The Best Way to Research Crime Fiction

I’ve been working on crime fiction long enough now to realize how much research I need to make my mysteries have at least a nodding acquaintance with reality. This fall I’ve had a special opportunity to discover the best way to research crime fiction: getting to know the men and women who work in law enforcement.

Once a year, the sheriff’s department in my county offers a citizens academy that’s absolutely free. All a resident of the county has to do is apply with a paragraph about why they would like to learn about law enforcement and give two references.

In the 11-week class, I’ve heard from officers and staff who work in:

  1. The detective division.
  2. The drug task force.
  3. The SWAT team which is composed of over twenty officers from various agencies within the county.
  4. The dispatch supervisor.
  5. The clerks in public records.
  6. A sketch artist.
  7. Patrols.
  8. CSI.
  9. K-9 unit.

The hands-on activities are what most crime writers needs. I’ve aimed a lidar gun at traffic, acted as an officer performing a traffic stop or dealing with a tense confrontation, and learned how to sweep a building. These activities also provide me with glimpses into behind-the-scenes details that writers love to work into stories if they can. Facts like many officers suffer from lower back trouble after years of service because when they wear their bullet-proof vest and belt, they carry an extra twenty-five to thirty pounds.

I’m standing in the top hatch of an armored personnel vehicle own by the sheriff’s dept.

What I find even more interesting are the stories the officers tells, such as the detective who was assigned to a ten-year-old cold case and how he and his partner finally solved it. Or how a K-9 officer found the people who had broken into an abandoned jail. Or what does a rookie cop learn on the job that he can’t learn at the academy.

Most most fascinating of all is hearing how the officers view their work. One detective said he was doing “God’s work.” The sheriff spoke to us on our first night. After four decades in law enforcement, he is now hiring deputies younger than his children. The dispatch supervisor conveyed how protective the dispatchers are of the deputies they are helping in the field.

Whatever crime fiction story you are writing, try to get interviews with people who work in the particular aspect of law enforcement you are writing about. My WIP novel is set in a fictional, rural county in Ohio. Not all that I’ve learned about my home county’s sheriff’s department will apply because it has a much bigger population. So I conducted a phone interview with the chief deputy from a rural county. I was very nervous about calling the office because I’m an author with only two short stories to my credit. But he was very nice and answered all my questions.

That’s an attitude all the officers I’ve met through the academy have had. They want the citizens they protect to understand their jobs. As Clay Stafford, found of the Killer Nashville mystery writers conference, said, law enforcement professionals are flattered when writers bother to try to accurately represent their work.

Writers, what research have you done for a crime story? Readers, what mysteries have you read that seemed particularly well-researched?

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries by Otto Penzler

Since I love mysteries, picking one to feature this month is so difficult. So I chose one book with a ton of mysteries, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries by Otto Penzler. The series of books under the Black Lizard banner is a great way to sample the best in mystery short fiction since the genre was created. I own four in the series, and Locked Room Mysteries is my favorite.

Locked room mysteries and impossible crimes are a subgenre of crime fiction as old as the genre itself. Edgar Allan Poe’s first published mystery short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is a locked room mystery and the first story in the collection. The sixty-eight stories are arranged in different categories, such as the seven “most popular and frequently reprinted impossible-crime stories of all time”, stabbing under impossible circumstances, people who disappear when they couldn’t possibly do so, and murdered bodies found without any way for the murderer to have reached or left the victim.

After reading so many of these stories, I’ve noticed a trend in locked room mysteries: an author either hits it out of the ballpark or fouls badly. There isn’t any room in the subgenre for an okay story. The explanation either works so well it astonishes readers or is so contrived it makes them groan.

Below are my favorite stories from this collection.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the best Sherlock Holmes stories. A young woman hires Holmes after her sister dies under mysterious circumstances, her last words being “The speckled band!”

