Author Jean Heller takes some "Author R&R" today on In Reference to Murder. Heller's career has included serving as an investigative and projects reporter and editor for The Associated Press, The Cox Newspapers, Newsday, and the St. Petersburg Times. Heller has won multiple awards, including the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.
Heller's new thriller is The Someday File, which asks the question, "What happens when the profession you’ve known all your adult life threatens to kill you—yet suffocating guilt and insatiable curiosity won’t let you walk away?" That's what happens to Deuce Mora, a columnist for the Chicago Journal, whose encounter with an aging, low-level Chicago mobster throws her into a world of political and criminal intrigue and confronts her with a horrific crime more than 50 years old that she will either solve or die in the trying.
Heller offered up her take on "Author R&R" (Reference and Research) from her journalist's perspective:
Someone Will Notice
A good friend of mine, a mystery writer of some renown, once spent nearly two weeks researching what type, appellation, and vintage of red wine would have been served with a cassoulet at a fine Parisian restaurant in the 1920s.
When I asked him why he had spent that much time on such a small thing from so long ago, he replied, “Because if I get it wrong, someone will notice.”
Indeed, my friend was not being totally anal. When you write fiction, you are asking readers to suspend disbelief and take a trip with you into their imaginations. But if you hit a pothole along the way, and write as fact something the reader clearly recognizes as an error, the suspension of disbelief bubble bursts, and the trip comes to a crashing end.
So it was for me when a famous writer wrote about a character field-stripping a weapon and got it all wrong.
As a former newspaper reporter, research and adherence to fact are ingrained in me. Like my friend, I don’t want to break the axle of a good story by hitting a pothole.
I believe in the old saw that writers should write what they know, but we can’t know everything about everything. I am a licensed pilot, but not an airline pilot. For MAXIMUM IMPACT, I had a steep learning curve. I have worked in skyscrapers, but when I wrote HANDYMAN I didn’t know enough about the “dirty places” in the buildings, the offices and closets and alcoves that make the building work.
Some of the research I had to do for my current book, THE SOMEDAY FILE, was almost as obscure as identifying a red wine from the 1920s. I had to learn a lot of minutiae about Chicago’s criminal history, current laws, geography, neighborhoods, customs, and Chicagoans’ unique ways of speaking. Fortunately, I live in the city, so I didn’t have to travel terribly far to scout settings or to find experts who could answer my questions, including a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago.
That’s my key to researching a book: I talk to people who know everything there is to know about what I don’t know.
For MAXIMUM IMPACT, I talked to several airline pilots and accepted United Airlines’ invitation to come fly their giant training simulators in Denver – the same mockups you saw on television when reporters were trying to explain the causes of several recent, tragic plane crashes.
For HANDYMAN, the manager of a new skyscraper in Tampa actually spent a day with me crawling around those areas of his building that most people never see.
On one occasion, I actually convinced the director of pharmacy at a large medical center to help me find a drug that would kill without leaving a trace and describe for me how such a drug could be stolen from his hospital.
These experts, even if uncertain initially about taking the time and making the effort to abet a work of fiction, all got into it as the exploration went along. They admitted when we finished that they’d had fun.
The perils of not doing this kind of research are evident:
I once read a novel in which there was a car chase through the streets of Lucerne, Switzerland. If the chase had occurred as the writer conceived it, it would have run along the bottom of Lake Lucerne.
In another novel, the writer blew up a tank farm in Iceland, apparently believing the tanks, in real life, hold petroleum. They don’t. The tanks sit over a lava basin and hold the hot water supply for the city of Reykjavik.
The moral of the story is, if you don’t know, do the research.
Because for every minor detail you get wrong, someone will notice.