I have to admit that once upon a time (a long, long time ago), I shuddered when people talked about doing research for their novels. I don’t think I dismissed it, exactly, but it was sort of like Organic Chemistry: awesome for some, but not for me. (Actually, that’s a bad example; Orgo is famously the endpoint for many aspiring pre-meds.) So Calculus, maybe, although no, I enjoyed Calculus, even if we found the volume of way too many swimming pools.
I’m also not sure how I feel about having put a cat photo on my blog.
The point is, I edged away from research. But since I started setting novels in places I don’t know well, now, I think: research! It’s great! Especially when you can interview someone. Yes, I could have found out about police procedure from the books and the internets, but when I talked to a retired homicide detective last week, I got so much more than just the facts, ma’am.
I asked, Would it look disorganized if the police questioned my main character once, then asked her back? Does it make them look disorganized? He laughed.
“Did you ever watch Columbo?” he asked. “Peter Falk played the part of the dumb old cop who kept asking, ‘Excuse me, just one more question.’ People would get so frustrated with him, but he was the wise old owl. He recognized that you could play dumb and be wiser than got credit for.
“Being an investigator, you have to play a game with people. The study of individuals and gathering info is something I’ve always loved about the job. I loved to play the mind games. You’ll identify who the person is but play the mind-game until you’re ready to take them down. When I ask you a question, I’ve done my homework, so I already know the answer or I wouldn’t be asking. If they answer truthfully, great. If they start trying to deceive you, you know they are and ask them why. It’s like talking to your kids. You know what they’ve done, but you ask them to tell you.”
How great is his language? And how much better will my interrogation scene be now that I’m not just making up questions but having the detective already know the answer? My protagonist might not have done a thing to commit the crime, but if the detective asks her a question, knowing the answer, and she somehow stumbles and gets it wrong–nerves! Suspicion! Drama! In fact, I could use this technique with anyone in any story–principal, parent–even friend.
Thank you, Lieutenant T, for your words and your attitude. You just opened a whole bunch of doors. As for me, I’m going to research 19th-century Dutch furniture so I can figure out what the partner-in-crime is dirtying with his Vans.