Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am—by Margot Kinberg

Today I have the pleasure of having Margot Kinberg guest post on the blog. Margot is a mystery writer (her newest, B-Very Flat has just been released.) But Margot is also a mystery novel expert—and I don’t use that word lightly. If you check out her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, you’ll see what I mean.

Lab One of the first steps in writing, at least for me, is figuring out the major events in the plot. Since I write murder mysteries, that means deciding who is going to be the victim, who is going to be the murderer, and how and why the crime will be committed. Once I have those basics settled, I start adding detail and then I begin drafting what I write. One of the big advantages of planning this way is that it helps me figure out where I can use knowledge that I already have, and where I need expertise that I don’t have. Then, it’s time for me to do my preliminary research. That’s one thing I really enjoy about writing, because I always learn.

I call it “preliminary research” because I’ve found that I do research throughout the writing process. Probably the easiest way to explain how I do research and what I learn from it is to give you a look “behind the scenes” at the research I did for B-Very Flat, my newest novel. As soon as I’d decided who my victim was going to be and had thought about the kind of person she is, I decided she would die of anaphylactic shock caused by a violent allergic reaction to peanut dust. That meant I had to learn about anaphylaxis and peanut allergies. I was lucky in my research, because I have a close friend whose son is dangerously allergic to peanuts and peanut products. She was kind enough to give me lots of helpful information and some extremely useful web sites (e.g. Lesson learned here? Ask around. You probably know someone who has answers you need.

Then I realized that someone with such a severe allergy would probably not knowingly eat anything with peanuts in it, so I was going to have to figure out how the murderer would expose the victim. That led me to do some research on peanut flour. I found out some fascinating information, too. For instance, you may not realize it, but many, many products use peanut flour; ready-to-serve spaghetti sauce is just one example. There are some helpful online sources for this, too, as well as some online places where you can buy peanut flour. It’s more popular than I thought, too; many people like peanut flour because it’s high in protein.

I also realized that someone who’s seriously allergic would probably carry what’s often called an Epi-pen. It’s a dose of epinephrine, which counteracts the effects of a severe allergic attack. I didn’t know much about Epi-pens or other auto-injectors, so I visited several online websites that sell auto-injectors. Not only did I get the information I needed about how they work, but I also found some high-quality photos of them that allowed me to get a helpful mental picture. Lesson learned here? The better you know your characters, the better you’ll know the kind of research you need to do. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do any research on peanut flour or auto-injectors until I learned more about my victim.

Now I had the background I needed to start drafting my book, so I got busy with my writing. As the book progressed, though, I realized that my research wasn’t done. Not at all. So I also learned along the way that it’s important to be willing to stop at any point in a book and get your facts straight before going any further.

Here’s an example. Part of the evidence that points to the murderer in B-Very Flat comes from video surveillance film – the kind that stores use to prevent shoplifting. Well, my husband used to be a retail manager, but that was many years ago, and I knew that surveillance procedures have changed a great deal since then. So I visited a few local businesses and got some updated information about how they protect their premises and employees.

I faced a similar challenge when I was planning the part of my book where the murderer is brought in for questioning. I wanted to get my facts straight about exactly how that happens. So I visited our local police precinct. My visit there taught me a lot, and it was helpful to see how a station is laid out. Again, I got a mental picture that made writing that part of the novel easier.

My local research was a very positive experience. Several helpful people took the time to answer my questions, tell me a little about their work, and set me straight where I was wrong. For that, I’m grateful. Lesson learned here? Don’t be afraid to tap local businesses and other community resources. Go. Visit. Ask. Most people are flattered at your interest in their expertise, and are only too happy to give you answers. Especially if you tell them you’re a writer who’s doing some research.

Margot Kinberg--B-Very Flat So how did I benefit from doing the research for B-Very Flat? The plot got stronger. For instance, once I learned about peanut flour and how and where to buy it, I was able to develop a whole set of scenes and action sequences that I hadn’t thought of adding. I was also able to include a few characters that I think add to the flavor of the book.

I also got unexpected opportunities to tell people about my writing. That’s sometimes quite a challenge for a writer, especially a writer who’s not a “household name.” But I found that when I told people why I wanted the information I asked for, they got interested in what I do. “Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write? Is it on Amazon?” Lesson learned here? It is really worth the time and effort to do some research when you write. The plot gets stronger and more believable, and you get the chance to spread the word. On, and carry some business cards or a flyer about your book(s) when you go out to “get the facts.” People pass those things around.

Doing research for a book can be time-consuming. It can also feel as though one’s not really making any progress. After all, making progress on a book means writing, right? Not driving around, interviewing people, looking up things on the Internet or going to the local police station. But the fact is, research helps make a book richer and more real. It teaches one a lot, and helps one make lots of important connections.

Thanks so much for guest blogging today, Margot! And for the excellent reminders on researching—and the promotional opportunities it can afford, too.

Tomorrow, the talented Cleo Coyle will be guest blogging a special Valentine’s Day-related post: Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life. What defines a mystery? A romance? What should you consider when blending genres? Please pop by and join us.