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Researching for your book? Let's chat


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Initial post: May 22, 2012 3:42:12 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 22, 2012 3:44:19 PM PDT
S. Waas says:
We had a very productive and fun thread recently about the general writing process. Now I'd like to focus on research you do when writing your books. This could apply to fiction or nonfiction.

For example, if you're writing an historic novel set in ancient Rome, you'd need to do plenty of study to get the facts right, even simple things like the food eaten or clothes worn.

I'm a bit luckier, as my novels are modern private detectives set in Houston. So far two, Blood Spiral and Blood Storm:

Blood Spiral (A Mitch King Mystery)

Blood Storm

I still need to make sure my facts are correct. I'm particularly careful about firearms because I've seen too many "gun goofs" in mystery fiction. I also check things like police procedure, crime investigation methods, legal specifics, and common ordinary things like cars, weather, street maps.

Although many of the bars, restaurants, and other places in my novels are fictional, they are composites of real locales and so I ensure that things always make sense, since my books are realistic.

So tell us about your own research methods and needs.

Posted on May 22, 2012 4:38:36 PM PDT
I'm currently researching caving for the third book in my trilogy. It looks like it might involve an expedition to some local caves on the weekend. I did also watch the Descent and the Descent 2 in the name of research, but all that really did was scare me silly ;p

Posted on May 22, 2012 6:38:16 PM PDT
Though I excel at writing, I am not a professional writer. I am a corporate creature by day, which doesn't allow for much creative writing--just creative ideas for making the bottom line bigger. (lol) So writing is a hobby and relaxation for me, despite the considerable effort I put into marketing it. I like to play as hard as I work, I guess. Lol

It took me basically a couple of months in the late 90's to write a stick figure of a short story about a down-on-his-luck P.I. and his case of a lifetime time. But it wasn't until I fleshed it out (over 10 years of part-time rewrites and extensive research) that, in 2010, a small national press finally took a chance on my labor of love and published it as The Steel Deal.

Developing the whodunnit from short story to novel length was a fun challenge. Given my extensive past in public library work, it was a breeze researching the technical aspects of my story--the guns, explosions, gadgetry, etc. I also did extensive research on the Internet and found tens of professional law enforcement and scientific sites that, in past years, would have required tiring legwork and phone calling to acquire.

Since I tend to like character-driven stories, the hardest part of making THE STEEL DEAL into a novel was developing good, memorable characters and dialog. The catalyst for the action was fairly simple--a revolutionary alloy worth millions of dollars...or lives, depending on who gets it. Similar in tone to Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON; but like Hammett, I needed characters as compelling as the plot itself. So I changed the protagonist from 30 something, virile, and technically savvy to a broke, burned out cynic who's pushing 60 and surrounded him with a faster paced society that he must navigate with mostly his wit and intelligence. The lead's personal problems become as much of a challenge to overcome the villains who want sentient steel for themselves.

A good source of research for the story's witty, crackling conversations was just everyday interaction with people: Listening to how they talk on the job, on vacation,--in life! Also, observing different styles of clothing, hair, language, etc. That was crucial in helping me flesh out what was a short story into a novel. I had the technical idea and basis for the book, but needed a good, strong human counterbalance.

Another way of developing characters was spending considerable time researching what made the great stories great. I'd read many noir, police procedurals, and spy stories over the years, and felt THE STEEL DEAL was becoming too jaded and similar to those often dire readings.

I found myself drawn more towards satire and allegory--stories and characters that seem fantastic on their collective face, but have a deeper meaning or message. I also found myself drawn towards the power of irony and metaphoric speech. So, I introduced a lighter tone to THE STEEL DEAL through a more diversified cast of supporting characters. The characters have varying personalities, symbolic names, and are of different races, ages, genders--in other words, they aren't all jaded, cold-blooded cannon fodder or killers common to a lot of police procedurals, crime novels, and mystery novels. Most are everyday people, and the challenge came in seeing how they might act in THE STEEL DEAL's extraordinary plot. By "everyday" I mean sort of like NORTH BY NORTHWEST: where Alfred Hitchcock took a simple case of mistaken identity and spun it into one of the great movie mystery-thrillers.

