Monday, January 11, 2010

Guest Blogger Lori Armstrong

Today's guest blogger is Lori Armstrong, winner of the 2009 Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original, Snow Blind. Her most recent novel is No Mercy. Lori left the firearms industry in 2000. Her mass market mystery series has been nominated for many awards. She lives with her family in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Research? Of Course!
by Lori Armstrong

Over the course of my writing career, I've been asked how much of what I write is based on personal experience. My response? Almost zero. Write what you know doesn’t hold true for me, because sadly, my life is terribly tame. My female character, Mercy Gunderson, heroine of my latest mystery, No Mercy, gets to have all the fun; she’s proficient in firearms, she wins bar fights, she knocks back whiskey like water and she has the chops to figure out "whodunit" and to see that justice is served.

Since I’m not the all-around badass, tough chick I created, I have to do research. Lots of research. Some research is not so bad—I’ve gotten to shoot a sniper rifle, tour a distillery, ride along with cops, receive personal, detailed martial arts demonstrations, and participate in a spring branding. Hands on research? Love it. But the flipside is it isn’t all hands on. Yesterday I wasted three hours looking up two pieces of information I doubt anyone will even notice in the finished book...unless I get it wrong—then everyone notices.

That means I’m always looking for accurate sources. I’ve been fortunate to find experts who are willing to talk to me, and expect my off-the-wall questions. A while back I called my local FBI office to clear up a question I had on jurisdictional land issues. In western South Dakota, we have a jigsaw puzzle of land management divisions. There’s the National Forest and National Grasslands (under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior), Indian Reservations (governed by the individual tribal councils as sovereign nations) and that doesn’t take into consideration the dividing lines that separate the city from the county and in some cases, from what falls into the state’s jurisdiction—all within a mile or two of each other.

It’s probably no surprise the FBI agent balked at my question: “If I want to dump a body outside of town...which law enforcement agency has authority?” She informed me she had to speak with her supervisor and call me back. I’m pretty sure she ran a check on me in the hour I waited. Since that incident, I’ve learned to clarify up front that I’m a writer working on research.

I'm near the end of my latest contracted book where I have to go back and plug in research. This will probably make research lovers shudder, but I leave all but the most pertinent/plot relevant facts swimming in the sea of, “Yeah, that'll probably work” until I'm completely done with the first rough draft. Why? Chalk it up to yet another hard lesson I had to learn about my own writing style. So much changes from draft to draft that I frequently end up ripping out entire sections of the manuscript. I’m not a pleasant person if I’ve spent hours or sometimes days on specific research that I don’t use because it doesn’t fit the revised story line.

There’s a reason why my mysteries don’t detail a race against the clock to clear civilians out of the building before a terrorist blows it up with a new type of chemical warfare, or explain the technology used to crack DNA codes for tracking down serial killers, or rely on the social and political mores of a specific historical time period to validate the plot. The idea of researching those ideas…really frightens me.

Do you notice an author’s research when you’re reading their book? Or do you only notice it if you know firsthand that it’s wrong?


Anonymous said...

An imagined perspective really is creativity at it's finest! Thanks for sharing this insight into your process.

Vicki Lane said...

Hey Lori, I'll never notice if you get a jurisdictional call wrong or mess up with the DNA code. But mention that the daffodils are blooming at the same time as the daylilies and I won't believe anything else you say. Each reader has his own little (or big) area of expertise and we, as authors, have to be on our toes to get things right.

But if it's done right, the research shouldn't show. That's where the danger lies -- when one spend a long time researching something, the inclination is not to waste any of it. But that's when a novel can begin to sound like a textbook -- uh oh.

Msmstry said...

Lori, I really agree with your way of doing research when you're finished with the story. I also hate to waste effort.

And like Vicki, I don't worry about the research in things I don't know about, but I do get frustrated in mistakes in things I know. I moderated a panel when an author complained about having been corrected about a mistake—she blew it off by saying with a shrug of her shoulders, "Who knew?"

Like a nice Southern girl, I bit my cheeks and refrained from saying, "I knew—and you should have checked."

Thanks for doing the fact-checking!

Lori Armstrong said...

Vicki, nice to see you here! I remember when we were on our very first panel together as published authors :)

If I make a mistake, I prefer to have it pointed out to me...but hopefully in the nicest way possible!

Thanks for having me as a guest blogger

Anonymous said...

I notice only if I know by my own knowledge that it's wrong. I also notice errors in spelling--computers aren't always right.

SiNn said...

I notice if its somthing i know if it isnt something i know i tend to go back and research my self so i know more i apperciate the research one doe sfor books expecially if it shows and inspires me to know more

Mary Kennedy said...

Very excited to see Lori Armstrong blogging today!! I am a huge fan of her work, and am writing a profile of her for The Big Thrill. I was hooked on her writing when I read BLOOD TIES, I know the new series will be equally fabulous!

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