by Guest Blogger Kate Flora
When I was a much younger writer, I used to think that what we did was sit at our desks, in our rooms, and make things up. Fueled by a lifetime as a voracious reader, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that a writer could create an imaginary world and people it with imagined characters, and it would feel so real and compelling that I could get swept into that world and become lost in story. I never realized how much research a writer—especially a mystery writer whose work is going fall under the coolly critical and educated eye of the passionate mystery fan—needed to do in order to get things right.
That was many years ago, back before I spent ten years in the unpublished writer's corner. Back before I made my first tentative phone call to set up a breakfast with a female state trooper and then sat there surprised by how cool and hard-edged and unforthcoming she was. I was timid and had limited interviewing skills. I was most comfortable sitting by myself at a desk and living in my head and here I was trying to get everything I needed to know to create a credible female Maine State Trooper for the book I was writing from someone whose responses had to be nudged or coaxed beyond the simple yes or no. I like to hope I've gotten better at it.
Along the way, in the interests of research, I've arranged with my local police chief to get arrested and put in jail. I've taken a Citizen's Police Academy in the nearby town of Waltham, Massachusetts that covered everything from how 911 works to the use of force continuum and criminal and constitutional law. To try and get some caution into my series character, Thea Kozak's, head and teach her to be better at self-defense, I took my police department's RAD course. I've done ride-alongs and crime lab tours and been left standing in a dark morgue by a Medical Examiner with an odd sense of humor. I've shot handguns and lifted fingerprints and asked a million questions. All in the service of getting things right.
I've learned a lot about police procedure, crime scene investigation, police training, investigative technique, reading the streets, the qualities that make a good detective, how to dig up buried bones. I've learned about birth parent searches and meth labs and American sign language. And the only reason I've been able to learn all this is through the generosity of the people I've gone to for their expertise. Much more successful than my awkward breakfast with that Maine State Trooper was a plea someone posted for me on a forensics website when I was looking for information about the forensic exhumation of buried bones. Several experts responded, wanting to know what kind of information I was seeking. One, a police officer down in Newark, Delaware, sent me an entire notebook of information taken from his training manuals.
I used to be afraid to ask. Now I know that I'll sometimes be rebuffed, but usually I get an incredible response from people I ask for help. A question about creating a deaf character for my forthcoming Joe Burgess book, The Angel of Knowlton Park, led me to an educator who runs hearing impaired programs for public schools. She gave me a reading list and sent me to Framingham, Massachusetts to The Learning Center for the Deaf. In response to my e-mail about whether I might come and observe, I got an invitation to spend the day. For an hour, I visited their classes, from the tiniest students to the high school. For another, I discussed the premise of my book with the head of the American Sign program. For the third, I spoke with their interpreters about the rules of interpretation. I came away with a far richer sense of how my character would react that if I'd simply used my imagination. I hope I wrote a better book. And I got invited back to visit the classes and discuss the writer's life.
When I was doing my research for Finding Amy I had to call two of the members of the Maine Warden Service team who were responsible for suggesting, planning, and conducting the search that finally found Amy's body. They were both incredibly patient as they explained search technique, their strategies for choosing the areas to be searched, how they did their mapping and used gps, the use of search and rescue dogs. When their section of the book was done, Lt. Pat Dorian and Kevin Adam both carefully read the book and then spent more time with me correcting the manuscript. Throughout the process of writing Finding Amy, the detectives I interviewed showed endless patience and generosity in explaining things to me and teaching me about a cop's day-to-day reality so I could convey it effectively to my readers. I have an entire filing cabinet full of notes from that book, and each page of notes represents time they took out of their busy days to make me a better writer.
Last fall, my wardens having told me about another fascinating case in which they helped find a body and get a criminal off the streets, I went up to Miramichi, New Brunswick on a preliminary trip to see if it was a story I'd be interested in working on. Driving the seven hours to get there, I had no idea what I'd find. Whether anyone would talk to me and how hard it would be to get enough information about the case to decide if I wanted to work on it. Instead of cool detachment or distance, I was welcomed like a member of their family. Everyone was open to talking to me. The detective I'd been dealing with by e-mail invited me home for dinner and to meet his family. They gave an office work in, answered by questions, took me to the shooting range, and invited me along on a stake out. They even gave me presents: my fleece vest with the Miramichi police patch, a rosewood pen, a coffee mug, a model police car. I've also been given a detective's shield, a bullet-proof vest, and my own handcuffs.
Two weeks ago, needing to know in detail the procedure for taking a body out of the water, I called a diver up in Maine whose name I'd been given twelve months before by a friend of a friend. I told him who I was and what I was looking for. Without hesitation, he began to describe the process. It was thorough, it was detailed. He understood what I was looking for. When I go to speak at libraries, I'm often asked how hard it is to do the research I need for my books, and whether people are willing to talk to me. I always say the same thing—how I'm constantly amazed at people's generosity and their willingness to share what they know so that I can make my books more real.