Research That Rocks

What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

unknown-3These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:


  • YouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence Agency— According to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

 Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource.  “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!” 51vfdcq7jml-_sy412_bo1204203200_

It was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

cover_temple_mount_medcover_fine_dangerous_season_med_02For his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction. The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

unknown-1 Her only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

 How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook.  “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book.  “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!




Thriller Writing

Author photo and book jacket



“Thrillers… lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival…”                                                Catherine Linka



What really makes a thriller an I can’t put it down read? That’s the question author Tami Lewis Brown and I wanted to explore. And what better place to start than with our own amazing master thriller writer, Catherine Linka, author of A Girl Called Fearless and the upcoming A Girl Undone.

Below is the first part of our two part series on Linka’s successful approach to YA thriller writing (or any genre for that matter). In the coming months we’ll be dissecting a few more thriller reads to see what makes them tick.

Catherine Linka calls her tense, tightly plotted dystopian novel, A Girl Called Fearless, both a love story and a thriller. Set in present day Los Angeles, Fearless is the compelling story of American teen, Avie, whose sequestered and controlled life is suddenly upended when she’s contracted to marry an older man. In Avie’s world, girls are now a precious and expensive commodity, after a synthetic hormone introduced in beef has killed fifty million women. The only way out for Avie is escape to Canada. Avie’s activist friend Yates wants to help her to freedom, but things heat up when Avie and Yates fall in love, and Avie gains knowledge she shouldn’t about leaders in the US government, who are hunting her down to silence her.

Because A Girl Called Fearless is not only a love story and a thriller, but a political and social commentary on our times, we began by asking Linka about the opportunities and issues writers face when including major themes and statements in a thriller, and what reading she’d suggest for writers wanting to delve into the world of thrillers, and the possibilities they hold for writers.


Linka book jacket



Catherine Linka:

I think it’s exciting that writers are free to explore a huge range of themes in thrillers. Naturally, thrillers are perfectly suited to write about crime, murder, greed, and corruption, but they also lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival. Plus, they offer the chance to delve into both normal and pathological ways in which humans behave.

Look at Gone Girl. It poses interesting questions about how we perceive innocence and guilt. Or the new novel, The Girl on the Train that asks how can you know the truth of what you did when you can’t remember?

These darker, more intense themes fit well with YA. These thrillers are often survival stories in which the main character is seeking justice for a crime that has been committed or attempting to head off a crime that may be repeated.

And the backgrounds and personalities of the main characters can add layers to the themes. Tess Sharpe’s protagonist in Far From You is a recovering addict who’s broken her family’s trust. Can she regain it? Wick in Romily Bernard’s Find Me hacks in secret to make extra money in case she needs run from her comfortable foster home.  And the narrators of Stephanie Kuehn’s psychological thrillers Charm & Strange and Complicit make the reader question what is real and true in the narrator’s version of the story.

Not surprisingly, we don’t see a lot of thrillers in middle grade, but one book that does come to mind is Blue Baillet’s Hold Fast in which a girl who is trying to figure out why her librarian father disappeared, realizes she’s being followed. It’s a much grittier story than others Baillet has written, but it explores themes of family and loyalty that put it squarely in middle grade fiction.


Linka book jacket for Undone



Of course I’d suggest writers read a lot of thrillers, both adult and YA. First, to get an instinctive feel for the genre and then to determine which type of thriller resonates with them: action, crime, literary, political, or psychological.

I consider Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys as thrillers, because even though they are historical fiction, the tension and threats ramp up and the character’s survival is clearly at stake.

But I also encourage writers to read about subjects, places, time periods or cultures that they’re passionately interested in. Really successful thriller writers often bring a unique twist to a story.

A great example of this is the best-selling The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro which is set in the Boston and New York art world.  Shapiro’s fascination with Isabella Gardner led her to write this story about a talented painter lured into painting a forgery who becomes tangled in a dangerous web of deceit.

In YA, Stephanie Kuehn won the Morris Award with her psychological thriller Charm & Strange. Her story is built on her deep knowledge of the human psyche which she undoubtedly gained while pursuing a Phd in clinical psychology.

For me, the choice was to write a political thriller, because I’m a total news junkie. People always ask me how much research I had to do to create my world, but it was actually very little, because I read about politics every day.


Catherine Linka is an author, and a childrens and young adult book buyer for an independent bookstore in Southern California. She studied international politics at Georgetown University before getting a masters in business at the University of North Carolina. After years in sales, marketing and advertising, she reimagined her life and pursued a masters in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of SCBWI, and a recurring speaker at SCBWI-Central Cal Writers Day. She blogs about writing here at Catherine is married and lives with her husband in the San Gabriel foothills. A Girl Called Fearless is her debut novel. The sequel A Girl Undone, will be released this spring.

                                                                                    —Zu Vincent