Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Five Tips for Researching Your Mystery

 By Judith Yates Borger

So you want to write a mystery and you’ve heard the advice, write what you know. But what about what you don’t know? Where to begin? This is a problem that sometimes stops authors dead in their tracks.

Have no fear. Think of it as going to garage sales. The perfect item at the best price is out there, and while looking for it you'll probably find lots of other useful stuff. Here are some ways to get started.

Tip 1. Find the best research engine for you.
There are probably more search engines than you ever imagined. First define in broad terms what you want to know, then check out Click on “Choose the best search” in the middle of the page. Beware: you could be up half the night reading fascinating facts you never knew.

Tip 2: Start on the periphery of your subject and work your way to the middle.
Now that you have a broad overview of your topic, start to narrow your focus. For example, my next mystery — still unnamed — will be set among Somali women. Once I found the best search engine for my topic, I searched for "Somali women Minneapolis." Voila, I had names and background  information on several women.

Tip 3: Don’t let the idea of calling a stranger and asking for an interview intimidate you.
People, especially experts, are usually delighted to have someone ask them about their favorite topic, and then actually listen to the answer. When I was writing “Whose Hand?” I wanted to include a section about the trafficking of live tigers. Until then, all I knew about tigers was that they were striped. I Googled and Binged tiger trafficking but I wasn’t getting the muscle and sinew I really needed. Well, what about the zoo?

I checked the Minnesota Zoo website and found the director of the tiger program. Then I Googled his name and learned I was in luck. Not only was he king of the tigers at the Minnesota Zoo, he was king of tigers everywhere. Because tigers are endangered, there’s an agency that regulates which captive tigers can mate with which. The Minnesota Zoo tiger director was the guy in charge of tiger love across all zoos. No male/female rendezvous without his OK.  When I called to ask for an appointment he was delighted to talk for hours and I ended up basing a character in Whose Hand? on him.

Tip 4:  Establish rapport with your source.
The key to getting the information you need most is to make your source comfortable. If she offers you coffee, take it, even if your bladder's about to burst. It gets the source in a giving state of mind, and if you're both sipping something hot, or cold, it establishes a commonality at the start. Spot a picture of the your source's children? Ask about them. Nothing gets a parent talking faster than a question about darling little Susie. Then segue into what you really want to know.

Tip 5: Keep the discussion to an hour or under.
Being interviewed is tough work. People get tired. If you want to know more than you can get in the time it takes to watch a full episode of CSI, ask your interviewee if you can call back with follow up questions. Then follow up. Either call or ask for just a bit more of your subject's time.

Remember to relax and enjoy the process. I promise that once you get into research you’ll find it’s the second best part of mystery writing, right after cashing royalty checks.

Next topic: Interviewing techniques, or when to take notes and when to just listen.

—Judith Yates Borger, author of  Skeeter Hughes Mysteries, Guilty Pleasures for Manic Moms


  1. I've got a ride along with a deputy sheriff scheduled for tomorrow. When I spoke with the person who assigns drivers to riders, I asked that he find me someone who didn't mind answering a lot of questions.

    I'm also thinking about baking something. In Orlando, once I hooked up with a couple of homicide detectives, we'd meet at the local Ale House--on my nickel.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Thanks for the post, Judy. As an author, I can't stress the importance of research enough-- it brings the reader deeper into the story and helps them establish a stronger connection with it. The tips you give here are very valuable.

  3. Baking is a very good idea, Terry. Again, establishes rapport. Plus, you eat well. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Thanks, Drew. I really think researching is the best part of writing, and that writing flows better on a topic that's well researched.

  5. Noodletools is a new one for me. Very cool. My husband is a Google Junkie, so I know he'll be busy for hours once he gets on that site.

    I loved my ride-alongs with officers, and my tag-along day with detectives. And the Citizen's Police Academy course. All of it beneficial.

    One of my favorite authors, Joe Finder posted this the other day about his research:

    Thanks, Judith!

  6. Excellent advice, Judith! I'll be sending my author clients here for tips on the research process.


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