The Kindness of Strangers When Researching Your Novel

About six weeks ago, Katie Ganshert had an excellent post about when it’s time to stop using the Internet for research and use real resources instead. You can read that post here. Katie’s post was very much the inspiration for this one.

I’m a firm believer in going to the source for information, be it a peer-reviewed scientific journal for primary data or interviewing someone about their real-life experience. For instance, our current work-in-progress involves arson and the science of fire investigation. To write this manuscript properly, Ann and I will be working with a close friend who is a Captain and a 20-year veteran of a California Fire Department. There’s nothing like real life experience to give your manuscript an edge, especially if you’re aiming for gritty realism.

This was something I already knew when Ann and I started brainstorming DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT in the summer of 2009. We’re both researchers at heart and by training, and we both believe in going the extra mile to make sure the details are correct. This is all very doable when we’re looking at details surrounding the science, but when it came to learning about real and realistic police protocol, we hit a wall. Our female protagonist is a Trooper in the Massachusetts State Police, but when it comes to Internet information about law enforcement, we found details to be alarmingly scarce.

I had already decided that the only way to do this manuscript properly was to be physically standing in the locations where we were going to set the story. I’m a very visual writer; for years, Ann has assisted in the process by finding every photo she could of whatever it was we were writing at the time. It’s always paid off beautifully, but this time photos weren’t going to cut it. I needed to see those locations with my own eyes.

I also knew that I had to take that extra step and actually contact the Massachusetts State Police for information. After writing five novels together, we knew that this was going to be the one that we’d take to literary agents; we finally felt ready. But I still wasn’t confident about my role as a writer for anything other than actual writing. I’m just a scientist and an unpublished author; what right did I have calling busy people with important jobs to take up their time to discuss my project? And, truthfully, it seemed trivial to me, compared to what they do. Nevertheless, I put on my ‘author’s hat’, screwed up my courage, and cold-called the Massachusetts State Police. I was passed to the Director of Communications who requested more information via e-mail. I provided additional details of the project and told him that I’d be happy to discuss the information with him over the phone, or that I would be traveling to Boston in a few weeks and could meet with him then.

To my shock, he arranged a meeting with the District Attorney for Essex County, Jonathan Blodgett, and Detective Lieutenant Norman Zuk, head of the Essex Detective Division, Essex County’s homicide unit. *gulp* Suddenly my little meeting with the Communications Director turned into a meeting with both the D.A. and top cop of Essex County.

To say that I had an attack of nerves would be putting it lightly. I was already feeling out of my league and now I was supposed to meet with these important men? Me? And really, why did they want to meet with me anyway? Were they going to try to stop me from using their department for our novel?

I flew down to Boston to start my research trip. I rented a car and drove to Salem to meet with them. But what is it about cops? Why is it that even when you’ve done nothing wrong, you’re still scared to death of them? Add to that major nerves and feeling way out of my depth, and I was terrified. Literally shaking. Nevertheless, I walked in there and tried to brazen my way through it.

And guess what happened? When Steve O’Connell, the Communications Director, showed me into the D.A.’s conference room, D.A. Blodgett and Det. Lt. Zuk both walked in carrying gifts for me. Then they asked what they could do for me.

I was stunned. Here I was imposing on these gentlemen and taking up their valuable time, and they wanted to know what they could do for me.

They gave me an hour of their time in the conference room, answering every question on the list Ann and I had prepped from homicide protocols to Crime Scene Services to interagency cooperation. Then D.A. Blodgett had to leave as he was already late for his next meeting, but Det. Lt. Zuk took me on a personally guided tour of the Essex Detective Division, including their conference room (that held their murder board for all open and in-trial cases) and the detectives’ bullpen. When I asked him about their detailed protocols, he handed me the binder of protocols from his own office and told me I could take them with me as long as I returned them to him later.

Once again I was floored. What I originally thought would be a short phone conversation had become a crucial meeting yielding priceless information, including their official protocols that I was allowed to copy and keep.

When it comes to research, there’s nothing like talking to those men and women who do the job you want to portray in your writing, or who have knowledge that you lack. These strangers were immensely kind and forthcoming, and they genuinely enjoyed my interest in their work and their department. And their generosity has continued. When I had a few details I wanted to confirm during our final edit two months ago, I contacted Det. Lt. Zuk, asking if I could have a few minutes with one of his officers. He sent me his cell phone number and told me to call him personally. Another very generous gift of his time and knowledge.

What about you? Have you found that people are willing to go above and beyond to help you in your writing? That rather than being annoyed by your questions, that they have instead been flattered and willing to assist you?

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