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Researching the Mystery Short Story
by John Floyd

Return to Writing Mysteries · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

The most important thing I can say about research is this: You don't always have to "write what you know."

You should write what you like to read, and what you feel comfortable writing. Simple as that. It may or may not be what you know. I've written and sold lots of stories about murder and deceit, but I've never killed anybody or robbed a bank or even cheated on my taxes, and I don't plan to.

According to mystery author Les Roberts, "Look up the job description of a novelist and you'll find it says: 'Makes things up.'" That's what fiction means. You don't have to be an expert, and the subject of your story doesn't have to be your job, or your sport, or your hobby.

But (you knew there would have to be a "but," right?) you must be believable, you must get your details correct, and you must check your facts After all, you don't want to have your historical-mystery hero use a device that hasn't been invented yet, or have your detective shoot a revolver equipped with a silencer (silencers only work on automatics), or have your private eye belong to some kind of law enforcement agency (they don't), or have your heroine comment on the lovely gold color of the Golden Gate Bridge (it's actually red).

Sources of Information

How exactly do you go about checking these facts, and finding the details you need to make your story ring true?

There are three basic ways:

  1. ask someone who knows,
  2. look it up, or
  3. go see for yourself.

The first option -- asking an expert -- is one of the best, and it's not as difficult as it might seem. All of us have at least a few friends or relatives who work in the fields of banking, law, insurance, medicine, law enforcement, etc. Ask them what you need to know. And if you don't already have an inside contact, make one. Authorities on almost any subject can be found in the phone book, and are usually ready and willing to answer a writer's questions. Most of them are flattered to have been asked, and enjoy the whole process.

But what if you're a little too shy to approach a specialist, or you don't really need that kind of in-depth knowledge? Well, there are always reference books. There is even, thank God, the ultimate reference resource: the Internet. We now have the world's largest and most comprehensive library right here on our desks at home. In fact, this is the research tool I use most for my stories. A quick example: A few years ago I wrote a short mystery about a scuba diver who was later killed by decompression stress, and to be accurate I needed to find out how long divers should wait before safely flying in an aircraft. After puzzling on it awhile, I searched the Web for the words "diving" + "safety" + "altitude," and I got a dozen hits on the subject. In fact I was able to study an online chart analyzing exactly how deep you could go and how high you could fly, and how much time should elapse between the two. It even provided a table for cross-reference. I had my answer in ten minutes, and sold the story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine shortly afterward. How's that for making research fun?

The third way of obtaining information is something I try to use as an additional resource -- especially if what I need to investigate is a setting, and if it's not too far away. I just go there myself. For a recent story set in nearby Jackson, Mississippi, I spent an entire afternoon walking the downtown area with a pen and pad, going everywhere my fictional hero was expected to go. I jotted notes about landmarks, street names, aromas, noises, the temperature, and anything else I could think of. This kind of firsthand contact with your story's location isn't always essential, or even possible, but it does help. Using actual place names can give you an immediate bond to your audience -- every reader likes to encounter something familiar when she reads a story -- and including sensory information like smells and sounds makes the setting seem more real. Give it a try.

What's the payoff for all this investigative work? That's probably obvious. A little research and accurate details will make your short story more believable. And if it's believable, your reader will be more likely to stay with your story to the finish, and--hopefully--more likely to look for other stories with your byline in the future. That's the way careers are built.

Accuracy can also protect you from embarrassment. In his book Writing the Short Story, Jack M. Bickham says: "If you publish a story in a mass-market publication, and make a factual mistake of any kind, you can be sure an astounding number of readers will spot the error. Worse, some of them are sure to write your publisher, complaining." Not the best thing for the reputation of an aspiring author.

However, research can sometimes be a dangerous thing, in this business. Too many facts and details, no matter how authentic they are, can sink your story just as quickly as too few.

Overdoing It

When does enough become too much? Actually, there's no direct danger to doing too much research; the problem arises only if you try to include it all in your story.

