I just got back from an amazing four days at Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy, a marathon of forensics workshops; hands-on training in firearms, building searches, jail searches, handcuffing techniques; demonstrations of police/criminal shootouts; lectures in court proceedings and the life of an undercover cop – all conducted by top experts in their fields, interspersed with inspirational talks by the likes of Lee Child, Marcia Clark and Katherine Ramsland.
The WPA is a goldmine of practical story information. My head is about to explode with scenes and clues for my new book and the real-life details I needed to make them play. It’s going to take me the whole next month to sort through even a fraction of what I learned. But there was much more more to it than that. Being a writer himself, Lee Lofland has assembled a cast of characters - instructors – every one of whom could be the star of their own series. These are brilliant, funny, dedicated, passionate professionals - the real good guys. I’m still high from the sheer crackling energy of the weekend.
I’m going to blog in detail about the WPA because I think every author and aspiring author in the genre needs to know about this incredible resource. But it’s going to take me some time to get the photos and links together, and calm down enough to do it justice, so today I wanted to start by talking a little about the process of research.
Every author is constantly doing what I think of as “preemptive research”. We all forage widely in the fields that we write in so that when we sit down with a new story we already have some general knowledge of the arena. Then we have to do specific research to get the details of each particular story right, or right enough.
So I’m constantly reading psychology, especially abnormal psychology, criminal statistics, true crime, books by police officers, federal agents, lawyers, sex workers – and interviewing all of the above every chance I get - so I don’t have to start from scratch every time I sit down with a new book.
We are really blessed in the mystery and thriller community that conferences and conventions generally have a law enforcement track, where authors can take workshops and go to panels and demonstrations with various law enforcement officials in the particular communities where the conferences take place. I try to go to every law enforcement workshop offered at any given conference.
The Writers Police Academy is the ultimate in preemptive research.
It’s a godsend for me, especially because I’m in the middle of Book 2 in the Huntress series and the forensics are killing me. Almost every day that I sit down to write I feel like what I really need is to go back to school in forensic science. Also every day I feel like even if I did I could never get it right enough to pull this story off.
And that’s the point at which I have to remind myself of what I’m actually trying to do, here.
Thrillers are an incredibly visceral genre. The promise of a thriller is about sensation. So the research I do for a thriller is not really about getting the science of it right; it’s about getting enough details RIGHT ENOUGH for a reader to buy into the story and give themselves over to the experience.
In my supernatural thrillers I am very scrupulous about research, constantly reading about and interviewing people about how certain supernatural phenomena present themselves, so that as much as possible I can give readers the actual experience of a haunting as people have consistently reported it. It is that feeling of suspense, wonder, anticipation, and sometimes deliciously terrified submission that I need to create, and I need to be as detailed as possible AND as credible as possible in those details to get people to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to the experience.
With Huntress Moon I wasn’t setting out to write an FBI story at all. I had a core premise about a woman who is killing like a serial killer, when arguably, in reality women don’t commit sexual homicide. Not on their own, anyway. That’s what I wanted to explore, and I wanted to do it with a The Fugitive type of structure, in which the pursuer of this killer comes to empathize with the killer.
And unfortunately for me, especially because I wanted to cross a lot of state lines and jurisdictions, an FBI agent was the most logical character for me to use to achieve that structure.
But it’s not a story about the FBI. It’s a story that uses the device of the FBI to put the reader through a roller coaster of emotions, sensations, and moral dilemmas. Which meant that I had to create the illusion of a real FBI agent and bureau, with enough realism to allow a reader to suspend their disbelief and commit to the roller coaster.
Anyone with real knowledge of the FBI would probably throw the book against the wall (a more forceful image than deleting it from a Kindle...), but I think those people mostly know to avoid FBI novels, anyway, just to keep their blood pressure down. But so far so good - apparently I’ve created a true enough illusion to get a lot of readers committed to the ride.
Now I have to learn enough forensics to get enough readers committed to the ride in the second book.
Thanks to Lee Lofland, Denene Lofland, Prof. Dave Pauly, Cpl. Dee Jackson, Robert Skiff, Andy Russell, Lee Child, Marcia Clark, Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Lt. Randy Shepherd, Retired Detective Marco Conelli, Jerry Cooper, and Dr. Elizabeth Murray, I’ve got at least a start on that process.
More later, but here are some photos on Lee's blog.