It’s hard to believe that three weeks ago I was sitting in The Sugar Bowl in Old Town Scottsdale having lunch with Annette Mahon, enjoying the blue Arizona skies, and loving the mid-seventies temperatures. Annette is the author of five quilting mysteries about the St. Rose Quilting Bee group. Now, in early March, I’m looking out my living room window at the snow blanketing my Illinois yard and contemplating the zero temperatures.
At least the sky is blue. Today.
It always stirs my thoughts when I talk with other writers. Something Annette said caused me to consider the expert sources I use for my mysteries. She explained that the Scottsdale Police Department has a public relations person whom writers can call for answers to their police procedure questions. That thought stayed in my head for several days. The entire Phoenix/Scottsdale area is so huge that comparing it to my little town is ludicrous. I don’t think we have a specific public relations person designated as “the one most likely to return calls to authors.”
Annette and I are members of the Sisters in Crime Scottsdale chapter called Desert Sleuths, and at a recent meeting we heard a Phoenix police detective discuss the procedures used for arresting people in the metro area. The scenarios were quite different from those used in our little town. Needless to say, the severity
of the crimes differs considerably between Phoenix (pop. 4.3 million) and Monmouth, Illinois (pop. 10,000 on a good day.) One trip walking past the waiting room of a Mesa, Arizona emergency room told me that. Gun shots, stabbings, and domestic violence aside, those scenes are rare here in our little hamlet.
I remember thinking, “Gosh, I have such great experts I can call and have a sit-down, face-to-face, interview. It might cost me a cup of coffee, but I come away with amazing information that finds its way into my mysteries. While most of my experts have worked earlier in more populated places, they now deal with small town crime and police procedures. That’s what I’m writing about, so I’m really fortunate to have these resources at my fingertips.” Every expert I’ve interviewed in the past year has been pleasant, funny, professional, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable.
I also have secret weapons. Over my many high school teaching years, I came into contact with some 4,000 students. Many of them are now in positions where they have information I need. A quick
phone call: (“Really? You got a ‘D’ on that Moby Dick paper twenty-five years ago? What can I say? I was young and inexperienced. On the other hand, can you tell me…”) The internet has made it speedier to contact these former students when their areas of expertise collide with information I need to know. Believe me, I’m not beneath calling in a few favors, just like my protagonist, retired teacher Grace Kimball.
Back in our town I must admit that as a first time mystery novelist I was a little worried about calling these “expert” people. What if they didn’t want to talk to me? After all, I don’t really have a murder mystery published yet. I’m just writing it and maybe I won’t find a publisher. Then I had one of “those talks.”
“What’s the worst thing they can say?”
“So, they say ‘no.’ That just means you go to Plan B, right?”
“Right. And Plan B is?”
As it turned out, I discovered that people are very pleased, enthusiastic, and flattered to talk about their work. Here I
am, a novelist who used to be an English teacher, and who knows nothing about bullets, dead bodies, or arrest warrants, but I’m learning fast. Yes, I’ve done my research from books on these topics, but the real expert is so much more informative. Believe me, people who are police officers or coroners are happy to fill me in on those details–especially the grizzly ones–and I’m happy to give them credit for doing so. Readers today call authors out when they see errors in crime procedures so it pays to be accurate. So far no expert has turned me down, and each has been amazing at clarifying answers to my questions and making suggestions that I might not have considered.
These unsung heroes are going to be the subjects of several blog posts over the next few weeks. I plan to begin with a post about how an author might go about preparing and doing an interview when working with expert sources. Then I’ll follow up with descriptions of the experts I used and the kinds of information I gained from talking with them. I’ll discuss “my” police chief, fire chief, coroner, and police detective. I know it doesn’t have quite the lilt or alliteration of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it works for me.