Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Getting Into the Grit of Your Story by Gina Panettieri

I can always tell the difference when an author’s done first-hand research in writing a mystery or true crime. Whether the writer’s knowledge comes from reading a newspaper account or from a face-to-face interview with a witness or survivor. Clearer still is when the author’s sat across a bolted-down table from a killer and seen insanity, or delusion, or even a frightening, disarming charm ooze across. But all too often, I find myself scrawling in the margins of a manuscript I’m reading ‘it feels like the author’s info only comes from other writers’ work’.

We’re all too familiar with the editor’s plea for ‘something fresh’. My own ‘wish list’ is to learn something from reading your work I could not have learned anywhere else, and to be taken somewhere (mentally, emotionally, psychologically) that I’ve never been before. What might surprise many writers is that those objectives can be accomplished even when covering familiar and well-trod paths.

A client of mine, Ron Franscell ( tells me Texas journalists have a term, ‘caliche dust’, named for the gritty alkaline dust carried on the wind down there, settling on and in everything. It’s also used to describe a level of depth of detail, of knowledge and attention, that can transport a story from simple reporting of facts to true story-telling. Ron certainly had ‘good caliche dust’ on his work in The Darkest Night (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), when he spent a cold, black night huddled on the steep walls of a river canyon beneath a bridge outside Casper, Wyoming, hoping to gain some insight into the terror his childhood neighbor must have felt as she clung to those same rocks some thirty years earlier, battered, freezing, waiting for dawn and not knowing if the light would bring rescue, or her waiting killers back to finish the work they’d begun when they’d hurled her and her baby sister from the trestle a hundred feet above. It’s the type of insight a writer only gains with first-hand research.

As a writer, you must never rely on images from television, movies or current fiction to be a source of accurate information. Want to learn how a victim of a violent assault might react? Interview crime survivors, emergency room staff, psychologists, and hotline workers. Want to get a feel for courtroom action if you’re not an attorney yourself? Sit in, often, on different judges, different types of cases, in different settings, as well as interviewing legal professionals. Make notes of small details that will help you create setting and characterization, the grooves worn into the stone steps by decades of use, the fatigue of the overworked court clerk as yet more files are piled on her desk (so easy for one to slip away, to be overlooked), and ticking of the old-fashioned clock on the wall that sounds deafeningly loud in the silence before a decisive moment.

Use multiple first-hand sources. Just as a number of witnesses to an event may remember the incident differently, each source may also remember or stress a specific detail no one else observed. Attention to small details will layer on that caliche dust a writer needs to make his story stand out. It might mean a road trip to a seemingly minor setting, or a face-to-face meeting rather than a long-distance phone call, but you’ll bring away a wealth of grit and texture you would have otherwise missed.

Even in an historical piece, it’s possible to use first-hand sources to help develop a depth of authenticity. First-hand period accounts, like diaries and journals, and even information gleaned from archived copies of period publications and even commercial catalogs (Sears & Roebuck is an amazing time capsule), will help establish details of your characters’ lives. But don’t stop digging simply because you’ve located the answer to a question you had. Successful writers often gather and study ten times the amount of research materials they eventually use in their stories, and that depth of knowledge and understanding subtly enriches and educates the work, and often becomes the grist and inspiration for future projects.

Never shortchange your story, or yourself, by relying exclusively on someone else’s footwork. In seeking first-hand knowledge, you’ll bring a fresh perspective to a story (your own!) that will make all the difference.

Gina Panettieri has twenty years experience as a literary agent. She is President of Talcott Notch Literary, a full service literary agency representing Chick Lit, True Crime, Mystery, Horror, Commercial Fiction, Western, Historical Fiction, Thrillers/Suspense, Children's, Adventure and Middle Grade. In nonfiction, Gina is particularly interested in seeing parenting, career, and relationship books. Visit the agency webiste at or see the agency listing in Publishers Marketplace (


Mark Troy said...


Thanks for the insights and an informative post.

Jean Henry Mead said...

An excellent article, Gina. Thank you! Ron did a great job reconstructing the terrible event that shocked us all here in the Casper area. I wasn't aware that he had spent the night under the bridge. That's A+ authenticity!

Jean Henry Mead

Morgan Mandel said...

Thanks, Gina,
Another thing about all that research - It's great for one you go out and hawk your book or make presentations. Then the audience can tell you really know your stuff.

Glad to have you here at Make Mine Mystery.
Morgan Mandel

Dana Fredsti said...

The same advice should apply to screen and television writers. So many shows and movies are totally derivative - young writers with no life experience other than the movies and shows they've watched... Drives me crazy!

Curmudgeon moment over. :-)

Chester Campbell said...

Great insights into the value of research. I think one reason writing comes easier to older writers is that they've seen so much in their day-to-day lives.

Margot Justes said...

Great blog, very informative.
I do think first hand observations come alive on paper.
Margot Justes
A Hotel in Paris

Earl Staggs said...

Excellent and insightful advice. Thank you for sharing it here.