Thursday, May 5, 2016

Lisa Black--The Joys of Research

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? 



  1. This is great, Lisa . . . thanks for a most interesting post. Who knew the background of a plate of spaghetti held such importance? And a positive reason for ironing?
    Yes, the research bug is alive and well and living in our house.

    I enjoy finding facts in the books I read as long as I don’t feel like I’m being lectured and the storyline isn’t abandoned to the fact-sharing.

  2. Of course a woman figured out the magnetic strip. The spaghetti made me think of all those crazy 50's cookbooks, with "exotic" recipes, a lot of which used Jello and prepared Mayo, both of which were new then.

    Many times in my life someone has asked me, "How did you know that?" So often it was from reading well-researched fiction, like yours.

    Cleveland State is my oldest daughter's alma mater, Lisa. And Fingerprinting was my favorite subject in my own college experience (1969). If I'd known it would become such a science, my life might have turned out quite dfferently. Back then, detectives used linen counter magnifying lenses to count ridges, and make arch, loop and whorl identification. It was very hard on the eyes.

  3. And don't forget the fondue! when I got married in the 70's (starter marriage LOL), every bride was receiving a fondue pot as a gift.

    I do like research, but also worry that it will slow me down on writing and slow down the writing. Lisa, it sounds like you have a good sense of what to leave in and what to discard. Can you say more about how you figure that out?

  4. This is fascinating, Lisa - I so agree, it's always a challenge to get the food, the music, the movies, the hairstyles right. My new book is about a doll maker/collector/repairer so I discovered the differences between porcelain, china, composition, plastic, etc.... dolls and which ones collectors covet. Also how you get addicted and detox from narcotic painkilles and I HAD to take a trip to beautiful Beaufort South Carolina where the book is set.

    Lisa, my "ears" pricked up when you said one of your books was self-published. You have SUCH a successful career, so I'd love to hear about that experience... and would you do it again?

  5. I enjoy a well-researched book, because the details give an authenticity to the fictional world the author is creating. So, weave those details into the fabric of the story--but don't point out that the "X" was just invented, etc. That stops the action and pulls me out of the story (sort of a "Look--I did my research" moment). If your characters are using an item or a technology, I'm going to assume the author has done their research. And if they've done it well, I'm going to be so engrossed in the story that the details will seamlessly enrich my experience of reading.

    Looking forward to the new book, Lisa--the cover is chilling!

  6. Fascinating stuff. I love that research can come from the most unlikely of places.

    Take HAMILTON (the musical) for instance. Of course, this is a historical piece, so it makes sense that we would learn things. But some of what we learn is actually quite interesting and unexpected.

    For instance, did you know that Aaron Burr's grandfather was Jonathon Edwards (author of the Puritan sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," so familiar to English Majors the world over)? Like the rest of the musical, this tiny piece of information sheds new light on Burr himself.

  7. And cans of cream of mushroom soup, Karen. Lots of cream of mushroom soup.

    What were you studying that you learned fingerprinting in college?

  8. Lucy, I have to remind myself that I'm not writing a textbook. I try to leave in only what a) the reader absolutely has to know in order to understand the implications of the forensic test, or b) what gives them a quick overview of a forensic test that they may not already know or c) is really, really interesting.
    Of course what I find interesting may not be what everyone else finds interesting.
    And sometimes my agent and/or editor has to tell me that I need to break up the blocks.

  9. Hallie, I have three self-published books. Two I wrote before I was published and one I've written since but it was a weird combination of murder mystery and spy thriller and my agent didn't think she could sell it. (I love it, frankly.) So I put them on Amazon under a pen name just to see what would happen. Result: not much. At all. But they sell a few copies here and there. I wouldn't want to do it for all my books because I simply don't have the time or inclination or gumption to do the self-promotion necessary.

  10. I am dying to see Hamilton!! But since I'm not near New York, I will have to wait until next year when the national tour gets going.

  11. Police Science, which was a fairly new, two-year associates degree program. It was really meant for men coming out of Vietnam and on the GI Bill, but I and the other woman in the program didn't know that until after we started. It was abundantly obvious that women were not going to become detectives by taking that course of study, at that time. I'm so glad things changed, although it took several years.

  12. Lisa, from a long-time fan here, I think you do a great job of giving just enough information to be interesting and to explain things without bogging down the story. I find the forensic information fascinating. And I'm so intrigued by the story about Prague--I'll have to read that book!

    Love the cover of That Darkness, by the way.

    Are there going to be more Theresa MacLean books???

  13. Love, love, love research, but had no idea about the magnetic strip. So we have a chocolate bar to thank for the microwave and an iron for the magnetic strip. Can you imagine the first production line, ladies and gentlemen, fire up your irons! Great information. I love to discover little tidbits like that. I had a turn of the century cookbook that had a recipe for "spaghetti noodles." Not only did the recipe describe them, it explained that they were a difficult to obtain delicacy, but if you were lucky enough to get some...

    Your books sound wonderful. Definitely on my TBR list.

