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The Mystery Writer's Guide to Research
by Christine Duncan

Return to Writing Mysteries · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

So you've got an idea for a really great mystery novel but you need to research it a little. Now what? Where do you look? Where can you contact experts who know such arcane things as how blood spatters from a bullet wound, or what poisons leave no trace?

Let's say you need to know what would happen to blood splatter from a knife wound in a fire in a torched garage. That's something you'd want to ask an expert. Most police and fire departments have public information officers trained to answer questions. So if you want to get this research done with a phone call, start there.

If you don't know exactly what you don't know, you can sign up for a police ride-along in your community. This is just what it sounds like -- you ride along with the cop in the police car -- usually for about half a shift (four hours). In my city, citizens can do this once a month. (For more information, see Citizen's Police Academy, by Stephen Rogers.)

This experience can be invaluable. You get to see the inside of a police car, without having to do time. Plus, you can get a good close view of what is included in a policeman's uniform, an idea on how the radio works (deciphering what comes over it is a trick) and maybe even some inside info on a cop's life.

For more in-depth information on police procedures and techniques, you can enroll in a citizen police academy. Many cities offer them now. This is usually a semester's worth of classes on a range of things that the police in your community deal with. One night you might get a demonstration on how police check out a call about a disturbance in a vacant building; the next class might be a practice session at the shooting range. Most classes end with a call for questions.

Don't rule out volunteering as a way to learn, and to help your community while you're doing so. Many police departments now use volunteer victim assistants. Victim assistants can help the police with domestic abuse calls by counseling the victims on their options. As a volunteer, you might accompany a woman to court. Victim assistants can help with child abuse victims or may help notify relatives of an accident. It depends on the police department, but if you are willing to help, you can make a difference while seeing the inside workings of some police matters.

Okay, so you have the police/forensic angles covered. Your real research need is for medical information. If you have a quick question, you can probably sneak it in to your own doctor when you're having your annual physical. But if you've got more in mind, or if you need to give your book more of a medical flavor, there is another alternative. Many medical schools around the country are now offering mini-medical schools.

Like the citizen police academies, mini-medical schools have grown in response to the public's desire to know more. Also, like the citizen police academies, these mini-medical schools are multi-class sessions -- usually over the course of six or more weeks. Do your homework before you sign up. Although some schools advertise themselves as giving classes on a smattering of everything a medical student would study, some schools offer classes on whatever they can get a faculty member to talk about. All are quick to tell you that attending a mini-med school won't qualify you for a doctor's degree. Nor should you expect to get all the jargon from such a course. Since it is aimed at the public, most lectures in these schools will be at a level that the lay person can understand. Question and answer sessions are standard here too, so even if your question isn't covered in the lecture, you can ask it afterwards.

These schools are intensely popular. Check out your local medical school to see if they are offering something in the fall. The cost can be minimal or even nothing, as many schools offer these courses as a service to the public.

Also, don't rule this option out even if you are not close to a medical school. Here in Colorado, the mini-medical school's lectures are broadcast to smaller cities on the Western slope, so that people who are too far away to commute for the lectures can view them from community colleges. Some have e-courses. Be sure to inquire about the possibilities of off-site learning. (See the list at the end of this article.)

Last but not least, your local writer's group should be a resource for you. My local Sisters in Crime chapter helps the county sheriff's department by volunteering as "victims" in crime scene simulation scenarios. We've gone on tours at the local FBI branch, and had experts in to talk about everything from arson to psychology. You don't have to be a woman to be a member either. Mystery Writers of America or your local writer's group can offer similar opportunities. So get involved. And get that research done.

