19 June 2020

Instant Expert


Prevailing advice to writers--be they newbie or seasoned-- is to write what they know. So, what's a crime writer to do?

Let's be honest, when was the last time you held up a bank? Shot someone at point blank? Solved an arsonist's attack? Tested the effects of poison? Foiled a villain hellbent on world domination?

Well, it's 2020, so I guess anything could be possible in our current state of crazy, but for most of us, I'm guessing the answer is never.

Me, too.

But--in my humble opinion--not being an expert in something is no excuse to not to write about it. Here are a few ways to get a leg up on experience:

Become a method author.  Want to know what would happen if a character ran out of a police precinct at full tilt?  Give it a try. Want to know about shoulder kickback from firing a certain gun? Mosey on down to your local firing range and reserve a lane. Want to do donuts in your car? Find an empty parking lot, throw on a helmet, and skid your heart out. You get the idea. If the activity is legal, go for it.

Caveat ~ consider giving someone a heads up before you try something even a little bit sketchy.

Location, location, location. Does your setting exist? Consider (re)visiting it. The best way to get a place's sensory vibe is to visit it, ideally during the time of day/year when you plan to feature it in your fiction.

My (unpublished) contemporary suspense novel is set at the University of Virginia during the deathly quiet of spring break. I'd planned to write a chase scene through Alderman Library's stacks, so when I visited UVA's grounds, I videoed myself running the exact path my main character would run around the floors crammed with shelves of old books, restocking carts, wooden carrels, and mini-stairs to access other half-floors. I figured out how my main character would encounter and use certain obstacles to her advantage to escape the antagonist's clutches.

Bonus ~ ask a local to give you a tour. If you're lucky, you'll find out out unique lore or details that will surprise (in a good way) even readers who know the setting well. In Alderman Library, my guide  took me to see a massive boulder that had been preserved in a tucked-away basement utility room.  Who knew? Not me, and I'd frequented the library during my four years as an undergrad student at UVA.

Interview an expert. Chances are, if you ask around, you can bank on six-degrees-of-separation to find those in the know. Make connections to build a resource network that includes an approachable police officer (though they might be preoccupied these days), a lawyer, a medical professional, a mechanic, a journalist, and a psychologist. Check in withe fellow crime writers to see if they'll share relevant experts to add your virtual Rolodex whenever you can. And when you tap into their knowledge, don't forget to thank them with a beverage of their choice and a mention in the acknowledgements section of your book.
Scattered Quotes

Read primary sources. When I wrote my short story of suspense, "Czech Mate," I was at a distinct timing disadvantage as the historical event I was depicting--Prague Spring--occurred while I was an infant. But I found some invaluable journal posts on international blogs with moment-by-moment accounts of how the Soviet invasion progressed and shared the authors' personal experiences as the tanks rolled in and the Czechs took to the streets to protest. This boots-on-the-ground insight was both personal and relevant, and I was able to use it to craft the emotional and historically accurate feel of the game-changing political event.

When in doubt, Google it. Writing a street car chase? Check out google maps using their satellite view to see what landmarks and details your character will zoom by. Have a character who is a medical patient? WebMD.com offers symptoms of a wide range of medical disorders, diseases, and injuries. Need help analyzing the blood spatter your novel's victim left behind? Check out this Introduction to Forensic Science YouTube video <here> before engineering your crime scene. Or need technical details so your novel's forensic pathologist can determine your victim's time of death? This tutorial <here> itemizes how a body decomposes after death can help you accurately set the stage. In the age of information, the answers are out there somewhere. But be sure to vet your sources before relying too heavily on them.

How do you become an instant expert when you write crime?


PS ~ Let's be social:

8 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good advice, especially about setting. If you can go there, go there, see what the place is like. Don't rely on memory. Go there and sit and watch and listen and check out the smells.

Eve Fisher said...

All of this and more. When I wrote "Miss West's First Case", set in post WW2 Vienna, I rewatched "The Third Man" more than once, and I was gifted by a cartographer friend with an Historical Atlas of European Cities. Wow!

Maggie King said...

Movies are part of our friend Mary Miley’s research for her Roaring Twenties Series. You can virtually visit a setting through podcasts and YouTube. Not the same as in person, but reasonable options. Happy Birthday, Kris!

R.T. Lawton said...

Kristin, 3 of my 5 series in AHMM are historical mysteries, each set in a different time period. Unfortunately for me, I often find the research info so interesting that I forget I'm also supposed to be writing.

Rosie Shomaker said...

Written like Kristin is there talking to you. Thanks, Kris. There are lots of ways to double check those authentic details to make a story real.

Leigh Lundin said...

Classic authors would agree with you, Kristin. I think it was Dorothy L. Sayers who was noted for the in-depth research vis-à-vis bell-ringing (carillon), so much so that professionals were impressed by her knowledge of this obscure art. Another classics author wrote so knowledgeably about Russia, readers assumed he'd lived there.

Kristin, very enjoyable. You are adept at conversational tutorials!

(Just this instant before posting this comment, I notice Rosie said the same thing!)

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