Thanks to author Michele Lynn Seigfried for stopping by and sharing her tips on researching a mystery/crime novel. Enjoy!
Researching the Mystery-Crime Novel By Michele Lynn Seigfried
There are an absurd number of factors to consider when writing a mystery/crime novel, as many of you already know. Assuming your audience may include attorneys, court personnel and people in law enforcement; writers want their books to be as realistic as possible. After all, these people who read your books, write reviews. Good reviews help sell more copies. We definitely don’t like to hear that someone didn’t enjoy our work because it was unrealistic (especially if you are writing a true-crime novel)! That is where doing thorough research makes the difference in quality work.
Where do authors typically go to find their research? The internet? Can you believe everything you read on the internet? There are some websites that are more accurate than others. Among those that tend to be reliable resources are websites of government agencies. Most local governments compile their laws into a “code book,” which is posted on their websites. Inside a local code book, you can locate information about types of violations and penalties associated with a particular violation. Sometimes, the exact penalties are not set forth or there is a range of penalties listed, and it’s up to the judge to determine the exact penalty. Repeat offenders typically get increased fines, community service or jail time. Code books can vary greatly from town to town and state to state. It’s a good idea to find the correct information for your book’s location.
More severe criminal activity is not usually listed in a local code book. For these crimes, you may need to look to the legislature or the federal government websites. In my recent novel, Red Tape, I relied heavily on the New Jersey Legislature’s website, which contains all the statutes of the state. I learned that the crime I would have thought was embezzlement isn’t called embezzlement in New Jersey. I also discovered what the penalties were, whether or not there would be jail time, and that the court case would not involve a jury. I also found out that the crime Chelsey was charged with would be tried at a municipal court, and not in Federal nor County court.
Besides government agencies, websites for newspapers are particularly helpful. I have an internet subscription to the New York Times so that I can research their archives. I also subscribe to genealogybank.com which is extremely helpful in finding newspaper articles through a key-word search of their databases. Genealogybank.com has hundreds of newspapers from every state, which includes both recent articles and historical ones. While I haven’t written a historical crime novel yet, I have toyed with the idea after finding articles about my ancestors who were less-than-stellar citizens!
Not interested in doing internet research? There are other ways to track down the information you need to make your facts as real as possible. Consider a visit to the municipal or government buildings in the town where your mystery or crime is taking place. These buildings are open to the public during regular business hours. If you call ahead, you may be able to arrange for a tour with the possibility of seeing the inside of the jail. Take note of your surroundings and decide if any information is important to contain in your work. What do the uniforms of the officers look like? What color, make and model are the emergency vehicles? Do they have K-9 units, etc.?
Are you writing about a location that is too far to visit? Don’t be afraid to make phone calls. See if the police have a press person who is willing to assist you. Contact a local historical society for unique information about a particular location. Call your state division of archives and find out what records they maintain (extremely useful for a historical death certificates and finding causes of deaths). See if there is a state office of legislative services that can direct you to particular laws that are on the books.
Try contacting the town/city clerk. They are a wealth of information. They are the keeper of the records, maintainer of historical town information, and if they don’t know something, they typically know where to send you. While there are exceptions to the rule, the majority of town clerks pride themselves on being helpful and will go out of their way to assist you with your research. They can direct you to where their code book can be found and can help you locate anything within the code books, such as penalties for violations. They can provide you with unique information about their town, which is helpful if you are writing about a town you are not from. If you are writing a historical crime novel, the clerk may be able to provide you with copies of old maps. You wouldn’t want to say a crime took place on a certain street, if the street did not exist back when it occurred. They can let you know about regulations for open public records and whether or not you (or the sleuth in your novel) would be privy to certain information about a crime.
Don’t rule out going to a library for assistance. Libraries contain criminal code books, law journals, historical newspapers and other valuable research tools. Librarians are a wealth of information and are generally very helpful.
Lastly, I would highly recommend using social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter to aid you in your research efforts. There are bound to be professionals such as lawyers and police officers who would be willing to give you tips and hints on these sites. You might be able to meet a resident from your novel’s locale who can provide insightful information about the world in which they live. Such unique information would make your book stand out, make the reader feel like they are there, and ultimately, make your book an enjoyable read.”
For more information about Michele Lynn Seigfriedvisit her at: http://michelelynnseigfried.wordpress.com ,
and follow her on twitter @ Micheleseig
And to purchase Red Tape: Amazon (Kindle & Paperback): amzn.to/12LAJgY
Barnes & Noble (Nook & paperback): http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/red-tape-michele-seigfried/1115098453?ean=9781482012880
Plus, Red Tape is also available on iTunes.
Thanks again to Michele Lynn Seigfried for her guest post. Watch Whimsical Words for more guests, blogs from me, and Readers & Writers Recipes. Have a great day! – Vonnie