Researching Everything under the Sun! by S.L. Smith
Few things turn me off faster than books with factual errors. I tend to put them down—permanently. For that reason, it’s important I get it right. If I don’t know it, I research it. I’m talking about the smallest details. Some of the research is almost as fun as the writing. Some of it is a headache.
Let’s start with the enjoyable stuff. I ventured into writing mysteries only because a friend spent thirty-five years as a cop, and agreed to perform a reality check on the law enforcement aspects. One battle won.
It didn’t take long to discover I also needed a contact in the medical examiner’s office. I had to muster the courage to make that call. Thankfully, I connected with a gem. This investigator answered all of my questions for book one, Blinded by the Sight. When the book came out, I met him and gave him a copy. That paid off in spades.
He assisted, again, with Running Scared: The Second Pete Culnane Mystery. At that time, he mentioned several items I should verify with my law enforcement expert. I explained this time my law enforcement expert needed, but lacked, an insider’s knowledge of the St. Paul Police Department.
He lined up two. One is the head of homicide. The other is a retired investigator/detective. He obtained permission for me to call both men, and provided their direct phone numbers. Thanks to him, both St. Paul PD contacts took my calls and answered all of my questions. I was blown away! I learned so much from them.
I spoke with the St. Paul Fire Marshall to determine which vehicles would be sent to the scene, who would be in the vehicles, and what they’d do on site. Needing answers about hospital procedures and descriptions of the injuries, I connected with an emergency medicine physician. Both of those men were wonderful!
High school kids play a significant role in Running Scared. I called local schools to learn the times school starts and lets out. I had to know the procedures parents follow if their kids are ill. I needed the dress code. After all, the story occurs in Minnesota—in January. I had to put clothes on those kids.
Interviews are the fun part. The rest is interesting—but often a challenge.
The kids also needed names. The Internet provided popular names for the relevant decade. I use that same system to help select names for most characters in my novels.
One kid claims he wouldn’t play a part in the crime, because he’s intent on getting into Notre Dame. The Notre Dame website indicates whether the kid has an acceptance letter by the time the story occurs.
In Running Scared, the victim is struck by a car. The driver had to escape post haste, so the car couldn’t have air bags. Online, I determined the year air bags became standard equipment. I selected a car, and still had to determine if it had air bags. Once I had the make and model, I also had to learn the exterior colors available that year.
The two investigators remark on the vehicle stolen to commit the crime, and the fact that across the street sat the car most commonly stolen at the time. Yup, I had to find out what car was most commonly stolen that year.
This book includes a U.S. citizen who works in Canada. I had to learn whether jobs in Canada are available to U.S. citizens, responsibilities for the selected job, common living arrangements for this transplant, travel methods and time required for this person to return to the U.S., as well as conditions that would delay an emergency trip home.
With help from a Facebook friend, I learned the age of homes in the neighborhoods playing a part in the book. I rode through those neighborhoods, getting a feel for the landscape and houses. I even learned the types of trees.
I wanted to know what the victim and attacker saw, so I could paint a realistic picture. For that reason, I repeatedly traveled the path they followed in the book.
Wondering how all that fits into a single novel? Check out Running Scared.
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S.L. Smith, a lifelong resident of Minnesota, was born in St. Cloud and moved to the Twin Cities after graduating from St. Catherine University in St. Paul. She is the author of Blinded By the Sight and Running Scared: The Second Pete Culnane Mystery. When writing mysteries, S. L. draws upon her degree in psychology, a career with vast amounts of law enforcement interaction, and her thrill for the investigative hunt. A voracious reader since childhood and a lover of mysteries, she uses her knowledge of Minnesota and human nature to create stories.
S. L. is a member of Sisters in Crime. Feel free to contact her at:
0 thoughts on “Guest Blogger S.L. Smith: Researching Everything Under the Sun!”
S.L. Smith is exactly right! Factual errors are a turn-off. Doing research gives me ideas, too. When I’m find out about a location and I learn it’s a big windsurfing mecca, that implies something about beach culture there I can weave into my story, without a fact about windsurfing being just pasted on. Recently, I moved my protagonist’s apartment 6 blocks uptown because a friend reading a chapter said, “Wait, you can’t see Queens from there.” Now he can. (And I have the “view” photo from the apartment building website to prove it!)
Great Point! I’ve been playing with some setting locations in a story and your points about windsurfing or seeing Queens emphasizes how just a few words that are accurate can make all the difference in a reader’s mind.
Oh so true! While researching the first Pete Culnane mystery, Blinded by the Sight, I went to the bridge where a chase scene occurs. After getting a feel for the real layout, I totally rewrote that scene, making it much better!
Wow, I had no idea that writing a mystery required so much research!
It’s encouraging to know that so many people are willing to share their
expertise with an author.
Hi Deborah, It’s both encouraging and humbling how supportive local professionals are to we authors.
Deborah, that’s what makes it real. If we wrote only what we know or believe we know, the end product would be lacking. That’s why anyone one who writes is so thankful for those who are willing to help us get the facts right.