Research: taking your book to the next level

Like everything else to do with writing, how and when you decided to conduct your research is a matter of style. In all honesty, you need to know yourself as a writer, because research can quickly become procrastination in a fancy suit.  

I chose to write my “first draft” (I’m not even sure what this means anymore) of Every Time He Dies before I started researching. The purpose of this exploratory draft was to get to know my characters better, to figure out the beats of the story, what the story was actually about and whose story it was. 

It was only later, during the revision process, that I fired up Google and went to town. 

Every Time He Dies is a mystery novel that centres around one major crime. As a result, I was Googling some pretty crazy things, such as: 

  • The decomposition rate of human bodies that are: buried, exposed to air, weighed down in water
  • The decomposition rate of human bodies in Summer vs Winter
  • Australia’s VLAD laws
  • Drug importations
  • Gang crime in Australia
  • Location of Police Academies in Australia
  • How do you embalm a body?
  • Crime scene investigation
  • Forensic evidence
  • Criminal Law, Australia

Don’t worry, I always made sure that I Googled “How to write a crime novel” before and after every research session. I also Googled “Puppy Images” as a palette cleanser.

Google is a great place to get some basic background information, but it can’t replace one-on-one interviews with industry professionals/experts. 

There are some details and nitty-gritty facts that you just can’t find online. 

Research adds credibility and believability to your writing.
Research adds credibility to your writing. 

Two of the central characters in ETHD have unusual jobs, Daff is an embalmer and Jon Lawrence is a Detective. Had I relied on Google to supply all my information, there would have been some seriously big errors in my manuscript. 

The thing is, Australia is pretty small. There was a ton of information on police departments and funeral homes in the US and the UK, but I struggled to find detail information on how these services operated in Australia.

Fortunately, I have a background in Journalism, so … I have no problems “cold calling” businesses and departments, introducing myself and seeing where my (well rehearsed) speel gets me. 

Cold calls can be effective, but of course, a far better option is to tap into your existing network. Trust me, someone will know exact person you need to speak to — you just have to ask!

For example, a couple of years ago, I enrolled in a masters course. On the first day, I met another student who was also writing a crime novel. Now, here’s the cool part, Greg was a former detective. Hallelujah! 

Greg decided that the masters course wasn’t for him, but I was smart enough to get his email address and to shout him a coffee in exchange for information. After that, I felt totally comfortable to send Greg an email whenever I needed a bit more detail about police procedure, lingo or his thoughts on certain “what would happen if?” scenarios. 

 I should also add that Greg is now a published author, his debut novel, Bordertown, came out earlier this year — so go buy it!

Bordertown by Gregory James
Bordertown by Gregory James

Later that same year, I was volunteering at a children’s writing festival, while waiting in the green room I started chatting with a lady who was on the cusp of having her debut novel, Becoming Aura, published (it wasn’t until four hours later that I found out she’d won the Queensland Literary Prize that year, the sneak). Anyway, we had a great time and I was desperate to make some new writing friends, so we exchanged phone numbers and organised a coffee date. 

We talked about the writing life and our current projects while sipping away at our cappacinos. When Liz found out that I was writing a crime novel, she immediately put me in contact with a friend of hers who was also a crime writer and an active police officer. Yet again, I sent an email off to a total stranger, offered to buy her coffee and then picked her brain. 

Here’s the thing …

When it comes to research, you’re never going to find facts or stories online that are as good as the ones shared by people who have lived that experience. 

This might sound all very easy, and look, finding cop contacts actually was pretty easy — I once exchanged email address with a cop [also a writer] after he’d given me a fine! Miss no opportunity, people! — but it took me two years to make contact with an embalmer. 

Research and writing
Me: waiting to find an embalmer that would talk to me!

At the time, I was studying away from home and was renting a spare room with a family. I had been cold calling and going into small funeral homes in the hopes that someone would be willing to talk to me. They weren’t. 