  14. Actually you guys are making me feel guilty because the next Gardiner/Renner book has a ton of research in it (about the newspaper/news media industry) and some readers will probably find it a bit much. And the 3rd, the one I'm writing now, deals with the 2008 financial crisis and housing bust and I KNOW a lot of people are not going to find the topic as fascinating as I do. My agent is probably going to choke when she sees it.

    I would like to write more Theresa MacLean books...I had some plans for her personal life that I would like to finish up. It depends on how hard-working I can prod myself to be.

    I love the cover of That Darkness too. I am a little nervous that the story is about someone killing the worst of the worst criminals in gritty alleys in downtown Cleveland, and the art department somehow came up with a country meadow with a wrought iron fence...but it is a striking cover.

  15. Ann in Rochester.May 5, 2016 at 11:36 AM

    I learn so much from the books I read, and I admire all you researchers out there. The only things I ever research have to do with health and wellness, mostly so I can come up with the most current answer. You know, being the camp nurse and all that.

    I've no idea how you come up with a plot, never mind all the details. It's quite a feat. As a reader I expect the writer to know EVERYTHING I know about X. And Y. And Z. I'm betting every other reader feels the same. So if you stick in an anachronism, Shakespeare's clocks for instance, I get distracted, go look the distraction up, etc. it's -- uh -- distracting.

    However what I don't know, and there's a lot, doesn't hurt me at all. Just don't have Jane Eyre cooking with Bisquick!

  16. When I need help with health and wellness I ask my sister, a nurse, and other family members. We have a lot of doctors and nurses in my family!
    I also have to ask my sisters about children, since I don't have any. Such as 'at what age should a child be starting on solid food' etc.

  17. It always gobsmacks me when I come across an author, usually here on Jungle Reds, that has escaped my attention. Well, not entirely, as I remember you coming across my radar, Lisa, a while back. However, as with so many things, if I don't write it down, it can get lost in the fray. I'm a great list maker, and if I fail to put something on one of my lists, then, I might miss an important item, like you, Lisa. So, I have added you and That Darkness to my TBR list and Amazon wish list. I've also added your Theresa MacLean series to my TBR Series list. Let me add, too, how much I love the cover of That Darkness. Outstanding!

    Research. I'm a fan, both of doing research and authors who do theirs. Although I'm not an author, I am a book reviewer and blogger, and I do a lot commenting online. It's common for me to be looking up something that pertains to the topic on which I'm commenting or writing in another window while writing my response. I'm sometimes a bit carried away in my research hopping, as I'm reading a fiction book and want to look up something about a place or event, or I'm writing and looking up information. One topic often leads to another, and I find myself having gone from places to visit in Southwest England to Burgh Island to Agatha Christie to art deco hotels to tidal islands to Devon cream to... You get the idea. Research to me is a magical land of connect the dots. When I was working on my Masters in library science, one of my favorite parts was the research paper at the end.

    So, thank you for being here today, Lisa, and reminding me that I have some catching up to do in reading your well-researched books. I find forensics fascinating, and I'm so happy that I have this reading to look forward to.

  18. My grandmother never served two things: spaghetti and Caro corn syrup because she ate so much of both during the Depression -- yes, because it was cheap. I need to work that into a story some day.

    And as a Buffalo native, there IS no other recipe for chicken wings and I will duel anyone who says otherwise.

    Lisa, the book sounds fascinating. More for the TBR pile!

  19. I love having the facts! LOve. If people realize it's true, all the cooler. Congratulations on our wild success!! zoo

    In my day…it was fondue.

  20. Lucy/Roberta, so funny! You and me, sister.

    ANd LIsa, Truth Be Told (:-)) I love the stories behind the housing crisis. Didn't hurt Michael Lewis's career...

  21. I will go all fangirl on my Great Good Friend Google. Bestest thing ever.
    That and for the less intellectual pursuits.

  22. I love research from my time in school and in my job. Often I will read a book or see a movie that I enjoy and then I find myself digging into additional books on the subject.

    I have Takeover in my TBR pile, and I am going to pick up That Darkness as well.

    I also find the financial collapse of 2008 very interesting, so I look forward to that book as well.

  23. I do often think about life before Google! And about all the money I spent shipping stacks of books back every time I went to England... Not that you can find everything online, or that what you do find can take the place of very specialized books, but it's still great to think, "What time does the sun rise in London on May 15th," and to be able to look it up.

  24. Sorry, off topic but have to ask. Does anyone else think the man in the 1930s photo looks like Lee Harvey Oswald! Oh, and I love the vintage fridge. Want it.

  25. Mmm...I don't really think so. Of course I've seen more pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald than I have ever cared to because my husband is a conspiracy nut.

    My aunt, I swear, has has the same refrigerator for as long as I can remember, rounded edges, big honkin' latch like that. Still works.

  26. Your post made me prick up my ears, then hang my head in shame. I've blogged (at under the title "The Joys of Research" -- but not about the serious and difficult problems you've mastered. Mine concerned my need to avoid mistakes when incorporating two ferrets into a mystery novel. I learned things about ferret poop that will have to go into a warning section at the end: too naughty for a cozy!

    Heidi Wilson