I love to research. Having hopped a slow moving train once, I knew I had to jump off before it got going too fast, and there have been few periods in my life when I haven't had a dog. But what did I know about the workings of a train yard, or how search and rescue dogs are trained?
At times, I'd rather research than plot action or get inside a character's head, to say nothing of those tender love scenes. When I've written myself into a conundrum, I'll throw something into the mix of which I know nothing, and go on a researching mission.
I also love authenticity, which means I have to get to the source, the gritty in the nitty. When I wrote The End Game, I knew from the start trains and dogs would figure prominently in the story. Computers, too, along with cops and prisons. Cops were easy. I worked with them when I reported for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My heroine, Moriah Dru, is a former cop, now the owner of a PI firm specializing in finding missing children. Her lover, Richard Lake, is still a cop, useful in getting information, and often a partner when the Atlanta Police Department allows it.
The story is set in Atlanta, where I've lived most of my life. Still I needed to go into a specific neighborhood and get the feel of it, make it a character. Historic Cabbagetown is a small in-town community, built on the railroad tracks in 1881. It provided workers for the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill.
Because my tale involved kidnapping and murder, I renamed the streets and disguised the houses. I wouldn't want a resident to think I'd pegged him or her as the bad guy. That being said, my former newspaper reviewed the book the reviewer wasn't fooled.
Back to trains, I must have filled half my computer's memory with articles and opinions on trains, from the workings of a rail yard to hoboes – excuse me – box car tourists. I visited a rail yard, and a media representative answered all my questions and invited me to follow up any time. He did ask that I not use sensitive information about guards and shift changes and photography – this for Homeland Security purposes. I had no problem arranging shifts to suit my story, and, I learned, despite vigilance, box car tourists are as determined as ever to ride the rails.
Did you know air horns (trains no longer have whistles) are tuned like instruments? Knowing horns helps Dru and Lake track the bad guys.
And did you know there's such a thing as train talk? Short toots means the train's backing up. A blast, blast, toot, blast means the train is going across a grade crossing.
I love research, but I never, ever let it bog down the action. The way I do it is sneak relevant information into the copy bit by bit. There's nothing worse than showing off your knowledge by boring your reader.
Search-and-rescue dogs, I'm convinced, were given to us mortals by a benevolent goddess. In my next life, I'm going to be a trainer. I witnessed these dogs working and learning their specialty (not all dogs are genetically qualified). These specialists do it for the pure joy of showing off their talents and getting a treat at the end of the search. They are tireless in their quest, and, like us, they suffer disappointment if they don't succeed.
Buddy and Jed, my search-and-rescue dog characters came out heroes. Maybe because when I wrote them into the plot, I thought of them as heroes.
I had fun researching computer hacking. I wrote the novel before Criminal Minds shot its first episode. My computer hacker, Webdog, does basically the same thing as Garcia in the show. He is as essential in solving the case as Dru, Lake, the dogs and train talk.
Here's a sample of Webdog's work:
Webdog: "No (human trafficking) ring's advertising on the Web, but they use the lists to troll for buyers. There are contact codes in some of the ads. One has an embedded e-mail address in it."
Dru: "I bet you're going to decode them."
"I ran the alphabet on the script kiddies who do the routine codex of using numbers and characters for the alphabet, and the routine hacker prefixes, suffixes and equivalencies."
Webdog: "I found one e-mail series that's interesting. I finally figured out what crypt they're using. It's a Perl-Crypt-Enigma simulator."
Webdog: "It's an application of the Enigma machine used by the Germans in World War Two."
Dru: "You mean you use World War Two technology to crack an e-mail code?"
Webdog: "Alan Turing, who is the brains behind the first computer, cracked the code because the Germans got sloppy and left their prearranged setting on letters like AAA or XYZ. Default settings will get you every time."
Some things I didn't have to research. My father taught me to play chess when I was growing up. If I lasted to play the end game, it was because my king didn't fall to his rooks or knights.
Gerrie Ferris Finger is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. She lives on the coast of Georgia with her husband and standard poodle, Bogey. For more about Gerrie and her work, visit her web site or her blog.