Research and Crime thriller writing.

Posted: November 7, 2012 in #crimwrriting, #ebooks, #self publishing, Creating A Buzz, Crime writing., Short stories, Thrillers, Writing

Importance of researching the facts before writing fiction.

How many times have you heard the old cliché? “Fact is stranger than fiction”? Until I started writing I had never really thought about it before, and I blame TV programs such as Myth Buster for stirring me into action on the research front. In truth, it is that and a one star review of one of my short stories, where I had the Vice President of America boarding Air Force One, under the misconception that they were actually named aircraft. The fact is, Air Force One and Two are one of the same, with the descriptions only applied as to who is onboard. Air Force One is the designated name for when the President is onboard and Air Force Two for the Vice President. Okay, so it was no great effort to change the eBook text, but the one star review remains forever and serves as a reminder of the importance of getting things right.

Another cliché that comes to mind and directed at authors’ is, “Write about what you know.” There is a lot of truth in this as research is not as big a deal if you are writing about what you know and love and your knowledge adds authenticity to the read. A good example of this would be the Bravo Two Zero, by Andy McNab, who wrote about his British Special Air Services operation exploits as a memoir. Since then he has gone on to writing fiction thrillers using his expertise in covert operations and weapons to produce a list of best-selling fiction.

“What’s the big deal?” you say “It’s fiction and in fiction we can write what we want.”

“True” I say, Not all readers are intolerant when it comes to stretching the plausible, but if you want to appeal to your market, you have to consider a good percentage of your readers who are well versed in all manner of subjects and even the slightest error of fact will have them toss the sample of the read aside, or they may respond with a bad review.

An example of this would be a gun enthusiast reading your work. Say you write a modern thriller and describe someone firing a Glock 9mil and invoke their sense of smell as experiencing the smell of “Cordite.” There are a number of problems using this description.

1) They stopped using small bore Cordite rounds around the end of the 20th century.

2) It is likely your character would be too young to have ever experienced the smell.

So how would you describe it? The answer is, that if you haven’t fired a gun, then research the subject.

Another example would be safety catches and safety-operational devices of guns and the way different models operate. I wish I had a penny for every time I have seen it described wrong. Research your guns folks. The link above “gun enthusiast” has some good descriptions of how different safety devices work.

“Okay but this is mostly boring stuff about guns.”

Well, yes it is, but let’s look at other examples. For instance, say you want to write about a wildfire in the Pine Mountains to the north of LA. It may be hot where you are for the time of year, but what is the season for likely wildfires in this area. A search of the internet will tell you. You will also be able to find the rescue services response to such events and the names of the equipment used. Who would have known that a bucket dropped into a lake from a helicopter to gather water would be called a Bambi bucket? Bambi bucket sounds just so much more authentic.

One example where I found research of vital importance was when I wrote a short story about Climate Change and the end of life on earth through CO2 poisoning. (The End, or a New Dawn). Here I wanted to have the character experience the death that breathing CO2 would cause and to evoke a sense of dread, or some response in the reader’s mind as to what could happen if the emotive term “Global Warming,” got out of hand and what it would mean physically and mentally before death. Rather that, than use my instinct to write simply that he coughed and spluttered and choked to death. I wanted the description to be medically correct in the depiction of the character’s death and what he would experience. Without research, on the internet I would not have achieved this.

One other thing to consider is that procedures change with technology advances. Ask yourself, does your city police still use a physical identity parade, or show you a number of photos, or do they pop in a computer disk have you watch a slide show. The same question could be asked of fingerprints. Do they still use ink and a roller, or do they digitize your prints from an electronic-pad device direct to a computer?

What can I do other than search the internet?

Well if you are famous, I suppose the FBI, or the local Police department may give you time of day. But for mere mortals there is always the local library, or if you know an expert on the subject in your neighborhood, you could always ask, or even pop into your local police station if you have a question on say procedure. Who knows, you may strike lucky as many people like to talk about their work. The internet is the least time consuming. One tool I have found useful is Google Maps and the street-level view. If you are writing about scenes in a town or city that you are not familiar with, then Google Street View is a useful tool, down to what type of business and other landmarks are around, and what type of trees etc to the type of road surface.

Writing about what you know?

There is no question about it, that if you don’t have the knowledge, that it should not be an impediment to writing about a subject, especially if you are an avid reader of your chosen genre, but if you have first-hand knowledge of the subject, then it places you at an advantage and in some instances it shows in the confident voice of the author that oozes authenticity.

One such author that is a great example of this is British author/ Crime writer, Debbie Bennett, who features on our Book Buzz page and expands on the subject of research in her article. Her latest release is due out soon. Debbie is the author of a number of books, one of which is Hamelin’s Child. Her background in Law enforcement and procedures in the UK, which extends over 25 years, together with knowledge of drugs suppliers/users and their habits, it shines through in one of the most gritty authentic reads I have had in a long time. No wonder it was on the list for consideration by the UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. Mine is not to reason why, but at the current sales promotion of 99c (Usual price $2.99) on Amazon kindle, it really is a steal.

