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Research: Conducting Crime Research

by R.J. Lee

When there is a crime in our midst, we read about it in the newspaper or online or we hear about it on television and radio, but our knowledge often is superficial. We know there is a crime scene, but we really don’t know how a crime scene is managed. We know that the police look for fingerprints, blood and anything that can give them insight into who committed the crime, but we don’t have a detailed description of the procedures or processes that the police use. When writing a crime novel, this level of understanding is insufficient. Even various legal procedures, like the arraignment, preliminary hearing, and grand jury may enter into the story. The crime novelist must be able to describe and explain all of these aspects. And, of course, in any crime story today, there is the elephant in the room: DNA. If an author can’t explain the remarkable technology used to investigate and solve today’s crimes, it’s doubtful that he or she can write a compelling crime novel.

But, unless you’re a medical examiner, a homicide detective or forensic pathologist, you most likely don’t have the expertise to bring these events and processes to life. If you’re going to be a successful crime novelist, you have to acquire it. So, how do you do it?

There are a number of ways:

  1. Read other crime writers. This will help you get a feel for the various levels of detail included. Police procedurals require more detail and accuracy than a cozy mystery. Remember, this isn’t about taking descriptions from other authors. It’s about learning from them. No plagiarizing. Just get a feel for how they represent the processes, technology, and people involved in a crime. Then add that to other information you have and create your own approach. A great authors to check out is Michael Connolly, a former police reporter for the Los Angeles Times, always packs his books with insights and descriptions of how the investigatory process works. Also, read some of Patricia Cornwell’s work. She has experience as an assistant to a medical examiner and does a great job of detailing various medical procedures.
  2. Check references. There are several great reference books on criminal and forensic techniques. However, with the field of forensics changing so rapidly, it’s essential that you make sure you’re not basing your book on forensic techniques and developments that were breakthroughs fifteen years ago. Find these reference books online or in your local bookstore or library. You can find everything from forensics to poisons to police procedures.
  3. Watch some TV. Nowadays, there are several forensic shows on television. While the CSI, NCIS and Law and Order franchises might present some valuable insights, cable television’s “Investigative Discovery” channel, with shows like “Forensic Files” and “The New Detectives”, are far more credible and reliable resources. This, like reading up on other crime writers, won’t replace factual information you can find in reference books, but it gives you a sense of what audiences might like in terms of the level of detail to add, which parts of the process to include, or how to add drama to something that might otherwise be mundane (like the booking process at the local jail).
  4. Tap local resources. Many local college will have classes on criminal justice, and these are likely to include at least some information on police and court procedures. Take a class. It can be fun and informative. If you’re not up for that, check out the next tip.
  5. Ask the experts. Ask around. You’ll find experts everywhere. Ask for help at your local police station or from a private investigator, a professor of criminal justice at the college in the next town, your doctor, or the head Phlebotomist at the local blood bank. ..… experts are everywhere. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help. They often enjoy sharing their knowledge and may get a kick out of a shout out on your book’s acknowledgement’s page. Take them to coffee, be prepared, don’t waste their time, and be gracious.
    Crime fiction is written for those who love that genre. As such, they’ve usually read numerous books by numerous authors. It’s not an easy audience to write for, and if your work doesn’t take them on a thrilling but realistic journey in line with what they expect from the genre (cozy mysteries, police procedurals, etc.), you’re likely to lose them forever. So use the tips above to conduct thorough research and make your stories realistic.

Information provided by the Author Learning Center

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