A short story, by definition, is short. It must be tightly written. Especially a mystery story. Every word must be meaningful and must, above all else, move the action forward. Information obtained through research is usually descriptive and informative, which is great--if you don't get carried away when the writing starts. It can be very tempting, once you've accumulated all this knowledge, to try to pack too much of it into your story. If you do, you can easily overwhelm and even bore the reader. Instead of propelling the story toward a satisfying conclusion, you may slow the pace, and bog down. At the very least, you may disrupt the "dream world" that you've tried so hard to establish in the mind of the reader. No writer wants to do that.

So give the reader only enough detail to establish a degree of authenticity. Don't let research be your way of bragging about the sights you've seen or the books you've read, or your mastery of a particular field or hobby. Today's reader will see through that in an instant. The trick is to present only enough descriptive facts to keep him involved in the mystery.

How do you do that? Here's a good rule of thumb: Include only the things that you found most interesting -- fascinating, even -- when you were gathering the information. Those things will probably interest the reader as well. Leave out anything overly technical, and certainly anything that might send your reader scurrying to the dictionary. That's an instant turnoff. Also avoid preaching to your audience. In short, leave out anything at all that might get in the way of your story.

Hints and Tips

Since you're writing (and researching) mystery stories, here are a few specific tricks you can use.

  1. Instead of spending hours studying police and investigative and crime-scene procedure, set your mystery in a fictional city. Funny thing about fictional cities -- they have fictional police departments, and that can come in handy. Your fictional PD can (within reason) have its own sets of procedures. Or you could cheat even further, and don't mention the city's name. That works too.

  2. According to mystery writer Stuart A. Kaminsky, "If you can't find the answer to your (research) question, create an answer that makes sense and attribute it to a character. It becomes his or her information, not yours." And characters, being human, can be wrong.

  3. After you finish a story but before you submit it to an editor, it's a good idea to do an Internet search on your characters' names. Just type each name into a search engine like Google and see what you get. If you find that the name you've assigned to your psychopathic villain, for example, is also the name of a real senator or sports figure or movie actor, you might want to choose a different name. (And believe me, it's surprising how many times that happens. During the creation process, I think the subconscious can sometimes supply a name that you've heard somewhere before, even though you don't remember it and truly believe you made it up.)

  4. When you do have to use technical or unfamiliar terms, be sure to spell everything correctly. Especially if you've gotten the information via a telephone interview or a taped conversation. I'm speaking mainly of forensic and medical terms here, but you also don't want to say the murder weapon was a Baretta when it was really a Beretta. One's a gun, the other's an old TV series.

  5. Stock your personal library with a few good reference books. Here are some of my favorites:

  6. Don't forget other, unusual sources of research information: travel brochures, firearm manuals, Court TV, used bookstores, government websites, maps, documentaries, medical journals, guidebooks, news broadcasts, trade magazines, public trials, almanacs, memoirs, regional histories, the list goes on and on. The point is, be alert and observant. Facts, as well as ideas, are everywhere.

And remember, research can be fun. You're not doing a term paper here, you're writing a short story. Finding out new things and discovering new facts can be fascinating. When researching a story, I almost always have a good time, and I learn a lot more than what I started out looking for. It's the only time in my life that I've actually enjoyed studying.

Just don't get so hung up on research and the need for research that it strangles your desire to be creative in your stories. Our main concern, as mystery writers, should be to provide suspense and entertainment. First and foremost.

Lawrence Block, who writes great mystery short stories, once said fiction is nothing but a pack of lies anyway. On the subject of small police-procedural details, he says (in his book Spider, Spin Me a Web): "Ninety-eight percent of your readers won't know whether the information is accurate or not, and the rest won't care."

I couldn't have said it better myself . . .

Find Out More...

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

The Mystery Writer's Guide to Research, by Christine Duncan

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

Mississippi writer John Floyd has sold more than 500 short stories and fillers to 100+ publications, including Strand Magazine, Grit, Woman's World, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His stories have been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Derringer Award.


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