The Doomdorf Mystery by Melville Davisson Post

This story features one of my favorite detectives Uncle Abner, a strong-minded, Christian cattleman, who lives in West Virginia before the Civil War. The Uncle Abner stories, written between 1911 and 1928 may be the first example of historical mysteries.

Uncle Abner accompanies Squire Randolph to confront Doomdorf, a man whose liquor is raising havoc in the area. When they arrive at his home, they find he’s been shot while locked in a room overlooking a cliff. The solution is one of the most imaginative I’ve ever read.

A Knife Between Brothers by Manly Wade Wellman

I enjoy this story because the setting is so unusual for its time. Written in 1947, the detective is David Return, a policeman and member of the Tsichah tribe. His grandfather is the senior policeman on the reservation. David goes to settle a dispute between two elderly brothers and finds one murdered. He knows the living brother wasn’t strong enough to commit the crime, but how was the man murdered in an isolated cabin?

The Twelfth Statue by Stanley Ellin

This is another story I liked because of the setting, a B-movie unit working in Italy in the 1960’s. Mean, greedy, lecherous movie producer Alexander File disappears from a movie studio near Rome one night. With no shortage of suspects, the Italian police get nowhere. The writer working on the movie is equally baffled until he watches the finished product.

The Problem of the Old Oak Tree by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch was the master of the mystery short story. One of his detectives, who appears in this story, only solves impossible crimes. Dr. Sam Hawthorne practices medicine in a rural American town in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. A stunt man dies in a scene being filmed near the small town. He’s found strangled with a wire after jumping from an airplane. And there’s no way anyone could have strangled him after he left the plane.

The Locked Bathroom by H.R.F.Keating

This is a fun story. Shrewish Mrs. Marchpane is in the bathroom with her husband when he disappears from the shower. No one can explain the disappearance but the cleaning lady Mrs. Craggs, who figures out the Great Locked Bathroom Mystery isn’t that mysterious at all.

What locked room or impossible crime stories do you recommend?

Cemeteries as Writing Inspiration

No, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. Since this month’s themes is mysteries, I wanted to feature a setting that works for that genre as well as many others. Don’t think cemeteries can work as writing inspiration for more than mystery and horror? Read on!

Walking a Cemetery

I’ve walked through cemeteries usually with two purposes in mind: to get a sense of the history of an area and to look for unusual names for characters. A large cemetery is also a quiet place to walk and plot not worry about traffic.

On my visits, I’ve noticed a very sad trend. If I spot a tombstone that stands out from the surrounding ones, regardless of how old the grave is, it usually honors someone who died young. That gets me to thinking. Who was this person? Why did he or she died so young, What happened to their family?

Those thoughts can run through the mind of my main character (MC). Perhaps a teenage boy has the job of mowing a cemetery. He notices an unusual tombstone and begins digging into the past to discover what he can about the person buried there.

If I write a parallel story about the person who died–maybe he’s a teen who lived around 1900–I would have a time-slip novel with complimentary storylines in two different time periods.

Family Connections

Twice, I’ve taken my kids to lay flowers on the graves of relatives from my mom’s side in Shinnston, West Virginia, during Memorial Day weekend. I’ve written about how important that experience is to me and for me to share with my kids. That can be the inspiration for my MC to connect to his family or to dive into family history.

We often run into relatives when we stop. Last time, it was my mom’s first cousin and her husband. A chance encounter like that can forge new family bonds for my MC. Or maybe bury the hatchet on a long-running family feud. Or the spouse of my MC learns more than he ever wanted to know about his wife’s more distant relations.

Any genre will do.

Any of the inspirations from above can be tweaked to apply to a romance or mystery. The teen researching the interesting headstone enlists the shy, smart girl in his class to help him. They discover the young person who died was the victim of an unsolved murder. And someone lets them know he wants it to remain unsolved.

I have a special fondness for mysteries featuring cold cases or buried family secrets or both. The skeleton in the closet may be a skeleton in a coffin. I like the idea of a cemetery being a symbol for long-buried secrets. Then the detective, whether amateur or professional, can finally bring about justice after so many years.