Exasperated, I was sharing this experience with my live-in family one night — thinking that at least I’d get a laugh out of this scenario — when someone said, “Why didn’t you say you wanted to talk to someone? I went to school with a fella whose family owns the biggest funeral parlour business on the coast.” She open her phone, found said person on Facebook and sent them a PM. Fast forward a week and I spent three hours interviewing one of the top embalmers in Australia. 

The crazy thing is, I had told everyone in that family what my book was about, but it wasn’t until I said that I wanted to interview someone from that industry that this connection finally happened. 

Here are some of the things I found out through my in-person emails that I couldn’t find out online:

  • Cop lingo
  • Australian police culture
  • What a typical day looks like (for a cop and an embalmer)
  • What training is involved
  • Career trajectory
  • The fact that Australian embalm procedures differs from the US and the UK because of our unique climate
  • What embalming chemicals smell like
  • What embalming rooms look and smell like
  • The typical equipment used every day 
  • Unusual requests/weirdest cases
  • The physical layout of workspaces
  • The dynamics between professionals, their colleagues and how they interact with the public
  • The worst part of the job
  • The best part of the job
  • How a cop/embalmer answers the question, “So, what do you do for a living?”
    (Best Answer: “Bricklayer, it has way less follow up questions.” [I may have put a similar line in the book, it was too good not too!])

It was these details that added credibility, authenticity and intrigue to the book. Several of my beta-readers said that the embalming scenes in ETHD were among their favourite because they “were so different.” 

I also interviewed psychics, mechanics, nurses and pharmacists, but that’s a whole other blog. 

Research can make a scene in your novel really pop
Interviewing an expert will provide you with insights and details that you won’t find online.

Finding the right professionals to interview can take a lot of time or no time at all, but it’s always worth the effort.

The two biggest boons to one-on-one interviewing are:

1. Access to fascinating and unique stories, details, information and insight into a particular workplace’s culture
2. Talking to an actual person is (often) far more interesting and quicker than trying to find information online. 

This second point is particularly important. Once you’ve conducted your initial interview with a professional, you have now created an invaluable resource. Over time, you will create your own customised Google: a network of contacts who will provide you with the exact information that you are looking for. 

The internet is a great source of information, but nothing beats direct contact with an industry professional.  


Every Time He Dies

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER + GIVEAWAY

‘Who knew that a book about murder, grief and disintegrated families could be so funny?’ – Paul WilliamsEverytimeHeDies_3D

‘A unique modern mystery that is one part psychic practices and one part police procedural. The fast pace, dynamic characters and intricate plot will keep readers hooked until the end.’ – Gregory James

‘It’s rare to find an Australian-set book of this scope and genre that could stand among its international peers and hold its own, but I won’t be surprised to see this book find its success in all corners of the crime genre reading world.’ – Shayla Morgansen

‘Can someone please make this into a TV series? This is a fabulous read and I want to see Liam and Daff on the small screen.’ – Carol Seeley


CLICK BELOW TO PREORDER NOW

Amazon Australia

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Barns & Noble

Kobo

Glose


PREORDER GIVEAWAY!

Everyone who preorders a copy of Every Time He Dies (paperback or ebook) will go into the draw to win one of THREE MAJOR GRAND PRIZES.

To celebrate the release of Every Time He Dies, I’m running an EPIC book giveaway. The three grand prize packs include signed copies of:

🎉Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway
🎉Bordertown by Gregory James
🎉Haunted by Shayla Morgansen
🎉The Spark Ignites by Kathleen Kelly
🎉Every Time He Dies by Tara Louise East

IMG_1576

If you preorder a copy, simply take a snapshot of your proof of purchase and fill out the entry form here. 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Everyone who preorders a copy will ALSO receive the first five chapters straight to their inbox. Not only will this tide you over until the book arrives, but it’s also my way of saying thanks!

