Thursday, June 21, 2007

Doing Research

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve never been fond of doing research. I majored in English back in college because it meant I got to read novels. Decades later, when I went back to school for a master’s in social work, I always felt slightly over my head in the university library. The Internet made things easier. When I don’t know something, I google it. But the systematic hunt for facts still scares me. I’d much rather make it up.

As a mystery writer, I’ve learned that there are things I’m allowed to make up and things I’m not. It seems unfair that writers for television are apparently allowed to get everything wrong, while novelists get scolded via email by their readers for the smallest error in fact. But who said life was fair? I can—in fact, I must—make up my characters and the situations I put them in. I may make up the settings of my stories, if I choose. But forensics, police procedure, and any kind of technical detail had better be accurate.

I didn’t know this when I wrote the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober. But when I started sending the manuscript out and networking with other mystery writers and readers, I soon learned that I couldn’t afford to ignore this stuff. To some extent, I could bypass it. I chose as my setting a milieu I know well: the world of alcoholism treatment programs and recovery from addictions and codependency. As a professional, I had published in the field. I didn’t need to look much up, and writing quirky characters and snappy dialogue instead of clinical prose was fun. I also chose to make my protagonist an amateur sleuth. My recovering alcoholic and his two sidekicks get suspicious about a death that’s fallen through the cracks in the system and make their own investigation. The convention of the traditional whodunit—mine is too gritty to be called a cozy—allowed me to do this. If I’d tried to write a police procedural, a PI novel, or a technothriller, I’d have had to research it. So I didn’t.

The police crept into the next two manuscripts, Death Will Improve Your Relationship and Death Will Help You Leave Him, which will appear in due course provided the first book does well. I contrived to keep them more or less in the background. But now I’m working on the fourth, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, and the moment of truth has arrived. My amateur detectives take shares in a group house in the Hamptons and find a body on the beach. The problem is not so much a case of Cabot Cove Syndrome (How can Jessica Fletcher manage to find so many bodies in one small town?) as that there’s no way the group can go on with its summer without police involvement. One of their housemates is dead. Sure, my protagonist and his buddies can snoop. But trying to get the story going, I quickly found myself stuck. I needed to know what the police were doing. Hence: research.

So one morning I waltzed into the headquarters of the Town of East Hampton Police Department, introduced myself as a mystery writer, and said the magic words (courtesy of writer Robin Hathaway), “I want to get it right.” As she’d predicted, they were glad to help. In minutes, I was seated across the desk from a handsome young sergeant with a gold shield pinned to his blue uniform.

“How do I know you are who you say you are?” he asked.

“Here’s my card,” I said. “And my bookmark.” (Better than a passport, with my picture and bio on one side and my book title and blurb on the other.) I showed him the Malice Domestic pad I’d brought along to take notes. I also mentioned my former affiliation with POPPA as a clinician doing outreach to NYPD officers on the subject of post-traumatic stress.

“It’s set in an imaginary Hampton,” I began.

He grinned and gestured at the room around him.

“This is it,” he said. I can imagine that policing in the Hamptons must be stranger than fiction some of the time.

I proceeded to describe my scenario and ask what the police would be doing at every point along the way, especially where they would necessarily be interacting with my characters. The sergeant generously gave me an hour of his time. He not only answered all my questions, but told me a few facts I didn’t even know I didn’t know. For one thing, group houses are illegal anywhere in the Town of East Hampton (from Wainscott to Sag Harbor to Montauk). Oops. Luckily, it’ll be the landlord, not the renters, who get in trouble when the murder bring the house to the law’s attention. Best of all, in explaining why the police and the medical examiner must be called to the scene of any death, the sergeant uttered one line so good that I absolutely must use it in the book.

“It’s against the law to die in the State of New York.”

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