Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Guilty as Charged

Welcome to "Case Files From Our Detectives." Every Tuesday, in rotation, we blog on a topic relevant to the craft of mystery writing. If you're a new follower or just discovering us now, you can check out past Case Files in the archives; they're all listed in the upper right sidebar.

Today we're launching our sixth Tuesday topic, which is an essential part of mystery writing: CRIME. For the next seven weeks, we'll explore the following questions and more: What are some of the challenges we face in writing about crimes and criminals in mysteries for young people? What are some of the most compelling crimes and who are the most dastardly criminals in books that we've read? What are some real-life crimes that capture our imagination as writers? How does one craft a complex villain in fiction for kids? What happens when young people are criminals in mysteries? What kind of victims populate kids' mysteries? How do we research criminal or investigative procedures? How does the law affect young people in life and in fiction? And -- as alternative window on the topic -- what are some "writing crimes" we are sometimes guilty of?
I'll kick off our theme today with a confession.

When I started writing Tokyo Heist, I knew very little about investigative procedures. Or about the law in general. I'd had no experience with police stations or courts -- I was routinely passed over for jury duty and never even had a traffic ticket. I had no useful relatives working in law enforcement. On the fictional front, I hadn't read much crime fiction, nor did I watch crime drama on TV. I was totally out of my league. Was I even qualified to write a story about an art heist? I hesitated to go on.

But the story beckoned to me. I kept writing. Then, around page 100, I hit a dead end.

I faced a firing squad of countless unanswered questions. For example: What kind of alarm would have gone off -- or not gone off -- in someone's house? If it didn't go off, why not? How long would police take to respond to a call? What would happen after that? What branch of the police would investigate a high-profile art heist? When would detectives turn it over to another agency?

By midorisyu from Japan (Ueno park police01) via Wikimedia Commons
More problems loomed. I was taking my story to Japan. How did law enforcement work in that country?
What level of detectives would my characters be dealing with? Would police or agents there work with American detectives, or independently? Which country's laws is the criminal bound to when international borders are crossed? What was the statute of limitations for stolen art there?

For awhile, I was a fugitive, on the run from my manuscript and its legal problems. But I finally faced my ignorance and surrendered. I started researching, tackling just one question at a time.

Some information, like about basic police procedures after a break-in, was readily found online. (Careful -- procedures can vary by city or state). Other information was not so easily found. For the tricky questions, I emailed or called experts, who were happy to help me; some even let me run my plot points or scenes by them later, and they evaluated them for plausibility. Sources I consulted included:
  • The president of a home security company
  • A police chief
  • The FBI (they have a media outreach department and apparently are used to dealing with questions from novelists and screenwriters)
  • Lawyers
  • Security guards
  • Japanese residents familiar with legal procedures in that country
Once I had answers, my story began to take off again. I avoided dead ends I'd been heading toward. Now that I was armed with new knowledge, even more plot ideas came to me, as well as new characters -- including quite a few law enforcement officials and detectives who had been strangely missing from the manuscript (off on a coffee and doughnut break, I guess).

The facts of the law, and more people to uphold it, instantly put more narrative pressure on the story. They added time pressure and tension. Sometimes they presented roadblocks, when a plot development I desired would not be legally possible. But then, quite often, I'd find some new way around that roadblock, and a plot twist would result.

In my earliest draft attempts, did I think I was somehow above the law? That I didn't need to know much about it in order to get through a draft? Yes. Guilty as charged.

Now I try to learn all I can about the law, police, and investigative procedures. I try to get to know the friendly law enforcement officers in my neighborhood. I pay more attention to lawyers, detectives, FBI agents and law officers whenever I see them on TV, whether on the news or in dramas. And I try to formulate my research questions and line up potential sources very early in a draft. Learning about the law, and laying down the law in my mysteries, springs me from the prison of indecision and frees me up to write.


Diana was born in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, coming June 14, 2012) is her first novel.


  1. I often find when i get stuck in my writing - especially when it's set in another country - it's because I need to do a little research.

    1. Glad I'm not alone in that! And adding in another country certainly provides more opportunities to get stuck (and unstuck, with research!) Congrats, by the way, on the release of A SPY LIKE ME!


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