One thing I learned about cemeteries in my area is that if I want to know who is buried where, it’s not as simple as visiting “Find A Grave”. Churches used to maintain many of the smaller cemeteries and kept the records for them. During a cemetery walk, led by a librarian from our local library, she said the Baptist church that had started the cemetery we were visiting burned at some point, losing their records for the locations of the graves. She mentioned that three mausoleums were built into the hillside along the edge of the cemetery, but she couldn’t find out who was buried there.

The hillside was now thickly overgrown. On a later visit, I found all of them. I didn’t get to close because two of the mausoleums were open. I didn’t know if anyone was still buried in them. But those mausoleums sent my imaginations spinning.

What if the key to a mystery was finding the grave of a particular person? What if the records had been burned in a church fire? How would the detective find it?

Or what if on Halloween night, some teens dare each other to enter a mausoleum that one of them knows is open? What if they find a very recently killed body?

Writers, how would you use cemeteries as writing inspiration? Readers, can you think of a story that used a cemetery as something other than a setting in a horror story?

How to Write Action Scenes

Learning how to write action scenes is a technique that will serve most writers, whether you write adventures stories, scifi, or in other genres. I found this post by Michelle Griep on Inspired Prompt extremely helpful. It confirmed some ideas I had already formed about writing action scenes and gave me additional guidelines to make them more effective. Ms. Griep lists seven points. I list three that I’ve found most important.

Use short sentences and paragraphs.

Ms. Griep only advises to use short sentences, but I think short paragraphs are important, too. The brevity of each device speeds readers through the scene, making it more real. Short sentences and paragraphs act like the literary equivalent of rapid-fire editing in movies.

It must have emotional impact.

I’m combining two of Ms. Griep’s points here. An action scene only works if the reader cares about the main character (MC). I’m sure we’ve all sat through a movie in which a long action scenes unfolds with many explosions, breathless escapes, and near-miss catastrophes and yawned all the way through it. Why? Because we didn’t care what happened to the MC.

One way to make readers care is to make clear the consequences of the MC’s success or failure in the scene. In my WIP, A Shadow on the Snow, my MC, nineteen-year-old Rae Riley, is being stalked by someone who hates her late mother. The harassment goes from nasty notes to breaking and entering. While walking home from work in the middle of a snowstorm, Rae is chased by a shadowy figure.

Because I’ve established who Rae is and what her problem is, the reader, hopefully, will care that Rae succeeds in eluding or beating her pursuer.

No time for reflection.

An action scene is no time for the MC to reflect on how he got in this fix or philosophize about the course his life might take. The MC has the mental capacity to act and react and that’s it. I know this from hard-won experience.

Last summer, my husband and youngest went kayaking on the river near our home. It was the highest level of water they had ever tried to kayak. As they attempted to make it back to our bank, my youngest had trouble fighting the current. While assisting our son, my husband was paddling against the current too. I was afraid both of them would tip and be swept downstream.

I had to make an instant decision and waded into the river to help my son because he needed me more. After I secured his kayak on the bank, my oldest yelled that my husband had overturned his kayak, and the river was carrying him away. I ran down the bank, fell into the river up to my neck, climbed out, and kept running with the idea I’d get ahead of my husband and wade out so he could grab me.

It turned out the river wasn’t as deep as I thought, and my husband had no trouble making it to shore. During the hair-raising few minutes this all occurred, my mind was completely occupied with quick decisions and actions. I had no time for questioning my husband’s judgement about kayaking under these conditions. Of course, once everyone was safe, I told my family that as long as I lived and until the day I died none of them would ever again kayak when the river ran that high. EVER.

Writers, what advice can you give on how to write actions scenes? Readers, what are some of the best action scenes you’ve read?

Book Writing Adventure in France by Susan Neal

Susan Neal is an author new to JPC Allen Writes. Her books on healthy eating and yoga give a Christian perspective to living a healthy life. Her true story below relates how writing, one of the most solitary and sedentary arts, can lead to adventure. Welcome, Susan!