Internet Sources

Now for researching on the web. This can appear to be the easiest way to research your topic. But beware! You always need to check your source. When I researched domestic violence statistics for my mystery, I ran into a range of numbers that set domestic violence in the U.S at anywhere from one in ten women to one-half of all women. Before we get to the list of helpful websites, I just want to note that the first place you should start with research on the web is again--close to home. If your area writer's group has a list serve or chat group, let your research needs be known. And if there is no list serve for your group, you might want to start one. I asked my local group when I needed blood splatter information and in one email to the listserve let over 200 writers know what I was looking for. I got an answer from a fellow writer who volunteered her FBI crime scene detective husband as a research source. The upshot of this was that not only did I get my questions answered, but when the group heard what happened, they invited the FBI man to talk to the group about crime scenes. So we all benefited. Don't be shy! This is the ultimate way to network.

If your research needs are complicated, you also might want to try the extension service of your local university for online classes. If you decide that you don't want to go local, do your homework and see who is teaching the course you want. You don't need a degree to teach some on-line courses.

And last but not least, the reason you're reading this article: a list of places that mystery writers can use for research. Categories include: Forensics, Police, Guns, Poisons, Mystery bookstores and Events (so you can attend those all important conferences and find a publisher/home for your work when you're done.) So scroll down and see if you can find a jumping off point that fits your research needs.

As always though, I have to add the disclaimer -- do your homework and check out the people giving you the answers. Just because a web site appears on this list doesn't mean it's right for you. It is just a site that I've run into at one time or another that I thought to be helpful. If you have run into a great site, please email me and let me know.

Also remember that all sites have a bias of one sort or another. A lawyer may not see things the way a cop does or the way a criminal would.

For More Information:

Scientific Testimony: An On-line Journal
Another site geared to lawyers and professionals. They have a tutorial section on forensics.

Carpenter's List of Forensic Science Resources
Just what it says -- a list of links on everything from Arson to locating Forensic experts.

Real Police
Great looking site. The yesterday's shift page gives details of life as a real policeman and the research center gives up to date info on many topics including gangs and terrorism. The ask-a-cop message board promises that messages are monitored by real cops who will answer your questions.

ATF online
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. This site is extensive and give information on law, has helpful publications and even has the Most Wanted list -- pictures and all.

Gallery of Guns
The Shooters Lodge Page promises to answer gun questions.

Guns America
Bills itself as the Honor System Gun Classifieds. Since the guns are for sale, they've included pictures, which I found helpful, along with a brief description. Sorted by date as well as by type of gun -- interesting stuff for an historical mystery -- or a modern day one.

See also Don't Shoot Holes in Your Credibility, by John Rains

National Institutes of Health
Tons of information. Diseases, symptoms, drugs and their side effects, it's all here.

Advance News Magazine Medical Laboratory Professionals
Articles, links and news geared to the folks working in medical labs.

Poisons and Antidotes
From the folks at Botanical.com, this site wants you to know that this is for historical info only. Lists symptoms and treatments taken from Stedman's Shorter Medical Dictionary. Interesting stuff! Could be great for a historical mystery.

Mini-Medical Colleges
Here is a short list of Mini Medical Colleges across the country.

Medical College of Wisconsin
8701 Watertown Plank Road
Milwaukee, WI 53226-0509
(414) 456-8191

Indiana University School of Medicine
Mini-Medical College
Riley Outpatient Center
600 North West Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46202-5114
(317) 274-7722

Washington University School of Medicine Mini Medical School
Washington University in St. Louis
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130
(314) 935-5000

University of Texas Medical Branch
UTMB Office of Community Outreach
301 University Boulevard
Galveston, TX 77555-0825
(409) 747-8192; Fax (409) 747-8194

Georgetown University Medical School
4000 Reservoir Road, NW
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 687-1021; Fax: (202) 687-7407

University of California at Irvine
College of Medicine
252 Irvine Hall
Irvine, CA 92697-3950
(949) 824-1716; Fax: (949) 824-2118

Find Out More...

Conducting Forensic Research: A Tutorial For Mystery Writers, by Hilary Conner

Researching Mystery Short Stories, by John Floyd

Copyright © 2003 Christine Duncan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Christine Duncan is the author of Safe Beginnings, a mystery set in a battered women's shelter. She is an alumni of the Arvada Colorado citizen's police academy.


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