One of the first tenets pounded into my head in every writing class I ever took was this: Write what you know. We’ve all heard it. But when most authors in my genre sit down to write a book, they’re faced with the realization that they know little or nothing about much of the information the story will demand. Like myself, most of my colleagues in this business began with ignorance concerning police procedure, forensic investigation, firearms, ballistics, or psychopathology. (Some of the lucky authors—Michael Black and Robin Burcell and Michael McGarrity—were honest-to-god cops before they turned to writing, but they’re the exception.) So what do we do? We do research.
Okay, it’s confession time. I almost always begin my research these day by turning to the Internet. It’s a wealth of information (and misinformation). The Internet gives me an idea of the scope of what I’m trying to understand, and more often than not points me in the right direction. From there, I usually move to reading: periodicals, books, newspapers, all the more reliable sources. And finally, I make contact with someone in the field who has firsthand experience with whatever it is I need to know. Over the years, I’ve talked with beat cops, homicide investigators, coroners, M.E.s, rural sheriffs, agents of the FBI, the Secret Service, and Minnesota’s own Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. I’ve talked with guides in the great Northwoods of Minnesota, divers in Lake Superior, morticians (got a really great tour of a prep room!), judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, emergency room doctors and nurses. And, of course, I talk a lot with the Ojibwe.
Despite the fact that I’ve been at this for a very long time now, I’m still reluctant to approach a source I don’t know. I’m always a little afraid I’ll be intruding somehow. But the truth has always been that people love to talk about what they do. Most people are incredible generous with their time and their knowledge. And I always learn something of amazing value.
Here’s an example: In my stand alone thriller, The Devil’s Bed, I needed to have a mental patient incarcerated in a high-security facility make an escape. I made arrangements to tour the Regional Treatment Center in St. Peter, Minnesota, where the most dangerous of the state’s criminally ill are confined for observation and treatment. It turned out that the facilities manager, a guy named Tom Kramer, was a fan of my work, and he gave me a stellar tour. What I found was an imposing complex surrounded by high fences with razor wire and with multiple perimeter alarms. At the end, I turned to Tom and said, “I don’t know how anyone could escape from this place.” Tom smiled and said, “Oh, but I do.” He proceeded to describe for me the most recent escape from the facility, and it became the foundation for the method of escape I used in The Devil’s Bed.
This kind of thing happens all the time. Meeting these generous folks, hearing their fascinating stories, filling in the vast areas of ignorance in my own knowledge, these are all perks of my job. God, I love what I do!
I just recently returned from a research visit to a fascinating and little known area of Minnesota called the Northwest Angle, where the book I’m currently writing for the series is set. In my next blog, I’ll tell you about that incredible visit.