The Downside to Being a Precrastinator

We’re all familiar with the term procrastination – and some of us may have even experienced it! – but have you heard of the term precrastination? When I first heard this term, I thought it was a cheeky way to describe ‘doers,’ but the more I read about it, the more I realised how perfectly this term describes the way that I manage my to-do list.

Basically, a precrastinator is someone who prefers to complete a task as soon as possible. They like to get things done well in advance. This approach is particularly relevant to short term tasks such as email, errands and minor requests*.

Many of us have long term goals that may include writing a novel, completing a degree, or increasing our fitness. Intellectually, we understand that these goals take a lot of time and a lot of energy to achieve.

If we are chugging along on one of our long term goals and a short term tasks suddenly pops up on our to-do list, a precrastinator will rush to complete that task in order to get on with their ‘real work’. Many of these tasks are lopped onto our already full plates through the evil channels of email, social media and our mobile phones. Ah, the joys of being constantly contactable…

Maybe you’re in the middle of a writing session when you receive an email from a colleague requesting you to edit a journal article, or a friend texts asking for your lasagne recipe, or you duck into the kitchen for a cup of tea and the kettle croaks it.

Working on your masterpiece has now become impossible because all you can think about is that your colleague needs that article to be edited, your friend needs that recipe and someone has to buy a new kettle. How can you possibly write another chapter with these pesky demands nipping at your heels?

There is a couple of things at play here. Firstly, there is a belief that these short term tasks are urgent. We spin ourselves into a frenzy as we tend to these tasks in an attempt to get them off our to-do list as quickly as possible. Of course, we should also take a moment to acknowledge the dopamine hit that happens when we complete these short term tasks. Ah, instant gratification. Progress has been made! Or has it?

This habit can have two consequences. If you allow yourself to be constantly distracted and interrupted by short term tasks, this will drag out the completion of your long term goals. Alternatively, if you continue to focus solely on short term tasks, then you may never reach your long term goal. In which case, your precrastinating has turned into procrastinating.

If you indulge in this form of procrastinating too much, you may develop a habit of rushing through ALL the tasks on your to-do list. Instead of taking the time to complete a task properly, you may find yourself in a vicious cyclic pattern as you hurry to complete one task then another and another. Who wants to live their life as though it were one big to-do list?

Obviously, some tasks can be completed quickly, but if you rush to complete the edits your colleague request, if you shot off an email to your friend, or if you hurry out the door to buy a new kettle – you may find yourself in a sea of regret!

What if you miss a bunch of typos? What if you email your friend a confidential file instead of a recipe? What if you buy a full-price kettle instead of one on sale because you were too busy to look?

When you rush through a task you may fail to give the time, attention or consideration that it truly needs. The result? Your colleague doesn’t ask you to edit another paper. Your friend reads that confidential material. You regret your quick purchase.

Precrastinating isn’t necessarily a problem. There is something good about clearing the decks so that you can give your full attention to your long term goals, but you need to be honest with yourself, are you simply tending to minor tasks or are you procrastinating under the guise of being efficient? You need to ask yourself questions like:

  • is my procrastinating leading to mediocre work?
  • Is it harming my reputation?
  • Is it causing me to rush through long term goals instead of giving them the time and energy they actually need?

It’s not very often that I EVER defend procrastinating, but there can be benefits to completing tasks at the last minute or at least delaying your starting of them. If you have a month to prepare a paper and you rush to write, revise and submit it in a week, you’ve just lost three weeks of ‘marinating’ time. Procrastinating isn’t (always) a dressed-up form of laziness or resistance, SOMETIMES, it is a way to allow deeper reflections, thoughts, insights and connections to occur. A person who does not write a paper until a few days before the deadline may wind up writing a better paper because they’ve allowed themselves to really think through their argument and to find some stellar sources.

There’s nothing wrong with being either a precrastinator or a procrastinator. The only times these behaviours do becoming troublesome is when they start interfering with your long terms goals.

*Of course, precrastinating also extend to medium sized tasks like re-planting a garden bed, servicing your car or building a website.