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How to Research Your Crime Novel


I recently interviewed fellow crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz about his new thriller, Don’t Look Back. It’s an action-packed story set in the jungles of Oaxaca, Mexico, and I was interested in how much on-the-ground research he did. It felt like he’d done a lot. Turns out, I was right.

“I shot down Class IV whitewater rafting runs,” he told me, “hiked through ruins, chased after (large) snakes, encountered giant colonies of sweeper ants that ate everything in their path, and saw much of what Eve Hardaway [the novel’s protagonist] encounters in the course of the book.” By immersing himself in the novel’s world, Hurwitz hoped that the reader would “hear the thunderstorms, feel the downpour, smell the dew on the foliage.”

He also, I learned in this same email exchange, zip-lined—upside-down—over a raging river. I began to understand one subconscious reason for setting my own novels in New Jersey, where the rivers are unraging and the sweeper ants nonexistent. Hurwitz’s method of research is not the kind I’m equipped to survive.

All novels, of course, must bow to the god of verisimilitude—that illusion that the story’s world is absolutely and unquestionably real. But crime fiction in particular frequently involves intricacies of plot, place, and profession that demand research. Had Tom Clancy fudged the technical aspects of submarines, or had Michael Connelly faked his way through police procedure, their careers would have stopped before they ever started.

Some writers love doing research. Others avoid it because the very word evokes memories of all-nighters and stale coffee and the worst kind of schoolwork. Dull, dull. But if you’re writing a crime novel, sooner or later you’re going to have to do research. And when it comes to researching a novel, the important questions are: How? and How much? and When?

The answer to “How?” is “however you can.” That is, you’ll want to tap all your resources and contacts. I’ll admit that police procedure intimidates me. Always has. Writing my first novel, The Three-Day Affair, I sneakily avoided anything involving law enforcement (not easy for a crime novel!). But my second novel demanded a few scenes in a police station. Readers are pretty savvy about police procedure these days because of all the novels and TV shows that have steadily been raising the bar. Fortunately, my stepfather-in-law is a very patient retired cop. Bingo. But what if you don’t have any law enforcement professionals in your life? Try what I did when I needed additional information: I walked into the local police station and asked if one of the officers—at their convenience—would be willing to talk to me. Someone was.

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When you write a novel, it’s as if you’re making a movie for which you’re the writer, director, cinematographer, and pretty much everything including Craft Services. Because of the difficulty of working all those jobs simultaneously, during my first go at writing a novel I gave myself a break by including many elements that I already knew. The main character of The Three-Day Affair is a drummer, as am I. The two settings—the Princeton University campus and the inside of a recording studio—are places I already knew well. The geography—North Jersey—was, again, a place with which I was familiar. By minimizing the research, I was able to focus on the art and craft of shaping the novel.

But in my new novel, Before He Finds Her, the main characters aren’t musicians: One is a long-haul truck driver and former utility company employee. The other is a 17-year-old woman living off the grid in rural West Virginia. Prior to writing the novel, these were not things I knew about. At all.

Fortunately, it turns out that truckers (and people in every profession) keep blogs. They post in forums. They make YouTube videos of themselves doing their job. If you’re diligent and patient, you can begin to learn the vocabulary and ethos and struggles of any profession, and visit nearly any location, without leaving your home. (Several truckers even filmed walkthroughs of “Iowa 80,” America’s largest truck stop. Very useful.) Online, you can learn many of the details you need to know to write with some degree of verisimilitude.

And yet the Internet is rarely sufficient. For readers to “smell the dew on the foliage,” to use Hurwitz’s words, a novel will almost certainly require some on-the-ground research. For me, that meant visiting truck stops and the local utility company and interviewing some of the people who actually do the job. It meant visiting my locations and walking around and snapping photographs (add “location scout” to the author’s list of roles), and hitting up my stepfather-in-law with questions about police protocol, and running plot threads by him to see if they passed the “sniff” test.

If you aren’t sure what exactly to ask your experts, you might consider a simple but very useful interviewing prompt I learned once in a folklore class: Ask your subject to walk you through a typical day. That single request nearly always gets the interviewee talking, and encourages digression, brief narratives, revelation of feelings, and insider “shop talk”—exactly the stuff a writer needs.

How much research should you do? As much as you need to know exactly what you’re talking about, though maybe not a whole lot more than that. One the one hand, your goal is to convey total authority on the page. It’s imperative that readers feel confident that you know what you’re talking about. On the other hand, research can become one more way to avoid actually writing, a less obvious version of checking email or Facebook or Twitter. More insidiously, the research can start to overtake a story. After all, you’ve learned all this cool new stuff and don’t want to waste it. But as Stephen King reminds us, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”

And that’s really the paradoxical truth about researching a novel: the research is absolutely essential, yet it isn’t the story. The story is the story.

And finally, when is the right time to conduct all this research? For Gregg Hurwitz, the answer was early on in the process, because his Oaxaca setting made up the very fabric of his novel.

But if lots of up-front research feels intimidating or threatens to stall the work, you might consider waiting until the point when you can’t wait any longer—until you feel yourself beginning to fake it. For me, with Before He Finds Her, I let myself write a few chapters to find my way into the characters and the voice before putting the draft aside temporarily to expand my knowledge.

One last piece of advice: I remind my students to resist the temptation of clicking away from the story and over to the Internet every time they need a fact. Writing fiction requires extended periods of uninterrupted concentration, or wakeful dreaming, and that isn’t an easy state to achieve and maintain. It’s worth protecting.

You might, therefore, keep a running list of everything you need to research, and then take periodic, planned breaks from the writing to conduct your research as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. Hunt down the facts, interview the cop, go out and ride that zip-line. Then get back to writing.

Michael Kardos is the 2015 Pushcart Prize–winning author of the novel The Three-Day Affair—which Esquire, the Miami Herald and Publishers Weekly all named a best book of the year—and the story collection One Last Good Time. Originally from the Jersey Shore, he currently lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His new novel, Before He Finds Her, launches February 3 from The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.

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