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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Using journalistic techniques to research mysteries

Today's Salad Bowl Saturday guest blogger is Carolyn Mulford, who brings years of nonfiction writing experience to her fictional creations. Today she discusses research needed for writing mysteries.


When I wrote articles and nonfiction books, half of my time on a project went to research and planning, a third to writing the first draft, and the rest to rewriting. I assumed that writing mysteries would take little research time.


Mystery readers demand accuracy.

They know a lot about basic police procedures, weapons, forensics, and almost any obscure subject. They’re willing to suspend belief, but you have to build your fiction on fact.

After completing three books in my series (beginning with Show Me the Murder), I’ve acquired a base of general knowledge and adapted journalistic techniques to research the particular information needed for each book.

I use a five-step research process.  

Step 1: Develop a nebulous idea enough to figure out the major things I’ll need to know. For me, that usually involves about 10 pages of notes on plot, themes, victims, villains, kill methods, and settings.
I must answer one dominant question: What research is essential to determine whether my spun-from-clouds idea is feasible? I’m delaying one book idea because of the research it would require.

Step 2: Find key sources, human or written, to give me an overview and, if necessary, direct me to other sources for specific details. Often a book-length manuscript requires using several key sources.
Usually I begin by searching on the Web or in reference books. I prefer to grasp the basics before I question experts. Doing the homework allows me to ask better questions and elicits better answers, not to mention respect. Most people love to talk about what they do.

If I know people with vital expertise, I contact them and ask to chat. Maybe I invite them for lunch or a coffee. (Friends tend to tense up if I use the word interview.)

Just as in gathering information for an article, I end a chat/interview by asking if I can come back to the person with other problems as the book progresses.

Step 3: Determine priorities and set up a rough research schedule. Decide what has to be learned before I start writing (facts affecting the plot) and what can wait (observations of a setting or activity that comes late in the book).

As in researching a magazine article or nonfiction book, I rely on written (online or print) materials, interviews (including posting questions on online groups), and observation. The proportion of each depends on the topic.

Step 4: Research small, unanticipated questions as I write. Something pops up in almost every chapter. If I can find the information quickly, I may interrupt the writing to do it. If finding the information requires times, I’ll boldface some x’s or a best-guess draft and come back to it later.

Step 5: After the second draft, ask knowledgeable people to check anything questionable.

I’m working on steps 2, 3, and 4 now as I write chapter two.

My research for Show Me the Ashes falls into three categories, with the top priority being police procedures and legal questions. This book deals with a cold case, and plot points depend partly on the sequence and timing of the plea bargaining process and the conduct of an arson investigation. I can get background information on the Net and in reference books, but I’ll need to interview local police and fire officials. Soon.

My second category is medical information, including how long a date drug can be detected in tests, the progression of pancreatic cancer, and emotional trauma’s manifestation in three-year-olds. Some of this I can find on medical sites. Fortunately I know a nurse and a child psychologist. I’ll invite them to lunch. I’ll probably also ask them to read at least parts of the completed manuscript.

My third category is settings that call for realistic details. The most important one is a women’s prison. In the next month I need to wangle a tour, preferably with a camera in hand, and an interview with a guard and—a long shot—a couple of young prisoners.

So do I spend half my time on research when writing mysteries?

No. I haven’t kept a work record as I did when a freelancer, but I estimate that I average about a third that. That’s good; it gives me the extra time I need to make things up and to rewrite.  

One other vital thing I learned early in writing nonfiction and apply to fiction: The writer must know much more than the reader, but that knowledge mustn’t show. We do research in order to select the information essential to the story.

—Carolyn Mulford

Carolyn Mulford started writing while growing up on a farm in northeast Missouri. After earning degrees in English and journalism, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dessie, Ethiopia. There she became fascinated by other cultures. She has followed those interests by traveling in seventy countries and by editing a United Nations magazine in Vienna, Austria, and a national service-learning magazine in Washington, D.C. 

As a freelancer, she wrote hundreds of articles and five nonfiction books. She now lives in Columbia, Missouri, and focuses on fiction. Her first novel, The Feedsack Dress, became Missouri’s Great Read at the 2009 National Book Festival. In her first mystery, Show Me the Murder, she introduced an ex-spy and two old friends who cope with crime and personal crises. Five Star/Gale, Cengage will release the second book in the series, Show Me the Deadly Deer, in December.

Her website is


E. B. Davis said...

I like knowing other writers approaches to research. Knowing when to stop can be tricky. Some writers get into the research to the extent that their novels feel like text books. Adding enough research to show depth without boring or teaching the reader isn't easy. Men read to add to their knowledge. Women read for enjoyment/entertainment. You have a fine line to fulfill the needs of both readers. Thanks for your insight, Carolyn!

Gloria Alden said...

Good advice, Carolyn. Because my cozy series has a gardening theme, something I've been doing for years and years, one would think I didn't need to do research, but that's not true. For instance, in murdering with poisonous plants, I still needed to find out how much to use, how long it would take for the victim to die and what would be his/her symptoms. Fortunately, I have many gardening books as well as books on poisonous plants or other poisons.

Warren Bull said...

Another reason to do research is that some readers will have expertise in an area covered in the book. Get it wrong and you lose readers.

Warren Bull said...

Another reason to do research is that some readers will have expertise in an area covered in the book. Get it wrong and you lose readers.

Elaine Will Sparber said...

An excellent research protocol, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Your research techniques sound much like mine. If it's a quick check, I do it as I go, but a lot of the information (including "soft" material--what goes through your mind when you're a 17 year old facing a potential death sentence? The intitial answer, when I asked someone who'd been in that situation, was "Scared to death." And he didn't recognize the irony.)

One comment--I wouldn't ask to bring a camera (or a cell phone--even as an emplyee, I was not supposed to bring a cell phone into secure areas)into any kind of prison. I'd assure whoever I was asking for permission that I would not bring anything like that in. It's a real security issue, and like taking pictures of important bridges, that is likely to trigger an alarmed response in the official you're dealing with.