. Answers are often available by region or state, too, something that may not be convenient to get first hand if you live on the other side of the country. The message archives are searchable, and there are files of info, too. Plus it's free.

Happy Researching!