Friday, 5 March 2021

So you want to write a crime novel - Part 3. Research

 Research is absolutely key to the success of your book. Why? Because somebody, somewhere will know what you don’t and if you get your information wrong, you will lose a reader. I once read of the ‘stink of carbon monoxide’, whereas it is odourless. I’ve never read another book by that author.

So, the watchword with research is get it right and go the extra mile to make sure it’s right.

 Is your setting contemporary, recent past, historical, the future? That will massively affect your research and the behaviour of your characters. Someone on a 25th century space mission to a distant star will have completely different behaviour/social mores/beliefs/knowledge than an 11th century monk in England.

 Likewise, the country in which you set your novel will need to be believable. So, if your detective is in 19th century Paris, you need to know what Paris looked like then. No point in mentioning the Eiffel Tower before January 1887 when its construction began and it didn’t open until May 1889, the lifts weren’t working properly and it took an hour to climb to the top. You may not need to put that in the novel, but you need to know it.

 Something as small as time can trip up the unwary novelist. We are so used to clocks now that it would be easy to make an error if you are writing historical novels. Sundials and water clocks have been around since before the time of Christ, but the first non-water clock in England was at Dunstable Priory in 1283 and its sole purpose was to regulate canonical hours. The first mechanical clocks did not appear until the 14th century. Check your facts.

 Research your chosen setting thoroughly. There are plenty of online resources to help you.

Google Earth/Maps where you can “travel” along the roads your book takes place in. Yes, it may be a few years out of date, but not many.

 If your book is set in the future, common everyday things may have a more catchy name. J D Robb’s Eve Dallas books are set in 2060 New York, where they have wrist units that tell the time apart from other capabilities.

 Make your characters believable, but, as you are writing crime, your characters – good and bad – will have traits other genres do not need. I will say this in a later post, but don’t set them in a vacuum. All chars were doing something before the book opens; they had a life, work, went shopping etc. Make them real for your period and that means the language they use.

 My own view on language in historical books is not to be too welded to the truth of the period. In my own Tudor Engima novels set in an alternate Tudor history, I use a few slight differences, for example mayhap for maybe and I sometimes alter the word order to make it sound more archaic, but your reader must not have to wonder what your character is saying. This also applies to accents. I remember trying to read a Scottish crime book, which was probably very good, but written in such abstruse dialect I had no idea what anybody was saying.

 Don’t make your main character or your killer (or any character, come to that) all good or all bad. People are people and have been since we came out of the cave system. Greed, revenge, money, fear and love live in all of us; it’s part of our DNA, so although modern man has many resources to use in the implementation of the crime, his/her instincts are exactly the same as someone living in Ancient Egypt.

 Technology is beguiling for those writing books set in the future. The world really is your oyster, but, again quoting the J D Robb books, the author has a world where everybody’s DNA is on file, so dead bodies can be identified immediately and the technology also permits the investigating officer to determine the precise time of death. 12th century Brother Cadfael had to rely on his knowledge of where plants were found, properties of herbs etc. So, unless you are writing a book set in the 11th century where your detective has been sent back from the late 21st century, be very careful about what was available for your detective at the time your book is set.

 Your method of murder will also depend on the time your novel is set.  Firearms has an interesting history. The Chinese used fire lances in the 10th century. The first cannons used in Europe were in the early part of the 14th century and hand-held cannons in the late 14th century. So check your ballistics. A rifle is not a pistol is not a revolver.

 A knife wound will mean blood spatter. Even if your novel is set before the forensics of blood spatter were documented, your detective will notice what the spatter looks like and, if he/she is experienced, will be able to surmise how the crime happened.

 If you use poison, be sure you know doses, effects and times of activity; ditto drugs. With some drugs, your killer will have to know where to source them and that, in itself, can be part of your plot. If your killer decides to strangle the victim, make sure your forensic knowledge is in accordance with the time in which your novel is set.

 With all your methods of murder, make sure you know what the post-mortem will discover and how the pathologist knows it.

 As with all research, you will only use a sentence or two in passing to add believability to your text. Do not be tempted to display your new-found knowledge because that will not only stop the flow of the novel, it will make your reader roll their eyes and shut the book. Do not preach.

If you would like to explore internet resources, I have included links below, but also a link to my own book, gleaned from over 30 years experience as an information professional and over 20 years searching the Internet. You can find my book here.

 Below are some of the resources you may find useful and I hope you have found this blog useful. Next month, I shall deal with outlining your book.

 Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers (

 7 Great Websites for Crime Writers | WordDreams... ( – USA emphasis

 Resources for Crime Fiction Writers (

 England / United Kingdom - Guide to Online Primary Sources - LibGuides at University of California San Diego

  You can read more about me here:

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the resources list - fascinating on all sorts of levels.


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