So going by that model, I mostly avoided a slow-moving "just the facts, ma'am" documentary on how real people would handle THE STEEL DEAL's plot. I simplified--and took some license with-- the technical research I amassed. Kind of like what is done in the modern JAMES BOND films: The plot moves faster, for example, when the hero and the story's action aren't hampered by 24-hours of police interrogation that (though often true to life) would bog down the pace. The literary excitement is greater when people just fly into action sometimes, rather than the author measuring whether they could in real life.

It wasn't easy, but over the 10 years of on-and-off rejection and rewrites, I managed to finally craft a story that is as much based on mountains of real and theoretical scientific research and law enforcement trends as it is on the fun entertainment values of poetic licence, fast pacing, suspense, and levity. THE STEEL DEAL is a labor of love that's both entertaining and informative, thus capturing my view of the secret of enduring, great writing.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 12:10:28 PM PDT
S. Waas says:
Caving (or spelunking -- I don't know if there's a difference) is a very specialized hobby or avocation, and you will need to be very accurate, so I understand the need for research.

In my 3rd novel I'm introducing a new female character who's a trauma surgeon and enjoys recreational sailboating. She and my protagonist start dating and she takes him out on the bay. I know absolutely nothing about sailboating so I'm researching on the net and having friends help.

What we don't want to do is overburden the story with needless minutae -- we're not writing technical manuals after all. But we do need to include enough accurate detail to establish verisimilitude. It's a balancing act.

Good luck.

For modern crime writers, I recommend finding a used copy of the "bible", Practical Homicide Investigation by Warren Geberth. It's a treasure trove of correct investigation, and even if your characters aren't police, the book has tons of great ideas about murder scenes. Geberth was chief of homicide for NYC for about 30 years.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 12:12:31 PM PDT
S. Waas says:
James, re. your research for the novel, tell us some specifics -- what things in the book needed more "clinical" facts and info so that you could write effectively?

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 4:21:51 PM PDT
The central things The Steel Deal needed were again not particularly better descriptions of guns, hardware, or professional credentials (if that's what you're getting at, Mr. Waas). That stuff was easy to research by going through volumes of gun guides; law enforcement and legal manuals; and other technical/trade sites on the Internet and elsewhere.

What my novel lacked was the human element--characters with depth human feelings. As written for many years, the short story and novel were praised for the emphasis on technical reality. But it wasn't being published back then because the characters were action/adventure stereotypes.

So, again, I researched the implications of having older vs younger leads; the racial/ethnic demographics of the story's central city; and other "human facts". A big thing that helped me write a more effective version of the novel was changing the main character's age and temperament to that of an older cynic: to make him struggle with all the high tech aspects of the novel and to add tension to the outcome. Can essentially an old fart cut it going up against stronger and faster characters?

Soon, I'd crafted a rather unique story: One with a more allegorical tone than before. So, I toned down the hard info-dump of ballistics, scientific technology, and strict police and federal methods of investigations. I even made most of the 'organized' law enforcement characters less rigid and unflinchingly daring in demeanor. Everything and everyone became good or bad, right or wrong--depending on where you were in the story!

So in the end, again, THE STEEL DEAL became more of an allegorical, MALTESE FALCON type mystery-- sentient steel being the metaphorical "stuff that dreams are made of"--by doing away with or minimizing much of the "clinical facts" I put into the original drafts and treatments. Instead, I simply researched slang, clothing trends, jokes--basically, I lived life and just inserted more observations from that 'life' to enliven and deepen the story's otherwise cardboard, clinical tone.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 4:56:42 PM PDT
S. Waas says:
Ah, thanks, very good info.

Too much crime fiction (and fiction of other genres, too) is obsessed with details to the detriment of human interaction. Fiction is about people, not cars or guns or submarines. Even the techno-thrillers fall flat if they don't have believable characters.

Some successful writers have become lazy, my worst example being Tom Clancy. His first books showed human beings thrust into situations. Later on, he began to either use ghostwriters or lose the sharpness himself. His "good guy" characters were essentially all the same: all Roman Catholics for some odd reason, all football players or fans thereof, all faithful hubbies, on and on. All his good guy characters wore the same exact "costume". His action-oriented women were just guys wearing "man suits" too.Even his bad guys became too clinical, too predictable.

Of course he continues to rake in the millions and I wish him well. But there are plenty of other successful "popular" novelists who continue to write interesting, intense, and inventive fiction.

