Friday, February 25, 2005
How I Got Here, Part 2
To answer some questions from comments posted yesterday. First, how did I start Vantage Point? I teamed up with someone already in the business who needed a writer. I got my name out there through her, then went out on my own. I never even had to advertise. Word of mouth built it into a full-time business.
Second--yes, my husband hired "Gavil." And I ate the souffle. Are you kiddin'? I'd never give that up.
Now--how did I research for Eyes of Elisha? The novel is in multiple third person POV. It covers the crime (a murder), the forensic investigation—both with the detectives’ and at the lab, and a trial. Since I’m not a homicide detective, nor a forensic lab tech, nor a prosecuting or defense attorney, I needed to talk to all of the above.
I sought out the homicide detective first—one of the best in the area. Writers, when you want something good, go to the top. The worst a person can do is tell you no. The guy was fabulous. He could give me some time because he wasn’t involved in a major trial at the moment. He came over to my home office. First I told him the general premise—here’s where the body is. You arrive at the scene, what do you do? I can still remember this guy pacing my office, acting out his part. I wrote notes furiously. I got from him not just the procedures, but the lingo. How a detective would think. The words he would use. These things are so important for making a novel feel real. Only when the detective’s words ran out did I present to him some twists in the story. Okay, now, what do I have to do to make these twists work? So he backtracked some, gave me ideas for how those twists could play out and be believable.
This two-part interview process turned out to be a very helpful technique with everyone I talked to. They were able to react to what’s presented in the crime, without any knowledge of the twists to come skewing how they’d handle the case.
Before I let the detective go, I asked him for references to a lab tech, prosecutor and defense attorney. Naturally, he’d worked with many people in these fields. He gave me top names in each. When I called each person, I’d use the name(s) from previous interviews. Invariably, they’d say, “Well, if he talked to you, I sure will too.”
I came away from those interviews with much working knowledge, and the ability to call the folks back with any new questions. I thought I’d covered my bases. Not. I’d only begun to research.
So one Saturday my husband and I were at our son’s soccer game. Standing next to me was a dad with a T shirt that had something on it about police or detectives. Being deep in the throes of my book, of course I had to jump at that. I asked what he did. His answer blew me away. He was a homicide profiler and had traveled the country, profiling criminals in unsolved crimes. Standing right next to me! Poor guy. Probably thought he’d never get away from me. I jumped up and down (more than the kids on the soccer field) and let loose with a barrage of questions. I ended up scheduling a formal interview with him, just to listen to his stories. Writers—here’s another thing. When you’re interviewing, ask your questions, sure. But just let the experts talk. They’ll give you snippets of experiences that you can use in your book. This profiler ended up being the basis for a character in Eyes of Elisha who testifies at the trial, using some of the guy’s real life experiences as testimony.
So now I had all my experts interviewed, and my head swam with knowledge. Still not enough, I discovered. As the prosecutor put it, "If you’re going to write about a murder trial, you need to attend one." He was so right. I needed to understand the aura of the courtroom, the drama of testimony. Attorneys go through three years of law school, then study for the bar. Who was I to think I knew enough about courtroom procedure to write believable scenes about a trial? Writers—please note my word of caution: watching TV crime and legal dramas ain’t gonna teach you what you need to know. In fact, they’ll skew your knowledge. Especially about the court system. Inevitably to heighten tension, TV shows and movies about courtroom scenes will show onlookers shouting out reactions, and the judge banging the gavel to quiet folks, and lawyers doing all sorts of shenanigans. That’s not the way a real courtroom works. A real courtroom is often boring. Other days it bristles with tension, but the tension is below the surface, undulating, plucking people’s nerves. And there are all these players—the jury, the judge, the attorneys, the defendant. Onlookers. The media. All these factions, until the courtroom becomes a little world in itself . . .
But at the time I knew none of this. I only knew I had to bring my courtroom scenes to life. What I needed was an interesting and convoluted local murder trial—fast.
Oh, man, did I get one.
Read Part 3