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?

Writing Tip — Why I love Mysteries, Part 2

mortalityw2-401222_1920.jpgIn my post on Tuesday, I discussed two parts of what makes mysteries so compelling for me, the puzzle and the investigation. Today, I’ll cover the other two.

The Detective

The detective character is what people remember and the reason they return to a series. Few people know the details of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, beyond, maybe, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But almost every human on the planet knows who Sherlock Holmes is. The same is true for Agatha Christiie’s Hercule Poiroit. Readers know the detective, but the only case they can name, if any, is Murder on the Orient Express.

The detective should be someone I want to be with as I follow her investigation. She can be admirable or likable or relatable, but she must have some quality that makes the reader want to spend time with her.

The Solution

Locked RoomSitting by my bed was The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. When my youngest saw it, he asked, “Why do you read all those books about blood and murder? You must like murder.”

I said that, no, I didn’t like murder. I read those stories because I want to see justice done and the guilty caught. Or, as several authors said at the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, readers want to see the world made right again and order restored.

As I said in my last post, the stakes of the puzzle should be high to involve the reader emotionally as well as intellectually. That doesn’t mean it must be gory or sordid. Just high enough for readers to care. The solution is the pay off, satisfying again both the intellectual and the emotional parts of the story.

Puzzle + Investigation + Detective + Solution = Great Mystery

When those four components come together in a meaningful or surprising or fun way, then that’s a mystery I will read again and again.

Those components are also what I kept in mind when I wrote “A Rose from the Ashes,” a short story that is my first true whodunit. As I wrote it last December, I wanted a puzzle that grabbed readers’ minds and hearts, an investigation with lots of twists that will reward readers for spending their time with it, a likable detective whom readers can root for, and a solution that leaves them feeling satisfied.

I hope I pulled it off. If you read my story in the anthology Christmas fiction off the beaten path, let me know if you think I succeeded.

Writing Tip — Why I Love Mysteries, Part 1

mortalityw1-401222_1920Since this month’s theme is mysteries, I thought I should write about why it’s my favorite genre. But when I came to write this post, I quickly got stumped. I’ve been in love with mysteries for so long that I find it hard to step back and explain why. But after some serious, deep thinking — I’ll take an aspirin later — I’ve discovered four reasons.

The Puzzle

I love puzzles that challenge my intellect. The mystery starts with something that is wrong in the lives of the characters. A series of robberies have occurred, and the police must stop them. The obnoxious newcomer to town gets killed. A high school senior receives threatening texts from an anonymous source. The puzzle must be solved in order to put life right again.

Sometimes, I just like a puzzle, like the stories by Agatha Christie. But if the puzzle can have some kind of emotional stake tied to it, that’s even better. The detective faces dire consequences if he doesn’t solve it. If the detective is in a series, it may stretch believability to the breaking point if ever mystery is high stakes for him. But it can be high stakes for some character the detective it trying to help.

The Investigation

How the detective solves the puzzle determines how much readers will enjoy it. Agatha Christie is still the gold standard for whodunits because the process for uncovering clues and drawing conclusions made sense in most of her stories.

I’ve read mysteries that were entertaining but the detective’s explanation of how she pierced together clues to reach her solution didn’t make sense to me. So while it was a good story, it wasn’t a good mystery.

In the novella Kill Now—Pay Later by Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe accepts as a client the daughter of the man who shined his shoes for three years. A man at the business where the daughter worked as a secretary was murdered. The police think her father did it because the man seduced the daughter. When the father is found dead, the police believe it was suicide. Case closed.

The daughter tells Wolfe that she was not seduced, and her father would never have believed that about her. She offers Wolfe all the tips her father collected from Wolfe over the three years. Her father wanted to save the money for something special.

Wolfe later tells the police he believed the daughter’s story because if the story of the seduction was true, she had no reason to make up her tale and offer what was for her an exorbitant amount of money. Therefore he knew both deaths were murders.

It’s those kind of deductions, ones that ring true to life, that I love to come across in a mystery.

It must be the librarian in me, but I also love when the detective has to conduct serious research into a mystery, especially a cold case. In the 1973 TV movie, The Night Strangler, reporter Carl Kolchak is investigating the strangulation murders of several women. He visits the newspaper’s librarian, or what used to be called the “morgue attendant”. The librarian remembers a similar set of strangulation murders from some time in the 1950’s. They haul out the huge books that have the old editions for the paper pasted in them. The librarian was right. A set of strangulations murders occurred in 1952, all women.

The librarian and Kolchak dig more and discover that six women have been strangled every twenty-one years from 1889 to 1973. The scenes for these discoveries is the dark basement of the newspaper building. Eerie musical cues screech each time Kolchak opens up an old book to discover yet another newspaper article on the murders.

Unexpected discoveries that a detective unearths during his investigation thrill me as a reader, or viewer, and makes mysteries so intriguing.

I’ll have the other two reason I love mysteries in my next post.

Writing Tip — Favorite Book: Police Procedures and Investigations by Lee Lofland

Police procedureIf you are looking for one resource to introduce you to the world of law and order, I highly recommend Police Procedures and Investigations: a Guide for Writers by Lee Lofland.

Last winter, I got the inspiration for a a new mystery series and realized I needed to know a lot more than I already did about police work, which was zero. This book covers such areas as how men and women are trained at a police academy, the proper process for arrests and searches, the different departments of law enforcement in the U.S., how the court system works (I’ve never understood which courts try which crimes), and much more.

