Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Research - Getting It Straight From the Horse's Mouth

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

Earlier on this blog Candy Calvert talked about research and the things we learn to make our books authentic. I love research and one of the things I love most about it is how happy most experts are to help you with it.

Take yesterday, for instance. The head litigation partner of the law firm where I work came dashing into my office to discuss attorneys, disbarment, and motives for murder, all because I asked him if he would help me out. Now this is a man who probably bills at $500+ an hour and he came to my office, sat across from me and, with great excitement, discussed for thirty minutes how to authentically beef up the motives of some of the attorneys in my next book.

When writing Too Big To Miss, which is set in Orange County, California, an Orange County detective graciously gave me a hour of his time to discuss local police procedures when handling a suicide, how bodies are identified in Orange County, and his cop gut feeling if he were investigating the murder in the book. When I wanted to describe a bullet wound, I asked a former cop who'd been shot to tell me about how it felt and looked (and yes, he showed me his scar!). Information about collecting lunch boxes used in The Curse of the Holy Pail, came from the acknowledged expert on lunch boxes who lived in Texas. But my most interesting and extensive research so far was for one of the main characters in my series who is a paraplegic. Yep, you guessed it, I interviewed several men about the same age in wheelchairs about every aspect of their lives, including love and sex. And one even allowed me to follow him around a couple of days so I could see how he handled the most mundane tasks of daily living.

People willing to help writers are everywhere. All you have to do is ask. And if someone says no, ask someone else. But when you ask, ask the experts, not someone who may know or might have read about it or heard about it third hand, or, horror of horrors, saw it on CSI. Authors with questions should take the time to go to the source. One of the things that bugs me as both a writer and a reader is when an author uses faulty information in a book. It makes me wonder if they were misinformed by well-meaning friends or just lazy, or both. Research is pretty simple; if you want to know about jay walking laws in Appleton, Wisconsin, contact the Appleton, Wisconsin, police department. Believe me, they will be happy to help you get it right.

My 5th Odelia Grey novel involves a corn maze in Massachusetts. I have already made contact with the owner of the maze and in September I’ll be winding my way through towers of corn trying to get a feel for the experience. Oh yeah, and if I find my way out of the maze, I just might make it to a family wedding the next day. Talk about multi-tripping.


Joe Moore said...

OK, this is really wild. I just read a bio of a writer on the BackSpace forum this morning who, among other things said, "In between projects I run a seasonal haunted corn maze in Indiana."

What are the chances?

David Terrenoire said...

I once got guidance about a character's injury from the chief of orthopedic surgery at Duke who was so into it he called with plot twists.

For my WIP, a historical set in 1941 DC, I wanted to set a scene in Cissy Patterson's mansion on DuPont circle. I found myself in the neighborhood, knocked, told them what I was about and they gave me a tour.

But my favorite was talking to a gun guy who, after showing me a table full of handguns, said, "But for home defense, nothing beats one of these," and racked the pump of a Remington 870. Then he gave me this: "You kow what they call these, doncha? These are the barkin' dogs of firearms."

Oh yeah, I used that.

Joe Moore said...

What a great line. Those little tidbits bring a novel to life. Here's a terrific source for forensic and police procedural info:


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Joe, I didn't even know corn mazes existed until about 2 years ago when my niece suggested I put one in a book. Since then I've discovered that they are very common in the fall throughout farming areas.

David, glad to see you recognized a great line when you heard one. It's fabulous! It's not unusual for me to say to someone "do you mind if I use that phrase?"

Mark Terry said...

Research is always interesting. I've given a lot of talks between the differences in researching for nonfiction and fiction. I try to be reasonably accurate.

That said, I've read some books where I caught information that probably should have been caught. One of Randy Wayne White's earlier novels has PCR wrong. I don't remember what he called it, but it wasn't accurate.

I recently read a biotech thriller and in the lab they had a cyclotron used for separating out reagents. He was either talking a centrifuge or maybe a chromatograph, but he sure as hell wasn't talking about a cyclotron.

I try to be forgiving.

I was giving a group signing with a couple of writers, one of whom was Loren Estleman. A couple of us were talking about research and the "gotcha" mentality of some readers, and Loren told us a story about an editor who wouldn't buy a story about the OK Corral because he said there had never been an oak tree on the hill the writer was talking about in the book.

Nina Wright said...

Does this happen to you guys?

About a third of the time when I ask experts for advice, they end up telling me about the novel they're "thinking about" writing. They want to know how to get an agent and a publisher and how much money they can expect to make....

Lindsay said...

"I didn't even know corn mazes existed until about 2 years ago when my niece suggested I put one in a book."

Hey - that's me!!!

Looking forward to seeing you in the fall. Maybe I'll come get lost in the maze with you :-)