Writing Lesson #9—How to write what you don't know.

Mystery readers pay close attention, sleuthing along with you—even though they want you to outsmart them. If you write well enough, they'll accept lunatic characters and incredible acts of derring-do—but they're apt to quit the game altogether if they realize that you've messed up with the facts. Your reader needs and wants to believe you know what you're talking about.

The last thing you want is an annoyed reader who's been yanked out of your fictional world. Annoyed readers remember that there are other sources of entertainment in town.

Let your imagination run wild, but keep a firm hand on the facts. But assuming that you aren't writing from personal criminal experience, sometimes you've got to write what you don't know, and in this case, what you don't know can, indeed, hurt you. Luckily, in this information-rich world, it's no mystery how to find out what you need to know.

Even in a high-tech world of data-banks and search engines, don't forget or underrate an excellent, low-tech source: people who know things. Interviews can be invaluable. You'll not only gather important information, but you'll also see how it's delivered, what jargon the speaker uses. You can also ask questions that aren't elsewhere, such as what issues and irritations are troubling his fellow workers. In many cases, it's those personal stories that enrich your novel and provide additional plot points.

People are generally delighted to share their special expertise with you. If they have time, take them to lunch, or buy them a drink. In either case, thank them afterward, acknowledge them in your book when it's published, and don't forget to send them a copy.

Don't, however, interview anyone until you've done your homework, finding out what you need and what you can learn elsewhere through books. You might need to know what a neurosurgeon in your novel is like, and what he'd do, but don't waste your neurosurgeon's time with open-ended questions like, "Tell me about your work, Doc." Be specific. Say, "What would be the odds of this comatose patient fully recovering after a month? What would be the potential damage the coma would have created?" Do enough work on your story and on what you can learn about brain injuries so that you can use this expert to your best advantage and not waste his time or yours in a fishing expedition.

If you don't know a friendly neurosurgeon, trust the six degrees of separation theory. Ask your friends who they know, and they can do the same with their other friends. Ultimately, somebody will know someone who knows what you need, or at least, will know how you can go about finding the person.

Often, experts can tell you how to circumvent their expertise (or more likely, somebody else's.) A locksmith knows how locks can be picked; fire departments understand arson investigations, and even that neurosurgeon knows how other, less skilled or ethical physicians might keep that patient in his coma.

Unless you're writing an historical set before there were police forces, do your homework about police procedure, even if you're writing an amateur sleuth, because she won't operate in a vacuum. Check whether your police department has a public information officer whose job is to help you understand precisely what goes on, and check, too, if your department offers citizen ride-alongs, which can give you a real feel for the life of your characters.

There are courses in community colleges on the administration of justice, and learning centers have classes on becoming a P.I. Universities have courses in forensic specialties. Even if you don't want to enroll, you might contact the instructor, or read the text, or be guided by someone in the department to someone else who'd help.

There are, of course, good books, both popular and scientific, on the "how-to's" of crime and investigation.

The Internet offers virtually unlimited access to information on just about every topic, plus access to experts and special interest groups all over the world. Just be sure your source there is reliable.

Include your setting among those things that should be based in reality. If using an actual location, try to visit your setting along with a camera and a tape recorder. Note noises, smells, congestion—whatever. But even if you can't visit your setting, you can often view photos of it on the internet, study maps of it, read travel books and local newspapers (often online), and write its Chamber of Commerce and Historical Society for literature. When reading newspapers and magazines, check the ads, which often tell you more about the condition of the area—what's for sale, at how much and how desperately—and about fads and styles than the news and editorials do. Oral histories are marvelous resources for historical fiction. Your local librarian can help you with interlibrary loans of books from wherever in the world you need them.

If you've befriended your sources, perhaps you could get them to vet your ms. when it's ready for others' eyes—or at least, the portion of it that reflects their expertise. Remind them that you aren't asking for literary criticism, only whether the character speaks and behaves appropriately. Would a neurosurgeon say those things to his patient?

A perverse-sounding postscript: After all this: don't let your research show. Your reader wants to learn effortlessly. He doesn't want a treatise on neurosurgery when he picks up your mystery. Use only the tidbits that advance your story dramatically, and give it authenticity. If you've got wonderful material you can't use here—write another book about a neurosurgeon.

Next lesson: Let's talk about dialogue.

On to Lesson 10!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.