05 March 2012

Hidden Gems or Buried Treasure

Jan GrapeI often wonder how other writers research. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction somewhere along the line you surely must look up information about something in your work.

One of my good friends is Suzy Spencer who has written four true crime books. One of them, Wasted made the NY Times Best-Selling List. It was written several years ago but has enjoyed some recent revival due to new television coverage. On I Discovery channel they have a new program called Deadly Sins. Suzy's book was the second story line the program followed. This story features a rich lesbian, Regina, who was only looking for love. A beautiful young girl looking for money and ultimately drugs and a drug-dealer, Justin who killed Regina in a drug-fueled rage. The story takes place in Austin. The deadly sin of both stories featured is gluttony. Nothing to do with food in either case, rather the gluttony of sex, drugs and obsession with those.

The other book I read and thought was a most intriguing read is Breaking Point. The story of the Houston suburban housewife, Andrea Yates who killed her five children. This was such a sad and horrifying story that I can only imagine the mental breakdown this woman suffered. There is still much to learn about post-partum depression and the psychosis that it can lead to.

Suzy has been asked many times how does she research her stories. She says more or less what you might expect to hear...scouring courtroom records, interviewing cops and prosecutors, interviewing friends and families of the victim, friends and families of the killer, attending trials and yet somehow she takes the essence of these interviews and notes and gets into the minds of the people in her stories.

She finds the little gems of reality: the scents, the grittiness, the steamy side, the horror of it all. I think she's a master of putting you in the scene as you read.

As a writer, this is what we have to do to make our stories ring true. If you're writing fiction, you must make as much of your story true as possible. NOW that doesn't mean you have to go out and kill someone...especially one of your in laws...grin. But if you put enough truth in your work then your reader will follow you when you talk of murder and mayhem.

Sometimes the smallest fact will be your hidden treasure of your story. Like detailing a rusty streak on the motel wall or a broken piece of concrete along the entryway to a door. A tiny fact that your research uncovered that becomes a major clue or leads your reader to believe what you've written.
But remember all your research does not belong in your story. It's hard sometimes because you've discovered the most exciting things about Metropolis and it's history for the past 200 years but you don't want to write forty pages about it. Your reader doesn't care. All they care about is getting into your character's head and finding out who the perpetrator really might be.

So if you interview police officers or sales people or attorneys or doctors make sure you find the gem in what they say and that will indeed be your hidden treasure. And as a reader I'll be delighted to read your story.


  1. It took turning to writing fiction for me to become interested in true crime, mainly so I could understand its psychology. I think it takes deep submersion into the characters to grasp what's really going on.

    Interesting article, Jan!

  2. glad to see one real texan here

  3. toast, Deborah Elliott-Upton is also a Texan as is our good friend Travis Erwin and others.

  4. A Broad Abroad06 March, 2012 22:51

    With no aspirations to be a writer, my pleasure and excitement – apart from reading good stories – comes in the form of author support, the behind-the-scenes reading I do as a research editor, helping authors check facts and figures, pin down elusive details, all the while freeing them up to do what they do best – write.


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