I think you're right not to overburden your writing with too much technical baggage. btw I plan to read your book (and proffer a review) as soon as my Shamus award judging duties are done, early June. Right now I'm swamped. I consider it an honor to be on the committee to select the best hardcover private eye novel of 2011 and I owe it to the writers and the PWA to do the best job I can.

In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2012 3:18:58 PM PDT
S. Waas says:
My only slight objection is the seeming automatic idea that someone older than 24 is clueless about computers, cellphones, email, and similar things. I'm 70 and have pretty well tuned computer skills, expert-level with MS Word and Excel and other MS Office products, reasonably okay with website development too. I haven't used typed or manuscript in many years, and have used electronic submissions and editing for at least a couple decades.

A private detective who's computer-inept these days is like a PI who can't read or write. Computers are tools of the trade, period. We expect any professional, regardless of job, to know computers. Imagine a defense attorney who has no idea how to work a computer, cannot make or return cell calls, cannot even drive to meet a client?

I guess my principal objection is that when a person reaches 25, the capacity to learn a new skill is somehow considered void. Is that person subject to a learning disability? If so, okay. But people aren't magically frozen into a suspension capsule like Ripley in Alien. Intelligent adults continue to learn. Heck, I learned passable Japanese in my 40s, a modest amount of Italian in my 50s. Naturally, lack of use meant that I forgot much of it, but learn it I did.

No, the private eye might not have a science degree as I do, but anyone with an active brain should be capable of learning essentials of computer use, email, internet research, smart phones (a requisite for any professional who's on the move around town), and so on.

Posted on May 28, 2012 3:39:31 PM PDT
griz says:
Historical events are easy: there are lots of books and a finite amount that can be known. But what about things like (say) the inner workings of the French secret service? What else is there besides the internet? And how reliable could it be?

In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2012 9:07:08 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 28, 2012 9:41:25 PM PDT
Again, Mr. Waas, this is here you and I part ways. Obviously, a person is educable beyond what is considered to be young. But as I previously, painstakingly posted, I am more willing to take license with facts in order to achieve the higher goal of entertaining my reader. My P.I. garners more reader empathy because of his age and the added stresses that can put on someone who is poor or struggling financially.

So often it seems the national catchphrase I hear from Baby Boomers and overstressed Gen Xers these days is "I'm too old for this [%#@!]." "Old", coming from 40-60 somethings when the average life expectancy is almost 80!

But the crazy economy and sociopolitical upheavals obviously stress Americans and lead to record obesity rates, smoking, drinking, and drug use. Coupled with rises in pollution in some US cities and regions, you have an old age enabling brew being belted by many Americans that makes them feel older than they are.

So my 55 years old private eye is more of an allegorical figure of the collective desire to return not to cave dwelling days, but to simpler times. The Prelapsarian Myth, perhaps; but a paluable sense of place--the good ole days--when things did seem simpler and more promising. This is a powerful subplot that I allow my readers to explore and empathize with.

My younger readers are more of your mindset, Mr. Waas: That Sonny Busco is stuck in the past and unwilling to change. But most of the middle aged to older readers understand where I'm coming from with the "last of the oldtime private eyes" approach.

Sonny could afford a computer, but not the monthly Internet bill or to have it upgraded/fixed. He could afford a better car, but not full coverage or to fill the tank. He could afford a lot of tech toys, but not afford to mintain them.

So, Sonny gets creative. He takes public transportation at times; he uses a pay phone; he wears a mitch-mate suit. But he survives--not often in high style, but in a way many reeds can relate when money is tight.
So true of MANY Americans in these cursed "interesting times", Mr. Waas.

Posted on May 28, 2012 9:34:41 PM PDT
Edwin Stark says:
Research is important... but why complicate matters? I stick to writing what I know about... I fought a forest fire in a jungle during a very dry season, so that fact slipped into my second novel. I survived an impressive flood in the same rainforest a few months later, so that went into the book too. I know about dirty fighting, so I wrote a fight, albeit a bit silly, into it. And people often write to tell me how memorable those three passages (adapted to fit the bizarre plot) became for them.
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Discussion in:  Meet Our Authors forum
Participants:  5
Total posts:  11
Initial post:  May 22, 2012
Latest post:  May 28, 2012

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