I had been teaching Christian yoga at my church for ten years. Through the years I created dozens of theme-based Bible verses to recite during my yoga classes. One of my favorites was “How to Receive God’s Peace.” I felt called by the Lord to compile those lessons into a book. I had published two Christian yoga DVDs, but I had never written a book. So I attended Christian writer conferences and joined a Word Weaver Writers Group to help prepare. I worked on the manuscript for two years before it was published in 2016. 

You become an expert on the topic that you wrote about when you publish a book. Soon after Scripture Yoga was published, I spoke at the Christians Practicing Yoga Retreat in New York. I made many connections through this group during that conference. Three years later, one of the Christians Practicing Yoga Association leaders put together a trip to the French Alps to find the yoga retreat center of the person who wrote the first Christian yoga book. A priest, Father Dechanet, published Christian Yoga in 1956. It sold over 100,000 copies and was translated into seven languages.

What an adventure to jump on a plane and fly to France. I previously met all the individuals on this trip at the Christians Practicing Yoga Retreat. Seven of us met in Lyon, France and traveled by van to the little village of Valjouffrey that was nestled in the Alps. What a glorious countryside with tall green mountains, crystal clear blue skies, and winding rivers. The little village of about fifty people was like going back in time a hundred years. 

A mile up the mountain from that village was the abandoned Christian yoga retreat center founded by Father Dechanet. Every morning for a week, the seven of us hiked up that mountain and began our day with a Catholic mass, yoga, and meditation. I could envision the lively retreat center in the 1970s when people from all over Europe learned Dechanet’s teaching on spirituality, health, and yoga. Dechanet understood the close link between the body, mind, and spirit. He died in 1992, but his books leave a legacy for those who follow. That is what books do.  

I would’ve never guessed that writing Scripture Yoga would have led to such an international adventure. What traveling adventures have you enjoyed because of your writing?

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BUY AT AMAZON

This book assists Christian yoga instructors and students in creating a Christian atmosphere for their classes. Choose from twenty-one lessons, each is a mini Bible study that will deepen the participants’ walk with God. 

Each lesson contains a Scripture theme designed to facilitate meditation on God’s Word. The Scripture verses are arranged progressively to facilitate an understanding of each Bible study topic. The Bible lessons will enhance the spiritual depth of your yoga class, and make it appropriate and desirable for Christian participants. 

Check your poses with photographs of over 60 yoga postures taken on the sugar white sands of the Emerald Coast of Florida. A detailed description of each pose is provided with full page photographs so postures are easily seen and replicated. 

“Scripture Yoga is a useful tool for teachers and students of Christian Yoga, written by an experienced instructor. Specific Bible verses are suggested, along with clear instructions, and beautiful photographs illustrating each pose. It is quite clear that users will discover their bodies as ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:15) under Susan Neal’s wise tutelage.”

-THE REVERAND NANCY ROTH, author of Invitation to Christian Yoga

Photography: RK Photos http://rkphotos1.zenfolio.com/                    

Cover Design: Angie Alaya

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Susan Neal RN, MBA, MHS, lives her life with a passion to help others improve their health so they can serve God better. She is a Certified Health and Wellness Coach and Writer and Speaker Coach. Her mission is to improve the health of the body of Christ. She is the author of seven healthy living books. Her #1 Amazon best-seller 7 Steps to Get Off Sugar and Carbohydrates, won the 2018 Selah award. The sequel Christian Study Guide for 7 Steps to Get Off Sugar and Carbohydrates won the 2019 Directors Choice award. 

Susan is a certified yoga instructor with over 30 years’ experience in practicing and teaching yoga. She published two yoga books, Scripture Yoga and Yoga for Beginners; plus, two sets of Scripture Yoga Card Decks, and two Christian yoga DVDs. You can find her on SusanUNeal.com. Follow her on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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