DEBORAH CROMBIE: I love research nerds--maybe because I am one... And when I find another author who really and truly believes that research is a joy, I know I've found a kindred soul. But Lisa Black is an honest-to-goodness certified research nerd--she's a forensic scientist who writes novels with characters who are forensic scientists. The best of both worlds, I say. Not to mention that she is a gripping story teller who puts all that research to good use. Here's Lisa on what else but--The Joys of Research!
LISA BLACK: The surest argument against the idea that the NSA is actually reading all our emails is the fact that they have not yet shown up at my door. I write murder mysteries for a—well, not for a living certainly, but with great regularity. Among the topics I have researched online are: decapitation as method of murder, how to mix up plastic explosives in your garage, the water supply of New York City, crystal meth recipes, the system used to organize and track international shipping containers, and the location of every nuclear power plant in the United States. No one seems to have noticed.
Research can be the most fun part of writing, because you get to sit around reading books and tell yourself that you’re doing important, hard work. (Plus one looks quite intellectual holding a copy of Reflections on the Financial Crisis on the subway.) Sometimes it can be frustrating—I discovered, for instance, that decapitation as a method of murder is so rare outside a political realm that there simply isn’t any research on it. And in my current book, That Darkness, I found that while a truly objective vigilante such as Charles Bronson portrayed has been quite popular on the screen, they don’t actually exist in real life.
But you run across the most interesting tidbits in the annals of history.
In Trail of Blood I researched life during the Depression. You know how in every group of years there is some trendy food that the hip people in the know are eating? Like in the 1980s it was sushi, and today it’s all these unusual grains like quinoa. In the mid-1930s it was…spaghetti. A recent import that used—scandalously—spices, it became the daring new thing. Young couples threw spaghetti parties..,much as around the time I got married everyone was making buffalo chicken wings. (There was only one recipe: 50% melted butter, 50% Red Hot. Still the best IMHO.) I imagine pasta also had the advantage of being relatively inexpensive, an important factor during the Depression. I did work this into the story, as one more desire of James Miller’s wife who felt frustrated with her husband for not taking the payoffs like the other cops.
I also learned that education became mandatory in the U.S. partly because of experiences in the first World War. The military draft couldn’t provide enough officer candidates from its rolls--not enough young men knew how to read and write. But citizens debated mandatory education since it would also apply to children who didn’t really need it, such as minorities and, you know, girls.
In Defensive Wounds, I discovered that those plastic cards with the magnetic strips actually come in two varieties: high density, which store information, such as your credit cards and driver’s license, and low density, which are made for simpler uses such hotel room doors. I could work that into the book, but not, alas, the story of how a man named Forest Parry invented the cards. He had the cards, he had the magnetic strip, but he couldn’t get one to stick to the other. He came home one day where his wife, like so many wives in the early 1960s, ironed clothes. She asked what had him looking so frustrated so he handed her the card and the strip. She used the iron to stick them together and voila, a technology was born.
In my self-published e-book The Prague Project, I discovered a million fascinating facts about WWII, the secret tank factory inside a mountain, my ancestral home of Bohemia, and the tunnels under the city of Prague. But I also found that in 1960 the U.S. Army had a network of tunnels under a Greenland ice cap to house nuclear reactors and a missile complex. The idea made sense—the missiles would be close to Russia and invisible from the air, and if the reactors suffered a meltdown, well, they’d be a safe distance from any general population. [Similar to a nuclear submarine. The idea of a disaster in a populated area is why a nuclear-powered plane, pardon the pun, never got off the ground.] However glaciers in the area turned out to be moving at a not-so-glacial pace and the facilities really were very very cold, so the camp was abandoned after five years and nearly eight million dollars.
I couldn’t work that into the book, but I did get in the meaning of ‘defenestration’—to kill someone by throwing them out a window.
Sometimes my job points me toward the research. When a detective enlisted me in the case of a fifteen year old runaway I discovered NamUs, a national missing persons database that anyone can search and add to. We did find the young girl, but I recreated the situation with a much more tragic outcome in my current book.
In That Darkness, Crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner’s world shifts when she notices a pattern, a similarity among wildly different murder victims. Both forensics and footwork lead Maggie to an untenable conclusion, and only she can decide what she will sacrifice to do what’s right when she encounters Jack Renner, a killer who simply wants to make the world a safer place.
But Maggie Gardiner is not safe. And, until she can draw Jack Renner into the light, neither is anyone else.
DEBS: I'm still laughing over spaghetti... How exotic!!! And I do often wonder if someone is checking my searches. I did research white phosphorous grenades and blowing one up in St. Pancras Station for the last book. I kept waiting for Special Branch to show up on my doorstep...
Here's more about real-life Lisa:
I spent the happiest five years of my life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. After ten years as a secretary, I went back to school to get a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Cleveland State University. In my job as a forensic scientist at the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office, I analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes.
I had my life sorted out just the way I liked it until my husband got fed up with Cleveland snow and moved us to Florida, 1400 miles away from my family and my career. Not that I'm bitter or anything. Now I work as a latent print examiner for the city of Cape Coral, Florida, police department, working mostly with fingerprints and crime scenes.
I've lectured at writer's conventions and appeared on panels. In my life as a writer I'm a member of Sisters In Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. In the other half of my double life, as a forensic specialist, I'm a member of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, the International Association for Identification, the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts and am a Certified Latent Print Examiner. I have had over 976 hours of instruction in forensic topics and have testified in court over 65 times, none of which you really care about unless you're interviewing me for a job.
I think this is fascinating. REDS and readers, do you have the research bug? And how much of the facts do you like in your novels?