I am delighted to welcome guest blogger Dana King!
Research can be a lot of fun. Should be, actually. Learning something new about a topic you’re interested in is always entertaining. It’s part of what separates us from lower forms of life like fish and birds and cockroaches and science deniers. Research that becomes drudgery is probably an indication you’re either doing it wrong, or the topic doesn’t suit you. Write about something else. Life’s too short. (We’re talking about fiction here. If you’re a technical writer, suck it up. As Hyman Roth said, this is the life you chose.)
I hold a Master’s degree in music, which is only important because it provides context for the story I’m about to tell. I took a course called “Chamber Music Interpretation,” taught by a charming and insightful man named Benjamin Zander. First day of class, Ben sat us down and explained the fact of musical life to us: We had all chosen to devote our lives to music. (Obviously the mileage varied among those listening to Ben’s speech, or you wouldn’t be reading this.) This was, in Ben’s eyes, a wonderful and noble thing, to bring beauty to others. It was also not without cost. We could never again merely listen to music as entertainment. Any music we heard—even a string version of “Poker Face” in an elevator—needed to be actively listened to. What was done well? What didn’t work? How would we do it? Not that we shouldn’t enjoy music—of course we should—but mere enjoyment was no longer enough. I internalized that lesson so well that to this day, thirty-plus years later, I can’t have music around me when I write.
What does this have to do with researching your book? The same rules apply if you want to make it as a writer. Anything you read—anything—has potential to serve your craft. People usually think of this as writing advice. Ways to drop in back story, set a scene, apply dialog tags unobtrusively. It’s also topic research, at least if the source is trusted. You think Michael Connelly knows a little about how police investigations work? Does Joe Wambaugh have a feel for street cops? Changing media, did The Wire nail how drug gangs work and how cops can investigate them? True, The Wire’s techniques are dated now but the principles of investigation and interplay between characters likely hasn’t changed much.
The same is true of daily life. News stories and even non-crime shows and books are full of tidbits you can use. Watch people the next time you grab a sandwich alone or are stuck waiting for a plane or a friend. I’m not saying to make it a compulsion. Just pay attention and be aware of serendipitous opportunities. File them away in your memory or your journal. (William Goldman once said he didn’t keep a notebook with ideas because he’d remember any idea worth writing about. I believe that’s true, to a point. The context in which something sparks a greater idea changes over time. I’ve found it nice to have a journal I can peruse to see if an idea that I liked enough to write down but not enough to follow up on might appeal to me more now.)
(Spoiler alert!) True story: My first Nick Forte detective novel, A Small Sacrifice, is about a crime boss who wants Forte dead. Forte has information that may lead an even bigger crime boss to want the other guy dead. The Big boss tells Forte to go away for a few says, these things have a way of sorting themselves out. In the original, Forte goes away until he gets a phone call to tell him it’s safe to come back.
I worked hard on that ending to make it as credible as I could. Problem was, it was also anticlimactic. The story’s resolution happens off stage. I pondered this for a while until for reasons that are still not clear to me, the end of the movie Three Days of the Condor came to mind. The result was for Forte to come back and arrange to be alone with the guy who wanted to kill him, only to have the hitter hired by said mob boss show up. Forte figures he’s a dead man until the hit man kills the mob boss. Why? The bigger boss hired him to kill the other guy, and the big boss is who the hitter will answer to when this all shakes out. The ending must have worked all right. The book received a Shamus nomination.
Is that plagiarism? Hell, no. It’s paying attention. It’s finding things in the world around you—wherever they are and whatever they are—and finding ways to bend them to your purposes. Don’t limit yourself by believing research consists of looking things up in the hope of finding something useful. Be ready for when something useful finds you.
RESURRECTION MALL by Dana King
A Penns River Crime Novel Series, Book 3
As if things aren’t bad enough in Penns River, development and funding of a new religious-themed mall grinds to a halt when heavily-armed assassins cut down five leaders of the town’s fledgling drug trade while eating lunch in the food court. The television minister behind the mall has associates not normally associated with a ministry, outside drug gangs may be muscling into town, and the local mob boss could have an angle of his own. The cops have this and all the usual local activity to contend with in a story that extends beyond the borders of Penns River.
Praise for RESURRECTION MALL …
“Dana King’s Resurrection Mall is a patchwork of desperation from a depressed river town written with genuine style and grit.” ›Reed Farrel Coleman, New York Times bestselling author of What You Break
“Another thoughtful, taut, suspense filled novel from one of America’s best new writers, the great Dana King.” ›Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy trilogies
“Resurrection Mall is a brilliant crime novel that deserves to win every award in sight. One of the best of the year.” ›Tim Hallinan, author of the Poke Rafferty, Junior Bender, and Simeon Grist mystery series
“Dana King’s Resurrection Mall draws you in from the beginning, like sipping a fine single malt that opens wonderfully in the glass and you have to keep sipping until the end. King has a skillful grasp on character and dialogue, and that, along with his rock-solid police procedure, makes for a gripping, authentic read. I am a big fan of the Penn River series, and I want more.” ›David Swinson, author of The Second Girl
“Along with Worst Enemies and Grind Joint, Resurrection Mall elevates Dana King’s masterful Penns River crime series into the best hard-nosed police procedural since TV’s The Wire. Fun, gripping and thought-provoking, this third entry firmly plants ace Detective Ben ’Doc’ Dougherty in the ring with heavyweight crime-stoppers Elvis Cole, Alex Cross and Jack Reacher. All of King’s characters burst with no-nonsense, rural Pennsylvania life, but the author dives deepest into the most realistic and engaging crew of municipal cops I’ve encountered since Joseph Wambaugh. Don’t miss it!” ›Jack Getze, author and Fiction Editor for Spinetingler Magazine
“Complex characters, smooth dialogue and a hell of a plot make this one a winner. Rest easy, Ross Macdonald. The torch has been passed.” ›Terrence McCauley, author of Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows
RESURRECTION MALL by Dana King. Down & Out Books (May 1, 2017). ISBN 978-1943402656. 372p.
About the author
Dana lives in Maryland with The Beloved Spouse.
Find Dana King online …
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Dana-King/e/B005J5BU5K/
Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2084473.Dana_King