An old axiom of the writing game is ‘write what you know.’ When I first started to take my writing seriously, I used to think that meant ‘don’t write what you haven’t experienced personally, because you don’t know jack about it, and you’ll come off amateurish and possibly unreadable” (yeah, I can get harsh with myself sometimes. I’m working on that).
Now I see it in a different light. If I want to write what I don’t know, I find out. Then I can write about whatever it is from a perspective that allows me to write it as real. My current novel is a mystery. There is much I need to know that I haven’t a clue about. So while I’m writing about hunting for clues, I’m hunting to get a clue.
Some writers do all their research first, before writing a word of book copy. That works well for many of us, particularly those who write nonfiction. When I wrote nonfiction articles, I did that too. But for this novel, I couldn’t wait to get started putting the words on the page, so I decided to know my main characters, formulate a plot, and research as I go.
So far, I’ve interviewed a former journalist and two detectives. It’s been fun connecting with these people, getting a glimpse of worlds I have not inhabited, and learning more about specific things in order to write credibly about them.
I didn’t know that law enforcement can put a GPS on your car without any warrant as long as it sits in a public place. I didn’t know that Boone County has an amazing computer tech on staff who’s so good he’s inundated with work from around the state, or that some evidence is sent to the state crime lab for analysis, which sometimes subcontracts that analysis to labs in Texas. I also didn’t know I didn’t know that the detective responsible for the protection of the crime scene has the authority to tell anyone, even the chief of police, to stay the hell out. Now I do, and my book will be better for it.
As I’ve researched (Google has been my good friend in this process), I’ve also found that researching one thing can create a need to know something else. I’ve interviewed a detective from Clermont County, KY and a detective from Newport, KY, but because I have a crime scene (several, actually) in Cincinnati, OH, I’m going to need to connect with a detective or officer there, too. If you want to write as if it’s real, you have to know the reality.
Hunting to find the knowledge I need is like being in a class where the information I need to write my book well sets the curriculum, and I’m the student. The grade is a pass/fail. If I don’t write credibly, I won’t pass. That’s going to be up to the reader, and that won’t be known until the book is finished. It’s going to be a long semester.
I can’t wait to see the grades.