Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Four Easy Ways to Get "Hard Facts"

Welcome back to "Case Files from Our Detectives." Every Tuesday we blog about a general topic related to mystery writing for young people. Just to keep things interesting -- and to keep us on our toes -- we've decided to introduce A NEW THEME EVERY MONTH.

So this month, we'll be talking HARD FACTS. Mystery writing resources we turn to, from books to websites to people. Or how we wrestle with the practical matters of plotting and planning our mysteries. (Graphic organizers, anyone?) Whether you're a mystery writer yourself, a teacher planning a unit on mystery, or a reader who wants to know more about this genre, you'll find some great references and tips listed here in the coming weeks, as our sleuths reveal some of their top secrets!

Hard facts are so important in logic-driven mysteries. As a mystery writer, you're building an argument page by page. You're persuading readers that a chain of cause and effect is plausible, and that certain characters are capable of doing the things they do. Even if your story has a magical element, concrete facts will ground readers and make the mystery feel more real. All writers use creative license at some point, but in mysteries, compared with other genres, there may be less room for invention, especially when you're dealing with things like the law, police and investigative procedures, institutions, and people's jobs.

When I wrote TOKYO HEIST, I ran into a number of areas that required hard facts. One of them was in the field of art conservation, since I had a key character working in this field, and my young sleuth tries her hand at this job. The more I wrote,  the more I realized how little I understood about this career path. Here's how I got some hard facts to help me:

1. Reading
First I read articles about my characters' field of work, mostly online for the most up-to-date information. I looked up art conservation firms. I scoured job ads for art conservators at different levels of expertise. I skimmed professional journals. I tried to get a basic level of literacy about this profession and see where my characters fit in.

This was a good introduction, but the field still seemed vast. I had no grasp of what my character would do at her job every day, and the implications her work would have for my mystery plot. And so . . .
2. Taking a source out to lunch
I located a young art conservator and interviewed her over lunch. I did an informational interview, as if I'd talk to someone in a field I might be interested in working in. She seemed hesitant at first, when I mentioned my book. But once I told her I was not profiling her for the character, she visibly relaxed and opened up about her job: how she trained for it, how she got it, what she did every day, what she hated and loved about it, where she saw herself in five or ten years.

That went well, so I asked if I could visit her at work, and she said yes! And so . . .

(image from http://cathyberggren.com/)
3. Shadowing a source at work
I spent three hours shadowing my source in the print conservation department of a local museum, with her boss's permission. (I just had to promise not to divulge anything about the museum's collection or security measures). I kept my eyes and ears open. I listened to workers discuss conflicts. I looked for things that could go horribly wrong in a conservation lab (like objects that might turn into weapons in the wrong hands). I paid attention to movements, like how conservators (not conservationists, as I'd once thought) put on white gloves before handling Japanese prints. Or how they made little accordian-pleated devices out of scraps of acid-free paper to lift the corners of the glassine that covered the prints. Or how they slid into their desks without jostling things. I listened to terminology and jargon. Prints weren't just put away in boxes; they were "rehoused." Oh.

I realized that being on a work site gave me so much more insight and information than reading or talking to someone. And so . . .

4. Volunteering
I signed on for a week of volunteer work at the print conservation department. This gave me a whole new level of insight, as I got to work with the prints myself, doing measurements for a database. This was almost like walking in my character's shoes. For five blissful days, I got to dabble in a job for which I'd received no formal training. I picked up even more precise details. How else would I know you can't sneeze or talk over the prints, as a stray droplet of saliva will cause highly soluble ink to bleed?

Going almost under cover for research was one of the highlights of my writing and researching process. I learned so much about the fascinating field of art conservation, and solved several plot glitches because of the hard facts I'd picked up.

I came to love making the world of work as real and vivid as possible. Now here's hoping my next novel doesn't have a pig farmer in it . . .


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

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how much even a little time spent soaking up the world of our books helps, doesn't it? For my sequel, I, too, have been getting out to interview people and volunteered at the parade my story is loosely based on. The notes I took have proved invaluable!


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