I'm delighted to be joined on my blog today by author Elena Hartwell. Elena writes a great series that features a private investigator, and I was curious how she does her research to make her books (and detective) authentic.
I have a very eclectic work history. I’ve been an auto mechanic and a university professor. I’ve stage-managed children’s theater and one illustrious summer I delivered phone books.
What I have never done, is work as a private investigator.
So what do I write? A mystery series about a private investigator.
Nothing ruins a story more than having a character do something that you know they would never do in the real world. The downside of being an author is a whole lot of your readers know more than you do about an aspect of the world you’re creating. The upside is a whole lot of people in the real world love to talk about their areas of expertise.
To research for One Dead, Two to Go, I used a wide variety of methods. I read PI Magazine, a trade magazine for the industry. I read non-fiction books by private investigators, which gave insights into the real world of investigations. And I’ve asked private investigators about specific questions that came up during a draft.
My most useful resource has been a police detective with the Issaquah Police Department. Incident Commander Diego Zanella has been incredibly generous with his time. The best part of my experiences interviewing him is he doesn’t just answer my questions he also makes suggestions about things I haven’t even considered. His insights and ideas have been instrumental in the shape of books one and two, and I will be meeting with him about book three.
My process is to write the full draft of the book. Then I read through it and highlight every place where I have a specific question about how homicide investigations work in the real world. Then I sit down with him and go through my scenarios, jargon, legal issues, and how people behave — in his experience — in various situations. I love it when he says, “You’ve got that exactly right,” but I learn a lot more from, “Well … no … it doesn’t exactly work that way.”
Then I go back through and rewrite for accuracy. Usually these changes are minor, but sometimes it requires a major fix on my side. Changing a location for a scene or the outcome of an interaction or the behavior of a character. We try to keep my protagonist from out and out breaking the rules, but we happily let her bend some. It is, after all, fiction, and that means we get to have a little fun.
Usually a few more questions come up after I do the rewrite and I meet with him again.
Everyone I’ve ever interviewed in all my years as a writer has been generous with their time and knowledge. Prior to becoming a novelist, I worked as a playwright. I’ve written extensively about areas in which I have no personal experience: veterans, PTSD, combat, colony collapse disorder, dementia, and once a glass factory in the Midwest. For each of these projects I visited locations where my work was set to get the full flavor of the landscape. I spoke to experts in their fields, American veterans from Viet Nam and the Middle East, journalists covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read a lot of non-fiction in the topics I’m researching. I also have experts read early drafts for accuracy. For book two, Two Dead Are Better Than One, I’m researching some specific psychological conditions, and I’m very lucky to have two beta readers who worked as therapists for over fifty years combined.
Insights from people in the field are invaluable, not just for fact checking, but also to give you paths to travel down you didn’t even know could be on the map.
Research before and during your writing process, that’s my suggestion. Before, to get you started and during, to fact check as things arise. But at some point, you also have to trust you’ve done what you can and let it out into the world. You will probably make a mistake, everybody does, but a reader who loves your work will still enjoy your book. And it gives them something to talk to you about at your next book signing.
Elena Hartwell worked in theater as a playwright, director, producer, and educator before turning her attention to fiction. Her Eddie Shoes Mystery Series starts with One Dead, Two to Go. Followed by Two Dead Are Better Than One and Three Dead, You’re Out. Elena lives in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, their dog Polar, and cats Jackson and Luna. She loves to spend time with her hubby and their horses Chance and Jasper, the world’s greatest Arab and the best Palomino Paint on the planet. For more information, please visit www.elenahartwell.com
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.