The copyright date is 2007, so some of the science may be out of date. My favorite chapter is the last one. Mr. Lofland writes about how many Americans believe they understand law enforcement from what they see on TV. This leads to people on juries misunderstanding forensic evidence because it’s not presented in a trial like it is on the C.S.I. shows.

Mr. Lofland offers some quotes of what real police officers think of their fictional counterparts.

“Police officers don’t fire warning shots! For goodness’ sake, what goes up must come down!”

“TV cops return to a crime scene over and over again to collect evidence. In real life, you usually get one shot at the scene.”

All of these quotes are from officers in Ohio, which is especially helpful to me, because that is where my series is set.

Another part of the book that I found fascinating were the short, personal essays. The author relates stories concerning the first autopsy he watched, putting a gang under surveillance, and trying to arrest a mountain of a man without using his gun. Those stories make law enforcement seem real to me.

No one in my family, except for a cousin, who is now a member of the Army police, or my husband’s family is involved in law enforcement. So reading this book has opened my eyes to a life I knew nothing about. As a writer, I want to tell a compelling story. But not at the expense of reality. I want to write about the men and women in law enforcement in a realistic way. I’ve found the more research I do hasn’t limited my inspiration. It has actually sparked it.

What book do you recommend for mystery writers?

Writing Tip — Guest Blogger, Mary Ellis

Mary EllisI am pleased to welcome Mary Ellis to my site today. Mary writes in several genres, including historical and Amish fiction. But my interview today will focus on her inspirational romantic suspense novels. She’s also a fellow Buckeye! Hello, Mary!

Which comes first when writing a mystery – plot, character, or setting?

Definitely setting. Once I find a town or neighborhood that inspires me, plot twists and characters start popping into my head.

I discovered that while reading What Happened on Beale Street. Memphis and its blues scene defines the story.

You write both romantic mysteries and cozy mysteries. What’s the difference?

I believe I’m the wrong person to ask this question. After reading several “traditional” cozies and talking to several cozy authors, I don’t think I’ve ever written a true “cozy.” Although my mysteries are often set in small towns and are “sweet” in nature, I always have at least two points of view (cozies are usually from one point of view) and I always write in third person. According to my editor and agent, cozies are usually written in first-person, something I have never done. I would describe my books as mysteries with romantic elements. I dare not describe them as romantic suspense because readers of those usually expect a far more sensuous story than I can deliver. So….if you come across a better definition of “genres”, please pass it along! Because after 25 published books…I’m still confused!

 What are some unique challenges to writing mysteries?

I’m usually a “plotter” by nature, but when I switched to mysteries from historical romance, I found plotting more necessary than ever, especially to maintain the book’s proper pacing. As “clues” to the whodunit are dropped in, each should be “bigger” and more important to the storyline than the last.  Frankly, I can’t see how a total “panster” can build the necessary suspense. Either you’ll reveal too much too soon, or you’ll land in the soggy middle where nothing much happens other than you increase your word count.  I’m certain some mystery writers can “wing it” successfully, but they must have better memory than me.

 What do you do to renew your inspiration when it is running low?

 Ahhh, finally an easy question!! I renew my inspiration with travel. One-hundred percent of the time, my story and characters have sprung from an area I found intriguing. It could be close to home like Ohio’s Amish country, an hour away, or perhaps several hours away like many Civil War battlefields. But lately I’ve been writing mysteries set in the South. Thus far, I’ve set my books in New Orleans, Memphis, Natchez and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Savannah, Charleston, and Pensacola. Keep in mind I live in Ohio. My current work-in-progress is set in St. Simons Island, GA, a place where I plan to spend the winter.

 What’s the most unusual source of inspiration you have ever used in your writing?

 I believe the most unusual source of inspiration was an overheard conversation in a lovely restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Okay, true confession time—I eavesdropped on a marital spat that became quite loud at times. My mind started working overtime with “what if the husband did this” and “what if the wife did that” during the rest of that vacation. Hopefully the couple resolved their difficulties and they are still happily married, but that spat gave me fodder for my first published mystery called, “Something Very Wicked.”

What a great story behind the story! 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to write mysteries?

 Read lots and lots of mysteries, in the various sub-genres. Find the niche you feel you can fit into, but don’t belabor the “rules” of the genre and sub-genre. I wrote and sold several mysteries that frankly my editor didn’t know how to pigeon-hole. But she loved the stories and published them anyway. Get a feel for what you want to write and then go for it. If you try to write exactly like someone else you won’t sell the book.

*******

hiding in Plain sight 4 (2)While working to locate her adopted client’s natural siblings, Kate Weller tries to prove her landlord’s father not guilty of murder before someone who wants her dead tracks her down.

Interested? Check out the link on Amazon.

Mary Ellis has written twenty-five novelsincluding Amish fiction, historical romance, and suspense. First in the series, Midnight on the Mississippi,was a finalist for the RT Magazine’sReviewer’s Choice Award and a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for 2015. Fourth in the series, Sunset in Old Savannahhas been nominated for a Bookseller’s Best Award and the Daphne du Maurier Award for 2017. In August, Severn House released Hiding in Plain Sightbook one of Marked for Retribution Mysteries. In January Kensington will release her mystery novella, Nothing Tastes So Sweet,for the Amish Candy Shop Anthology. www.maryellis.net or www.facebook.com/Mary.Ellis.Author

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