Thursday, June 11, 2009

Research: Not Always Work

It never occurred to me that I was writing procedurals until about halfway through my five-book Jack Austin PGA Tour series.

You’re probably either thinking I’m an idiot or I’m lying, but I’m just being brutally honest. In truth, it wasn’t until I’d gotten an idea for a new series that I realized all the research I had done on the PGA Tour, and the day-to-day life of players and their families, that I realized I was doing what police procedural writers do, except with golf. I was on a first-name basis with a staffer at PGA Tour Headquarters in Ponte Verde Beach, Fla. I had a player and his wife read drafts prior to publication. I was on the Tour’s media mailing list. I received GOLF WORLD weekly to stay current on all the professional tours worldwide. And, living in New England, I wrote a monthly column for a California-based golf magazine.

This took time and energy, but I never thought I was writing “procedurals.” Those were written by the guys who had to slog through DNA books and police manuals (which, if you haven’t read one, makes that chemistry textbook you read—or was supposed to have read—in high school, look fascinating).

I couldn’t have been writing procedurals because I was having too much fun. Golf writer James Dodson once wrote that when his kids asked why he watched so much golf on TV he told them he was “working.” Research can be fun, which is good because—thanks in large part to the great work done by Ed McBain, one of my heroes—if you’re writing contemporary crime fiction, you simply must do your homework. After McBain’s terrific 87th Precinct series, who would dare write a police procedural without doing ride-alongs and interviewing cops? Writers know McBain could develop a character fully in about 20 words (while the rest of us need a full scene to do the same), but readers are often most impressed by the fact that even after 54 87Th Precinct books, he never fell behind in his investigatory and procedural facts.

Not all writers enjoy research, and not all research is fun. But if you’re open and inquisitive, most of it can be. I recently got a hands-on demonstration from a border patrol agent in the techniques used to locate and track border jumpers. Agents call it “sign cutting”—techniques used to determine if landscape has been altered. During my “border tour” (ride along), we were traversing a two-rut field road when the agent stopped the truck and climbed out to examine a low-hanging tree. The incident led to a long conversation about the different sign-cutting methods used on the northern and southern borders respectively, and how weather impacts the processes. Likewise, in 2007, after setting a Jack Austin scene at the Deutche Bank Championship in Boston, my wife and I were generously sent seven-day passes to the event by the tournament director.

My first job after college was as a newspaper reporter for a daily paper in upstate New York, and, amidst the age of the “information highway,” I still believe the face-to-face sit-down with an expert provides the most timely and trustworthy information. So perhaps that explains why I think the biggest perk of thorough research is getting the chance to meet people you would never otherwise meet. You might not find sign cutting as fascinating as I do, but I guarantee riding with a border patrol agent and hearing about his/her career on the southern and northern borders would prove that research in fact can be enjoyable.


Vicki Delany said...

Coincidenly, I was out last night with the local O.P.P. (Ontario Provincial Police). Let me just say that it's nice to live in a peaceful community, not so nice to try to learn policing in one. But you're right, John, I still had fun.

Jared said...

And which upstate NY paper was that, might I ask?

John Corrigan said...

The Register Star (daily) and the Gazette Advertiser (weekly) in the Hudson valley.

Thanks for reading.

Charles benoit said...

You call that Upstate? Now you make me question your research!

Rick Blechta said...

It's upstate if you live in the Big Apple. There everything is upstate. As a matter of fact, when I was growing up, a big insult to hurl at someone who was uncool was to tell him (or her -- let's be inclusive), "You are SO upstate."

I've always wanted to use that in a book.