Some writers love doing research. Others avoid it because the very word evokes memories of all-nighters and stale coffee. Dull, dull. But if you’re writing a crime novel, sooner or later you’re going to have to do research.
That's why I always begin my writing process with research, and continue researching clear through the final draft. It's fun to find that little detail that gives a scene the ring of verisimilitude—the feeling that the story's world is absolutely and unquestionably real.
I love to research locations, and I do that early on. For example, the suspense novel I'm writing involves human smuggling across the Mexican border into Arizona.
Interestingly, I found during my research that the smugglers outfit the illegals almost as if they used an assembly line: Same brand and style of backpack, same contents, even the same amount of water—and never enough, so the travelers will be dependent upon their guide. In my story, one of the characters in the border crossers is a drug mule for the Mexican Sinaloan cartel, so sentries are posted along the route to track his progress. But they're not there to assist, only to monitor.
From that fact, came the little jewel of a scene called “The Real Panty Tree.”
Cartel scouts are known to rape migrant women and summarily execute people who wander into their borderlands territory without approval. One high mountain pass has a “rape tree” draped with the trophy bras and panties of violated women, and migrant bodies have been found decapitated.
If the Covid-19 crisis ends before I get the book finished, my photographer husband, Paul Mason, and I will travel south to visit the locations I'm writing about on both sides of the border. The town of Naco is a small town that spills over onto both sides of the border. I’d like to tour Ft. Huachuca.
It's the physical location visits that really "seal in" the details—especially sensory details like the way things sound, smell, and look in the actual setting. The hubby will take photographs and I'll take notes. If you are familiar with the book's settings, I encourage you to let me know if you have any favorite spot you’d like to have appear in the book. You have another couple of months and then it’s too late!
As an author, the hardest part is making sure the research doesn't take over my writing time, especially with the Internet making the world so very accessible. Hours (days!) can go by while I'm happily browsing down one rabbit hole after another, and not one word of the actual book gets written. That's the paradoxical truth about research: While it is absolutely essential, research isn't the story. The story must come from within. From the heart. For me to get into the "flow" requires extended periods of uninterrupted concentration, or wakeful dreaming. It's not an easy state to enter into and maintain. It must be protected.
To keep from getting lost in research, I set the kitchen timer. When the timer goes off, I stop—no matter how enticing that next search link looks. I go back to my blank page, and write. It's the only way to make a book.
[find out the geographic point in the high desert where Saguaros quit growing] or
[how much does a drug mule get paid per trip]. Or
[describe flying a single engine plane. Which plane to use?] Then, if I get writer's block, or just need a break, I'll research one of the bracket questions, and that helps me get the writing juices flowing again.
Can you recall something an author researched so effectively that it pulled you into the story? Please share, I'd love to hear your examples.
In the meantime, I've spent enough time researching about researching. Time to go back to novel writing!