Debbie is from England. I first met Debbie on the Harper Collins writers’ site, Authonomy. It was a few years ago when the site first opened and authors’ uploaded their work for critique. I’ll never forget sampling her work and thinking, wow, or the constructive advice she gave me when sampling mine. Her work was at the time streets ahead of the rest.

Here’s an idea of what she has gleaned from those 25 years to help with her work, which I am sure doesn’t even scratch the surface, but at the same time still uses research to keep her up to date.

“It was working with heroin importation that got me thinking about street drugs which led to Hamelin’s Child and the sequel Paying the Piper (which will be out in the next 2 months). I have (literal) hands-on experience with heroin, though I have to be careful how much I say! But I know what it tastes like and smells like, how it gets in the hair and into your clothes. I also have (or had) a working knowledge of police procedure and how custody works – although I’m a bit of out date on that score now, I do still work in police headquarters and have lot of useful contacts. I even asked one of my police mates (who is also a writer) to tell me how modern radio procedure would work and he helped me with a mock conversation that I have used in Paying the Piper.”

So there you are, even those with extensive knowledge of a subject still need to research to keep abreast of procedures. Good luck with your writing and with your research.

  1. All writers should carry out detailed research be they writing fact or fiction or a fusion of the two. There will always be some expert who can pick a hole or two in your scenarios but equally good research will certainly add great detail and depth to your writing. I have stumbled into the historical crime genre and frankly without research it would not even be worth putting pen to paper. One thing to be aware of though – how trustworthy is your reference source? The internet is a great research tool but can you be 100% sure some information you have found is totally accurate?Just because it has been published or its in print doesnt mean it is correct. I have been researching an amazing story and there is a long-standing account of the involvement of a young boy in the events.My deep research has yet to find him so if I had proceeded to write him into my story I could have been perpetuating a myth.Also can you really believe everything you read in contemporary accounts like old newspapers? Separating fact from fiction is very very important. Yes fact often can be stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction has been presented as a fact!


  2. J.L. Vaughan says:

    I totally agree with your view on the details, I thoroughly enjoyed your views. Nothing worth than reading or watching a good story only to have a “come on, that’s not how that works” rise up in the back of your head. Personally I have to write it in a way that it’s believable to me, taking into account all the walks in life that could read your material, homework is important.


  3. Hi Declan,

    I’d like to add some things. As a suspense writer, most of my characters are from the wrong side of the fence, but so are my sources. I have, in my circle of acquaintances, minor and major criminals, both in physical crimes like burglary, car theft, pickpocketing, and grievous bodily harm, as well as cerebral crimes like hacking and fraud.
    I know not many writers would like to cultivate relationships with (possibly dangerous) criminals, but I found that you can learn a lot from the legal side of crime. If you need to know about car theft, talk to car alarm/security/safety designers. For burglary, talk to to the anti-burglary and home security installation companies. Almost every crime has its opposite in trade.
    Another thing you touch upon in your article: if something can be verified, it will be verified. Make sure you, the author, verifies it first. If you have your protagonist use a Glock, verify its particulars, like the safety mechanism in the trigger, instead of the safety lever like in a Browning 1911. Know that a suppressor on a revolver will not muffle the sound. That one actually appeared at the end of Martin Cruz Smith’s excellent Gorki Park, and ruined my suspension of disbelief. I never picked up another MCS book again.


    • declanconner says:

      Good points. I have used my sources from the wrong side of the fence when I wrote my latest work. (Finished, but not yet published) I witnessed an acquaintance being removed out of a bar and he was taken for a ride in the trunk of a car with a sack over his head. Fortunately it was only to teach him a lesson for none payment of drug supplies and he was released, but his insight to his feelings gave me some good background on the emotional side of a kidnap. Where I nearly fell down, was the fact that all cars in the US since January 2001, have to have a safety release in the trunk. I nearly forgot, but luckily, I remembered in time to add that the assailants had disabled the lever and glow light. (Fords).


      • “Where I nearly fell down, was the fact that all cars in the US since January 2001, have to have a safety release in the trunk. I nearly forgot, but luckily, I remembered in time to add that the assailants had disabled the lever and glow light.”

        Indeed, these safety regulations can screw up a good plot. In Peccadillo, a Porsche Cayenne has an accident with the protagonist and a victim inside, and both airbags deploy. I called the local Porsche club, where a mechanic could confirm that 2002 Porsche Cayenne would deploy all airbags at a collision, whereas later models have a sensor in the seats that will tell the car’s computer if a seat is occupied or not and whether to deploy the airbag. So, I guess the Cayenne in Peccadillo is a pre-2002 model… 🙂


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