Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Research --Thou shalt not make thy readers eyes glaze over

            Ah, realism. Nothing perks up a manuscript like a liberal sprinkling of facts, fun or otherwise. They add detail, make your character sound intelligent and your action authentic, and really plump up the word count. Not to mention the fun of researching--we can spend an afternoon wandering through downtown shops to gather local color for the pivotal scene in chapter thirty--and tell ourselves it’s research. We can lounge on the patio with a glass of experimental cocktail and a biography of Catherine the Great--research. Or fill the house with smoke brewing up a batch of gun cotton after failing to notice that ‘cosmetic puffs’ are not the same thing as ‘cotton balls’--research. But where do we start, and where do we stop?

            I’m a forensic specialist, and my character is a forensic specialist; my pitch is that my books are more realistic than CSI. This requires both more and less research than people expect. For the areas in which I regularly work or worked--crime scene, fingerprint comparison, hairs, fibers, even some DNA--I can write the whole book without stopping to fact-check. For areas I don’t work in, such as ballistics, questioned document examination or forensic linguistics, I have to pull out some textbooks or email some friends. Or ask my great good friend Google. I often wonder what a Big Brother type spy would make of my browser history. At the moment it holds plastic explosives, Nazi nuclear projects, the menu at Sokolowski’s University Grill, jail design, the composition of concrete, what is a tidal bore, and available flights from Prague to Bordeaux, France. (Hint: Take Air France. For some reason Czech Airlines will take twice as long and cost twice as much.)

            I also stayed on good terms with my college chemistry professor. I haven’t seen him since graduation but he’s always only an email away. It’s a wonder Homeland Security hasn’t taken more of an interest in our correspondence.

            Basically research boils down to two thoughts. One, if I’m going to have my character test a spot on the victim’s couch for blood, there’s no excuse for, say, having her use a black light without spraying a reagent, or misspelling phenolphthalein. Two, you do not need use every single piece of information you run across. The readers do not need a paragraph on the advantages of Hemastix versus phenolphthalein in terms of sensitivity, cost and ease of use, or a history of my character’s relationship with the TriTech Forensics sales rep. Unless he gets killed in the next chapter.

            My advice for the effective use of research is:

            1. Obviously, keep in anything that’s relevant to the plot, moves the story along or judiciously sets the scene.

            2. Leave out anything that’s going to make the reader’s eyes glaze over. Remember, you are not writing a textbook. Readers are not going to have to pass a final after the last chapter. Summarize, condense or just skip (“ten minutes later, she had completed the assay…”) the really mundane stuff.

            3. Don’t keep in enough detail to allow readers to become better criminals. My characters have mixed up plastic explosives, cooked meth and home-brewed chloroform, but you would not be successful in any of these pursuits by reading my books. Like a competitive housewife, always leave an ingredient out of shared recipes.

            4. If something has nothing to do with your plot but is just too fun to leave out, find another way to work it in--as a source of conflict between two characters, as the detective’s child’s school project, as the subject of a movie the quirky romantic lead suggests as a way to get closer to your protagonist.

            Balance, as always, is the key. My books need those pieces of hard, cold realities to pave its road--when readers pick up a forensic mystery, they expect some forensics in it, and they expect those forensics to be accurate. But they also want a story that’s not just a collection of facts. I don’t want to bore, and I don’t want to gross out. Saying that flies had found the corpse is fine. A quick explanation of how we use insects to estimate time of death is better. Two pages on the anatomical changes during the pupa stage alone, well, deserves to be swatted.
Blunt Impact will be available April 1, featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11 year old daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe.
Also, Kindle owners can find a bargain in my new book The Prague Project, written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the death of millions of people.

         Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.

          See my website at: www.lisa-black.com



Donnell Ann Bell said...

Lisa, I really appreciate reading this blog from someone with your background and expertise. And I love that you don't give the entire recipe away. Very clever. Can't wait to read your newest release. Thanks for this fascinating article.

Anonymous said...

Jillian Stone wrote

Great blog!

I do more research than I could possibly ever use. I find that if I don't incorporate enough detail, the story can feel thin. Sometimes I'm writing along and I come to a place where I need to know more about a procedure and I go look it up. (This always seems to happen close to deadline!) I only use a sentence or two from the research, but I'm nearly always pleased with the depth it adds to the story.

Theresa said...

Welcome to Five Scribes!
You had some great pointers about figuring out how much research to include. And now I know who to come to for certain kinds of research questions and I have to say-- you must have been a tomboy who loved to dig around in the dirt and had a large curiosity quotient, right? I bet you gave your mom fits. Have only brothers? Just wondering.
BTW, I like you're character's name

Theresa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donnell Ann Bell said...

Of course Theresa would like your character's name . It is a great name by the way!

Lisa Black said...

Didn't Sol Stein say "Detail is the lifeblood of fiction"--which I only know because I have it written on an index card pinned above my desk.

Lisa Black said...

I was a tomboy in the sense that I loved to climb trees and play outside, but I also loathed sports and boisterous games and was raised with just a sister--my brothers were much older. But I did spend hours in the back yard dabbling in the creek and dissecting leaves and dandelions.

Marsha said...

Interesting post, Lisa, and I'll be checking out your books.

Kaki Warner said...

What a great post. Most of my research is historical, but it seems the same rule applies. Moderation. And I certainly agree that having a sprinkling of facts grounds the story and gives the reader credit for having some brains. Good luck with your next release.

Lisa Black said...

Thanks much!