By Diane Weiner
When I finished writing my doctoral dissertation a few years back, the last thing I ever wanted to deal with again was footnotes, primary sources, or the APA Manual. I looked forward to writing fiction straight from my head to the computer, uninterrupted. I soon found my research days hadn’t ended.
In writing my Susan Wiles Schoolhouse Mysteries, I found research often became a necessity. I was writing fiction, but cozy mysteries are a far cry from science fiction or fantasy. I knew readers would respect a sense of authenticity and there were things I wanted to include in my stories that I knew little about. The internet, conversations with experts or friends of experts in a field, workshops, and reference books are essential tools of the trade.
Several ideas I used in my books started out as something I’d read in the newspaper or saw on TV. I took the germ of a story and followed up using the computer. For example, my protagonist, Susan, is a retired teacher who finds out late in life that she was adopted. I’d seen a story on Sixty Minutes about people who were the same age as my Susan, and recently found out they were adopted under sinister circumstances thanks to an unethical doctor. A group toured the country running DNA tests to help find their birth parents. This turned into my fictional “Georgia Babes Foundation,” which helped Susan find her birth mother.
Talking to experts has helped authenticate my stories. I was not adopted and couldn’t authentically write from experience. My student teacher, however, told me his mother had recently found out she’d been adopted and described how he and his family had gotten to know her birth family. I made a list of questions for him to ask his mother and used that information in my writing. A news story about a car that had been submerged for thirty years with the passengers still inside led me to talk to a rescue worker to find out the process involved in pulling a car out of the water, what type of machinery was involved, and how long it would take. I incorporated this information into Murder is Private. In the same book, I referred to Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. It was important to know what year it went into effect. A quick text to a police officer answered my question. Although I’d majored in music and taught it for many years, I had a question (so did my publisher) about whether or not a certain percussion instrument could effectively kill someone. My husband contacted an orchestra colleague and I found out that what I had in mind would not have done the trick. He offered a better alternative which I never would have thought of on my own. Even if you don’t know someone who can answer your question, chances are someone you know has a friend or spouse that does.
Workshops given by local experts and at mystery writers’ conventions are a great resource. I’ve learned about how to make poisons out of common household items, what a realistic hostage negotiation looks like, methods private eyes use to obtain information, and to use the word blood spatter – blood splatter isn’t a word (Thank you, Lisa Black). I’ve used some of this information already, but I’ve save all the notes and materials I’ve gotten because I’m sure someday I’ll need some of that information.
Lastly, there are books! 400 things cops want you to know, Spying for Dummies…