Thursday, May 1, 2014

How To Research Your Novel Like A Pro ... by Jen J. Danna

Unless you write epic fantasy—where the big challenge is convincing worldbuilding—most authors will need to set at least part of their novel in the real world. Since most of us have limited knowledge of the greater world, we need to research topics so our characters will know what they’re talking about.

As a writer who specializes in forensics and in grounding her series in a real and active police department, research and accuracy has become somewhat of a specialty. So what tips can I share about my research regimen? I mean, besides finding an amazing writing partner who takes on a good portion of research (lucky me!)…

The Internet is a wonderful thing: From Google Earth and Google Books, to Wikipedia, to specific websites, the internet is a treasure trove of free facts, right at your fingertips. You might worry about that anyone can post information on the Internet and call it fact, but do enough research and you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of information out there is accurate (Wikipedia, for example, has the same accuracy ranking as the Encyclopedia Britannica because it is policed by so many experts). Now, if the NSA comes knocking because they’ve been following my web searches, I’m probably in big trouble. The web history of your average mystery writer is always a fascinating thing—from medical research, to burial techniques, to poisons, to bomb making—but it certainly could make you look pretty suspicious. *wink*

Libraries are NOT outdated: Libraries try hard to keep their material current. And even some of the older books are still absolutely relevant depending on the topic. Libraries also have subscriptions to some specialized journals or to guides like the Chicago Manual of Style, which are pure gold for authors. My day job is at a university, so I also take advantage of several of the university libraries for more in-depth and cutting-edge scientific research and style guides.

Talk to real people: I always hesitated to ask real people about their jobs because I was afraid I’d bother them. But the truth of the matter is that people love when you take an interest in what they do, and are flattered that you’d ask them. I’ve cold called police officers, a district attorney, fire fighters, a fire marshal, Witches, and many others. Not once has anyone been unwilling to generously share their time and knowledge with me. I now don’t have any compunction about picking up the phone to contact people… well, except for my contact in the Essex Detective Unit, part of the Massachusetts State Police. Detective Lieutenant Zuk runs the unit, and I’m always sure he should be out doing important things like catching real murderers, but he never fails to take the time to discuss protocols as well as legal and jurisdictional issues with me. People are simply amazing!

Travel to where your novel is set: I can’t stress this point enough. If your novel is set somewhere other than where you live, do your best to try to get there. Google Earth/maps are fantastic, but it is nothing like being boots-on-the-ground in a real location. Our debut novel, Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It, changed substantially due to a trip to Massachusetts before we started to write. There’s a scene early on in the book where Dr. Matt Lowell, the team forensic anthropologist, is standing on the coast, looking out into Essex Bay, and something catches his eye. In reality, that was me standing in that exact spot, seeing the same thing. That moment changed the storyline of the book to something much stronger than our original outline. I’ve travelled to Massachusetts for each book that we’ve written, touring police departments, fire departments, Witch shops, museums, an observatory, and historic buildings. When you’ve stood in those places, you can believably write your characters standing there as well.

It’s so important to have your story anchored in its time and place. Failing to do so can jerk your reader out of the story itself, simply because they’ve tripped over an aspect that doesn’t ring true. Luckily, in this day and age, even if you can’t travel to where your novel is set, putting effort into your research can immerse your readers so completely into your story that they get lost there. And that’s the ultimate goal of every author.

~~~~~

A scientist specializing in infectious diseases, Jen J. Danna works as part of a dynamic research group at a cutting-edge Canadian university. Her true passion, however, is indulging her love of the mysterious through her writing. Together with her partner Ann, she crafts suspenseful crime fiction with a realistic scientific edge. Her Skeleton Keys blog has been listed as one of the top forensic blogs on the web. Jen lives near Toronto, Ontario with her husband and two daughters, and is a member of the Crime Writers of Canada.

The third Abbott and Lowell mystery, A Flame in the Wind of Death, was released in hardcover and e-book from Five Star in April. "At Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts, is a hot spot for Witch and tourist alike. But when a murder spree begins, a cop and scientist must team up to find the killer before a media circus unleashes, panic ensues, and more victims are killed..."

You can connect with Jen at Facebook and Twitter. 

15 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Jen.

Jen - Thanks for sharing your thoughts about research. It's so important to make a novel feel authentic, and there's nothing like solid research to help with that. I'll second your idea about talking to real people. The ones I've spoken to for my own writing have always been happy to help me.

Jen J. Danna said...

Margot - isn't it amazing how people will just jump in with both feet to help? In my writing, I always seem to be talking to truly busy people - many of them first responders like cops and fire fighters - and they've always been immensely generous with their time.

Thanks for stopping by to read and comment!

Jen J. Danna said...

Pat, thanks for hosting me on your blog today!

Stephanie Faris said...

Great tips! Another benefit of traveling for research: it's tax deductible!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for being here, Jen. The crime fighting community has a wonderful reputation for helping writers, and scientists run a close second. Although I haven't done a police ride-along or taken the citizens' police academy series yet, I know they're great opportunities to learn, especially for those writing police procedurals.

I especially like your advice to travel where your story takes place. I was thinking Paris...

Jen J. Danna said...

Stephanie, another excellent point! One that I've definitely used in my own tax life.

Pat, you know, maybe I didn't think the whole Massachusetts setting through. I should have aimed for Paris, as you suggested, or maybe London. Whoops! ;)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jen,

I didn't realize you had done three novels with Five Star. Congrats!
I think your points are well-taken. It is very important to know the setting of your novel. It lends fiction authenticity and makes it real to readers. As a former librarian, I commend your endorsement of libraries for research.

Jen J. Danna said...

Jacqueline, thank you! Well, the third book isn't out until next year, but I'm very happy with the regular series releases. And libraries are awesome in many, many ways!

Mary Aalgaard said...

This is all great advice. I've been shy about calling or talking to people about their jobs/lives, ect. But, you're right. Most people like to talk about what they do and share their experience. I think some are even flattered that you asked and will use their info to write your novel, or play, or whatever you're doing.
Thanks.
Play off the Page

Medeia Sharif said...

I've done all of these and prefer them in the order you listed.

Jen J. Danna said...

Mary - I've gotten over the shyness, but it took a few tries because I didn't want to bother people... until I realized I wasn't bothering them.

Medeia - It's definitely a list of easiest/cheapest to hardest to arrange/most expensive, but there's certainly different value in each different strategy.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts on this topic!

Carrie-Anne said...

It's so much easier to research my historicals now that we have an Internet. I barely remember how I did it when I mostly relied on print sources. One must be careful about vetting sources, and ideally use Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for more comprehensive or specific sources.

I'd love to someday visit all the places I've written about, and am planning a trip to Iran within the next few years. I've been pleasantly surprised that most people haven't thought I'm crazy for wanting to go there, and have respectfully listened to me explaining how it's safe and possible for Americans to go there. My father, though, couldn't understand why I can't just read about it instead of going there in person. There's no substitute for firsthand research, and there's no guarantee that travel to Iran will still be a possibility after the next few years.

Jen J. Danna said...

Carrie-Ann - I very much agree that there is no substitute for first hand research. Books and internet posts simply can't capture the atmosphere of standing in a place and really feeling it. But, please, be careful traveling to Iran. There's another area where some good research will help you travel safely. Best of luck!

Carole Price said...

Good points on research, Jen. Libraries are a solid source and librarians are always happy to help. My den would raise a few eyebrows over my reading materials

Jen J. Danna said...

Carole - Librarians are the best, and are wonderful fonts of knowledge. Never underestimate all the things a librarian knows!