Monday, October 12, 2009

A Burning Cigarette in a Couch...

How long does it take a burning cigarette left in a couch to catch a house on fire?

It’s amazing the factoids I’ve gathered, writing as a full-time novelist for the last ten years. I know tidbits on all kinds of things. Sometimes the weirdest of things. All because at one point or another, I’ve needed them in a book. If I had to list every piece of data I've researched, the list would take me a week to type. Here are just a few questions for which I've had to find answers.

1. Do teeth ever float? (dentist question, of course)

2. Who’s present at a C-section? (doc question)

3. The moon phase on a certain night one year in the future, when my book is taking place. (online research. Great web site at:

4. What time the sun will rise/set on a certain day in a certain town a year in the future. (online at: This site also gives moon phases.)

5. What times the tide will go out/come in on a certain beach on a certain day a year in the future. (online:

6. How does strychnine kill you?

7. What would a judge do if he/she heard someone had threatened a jury member?

8. How does a forensic artist recreate a face from a bare skull?

9. How does a detective make a mold of a footprint?

10. How does a mass spectrometer microscope work?

11. What are the exceptions to the hearsay rule in law?

12. What’s the procedure for doing a sweep of a room for bugging devices?

13. What are the various ways to bug a phone?

14. How can you track someone’s whereabouts through their cell phone?

15. How many officers serve on the police force of a town of 1700 people, and how do they run their shifts?

16. How do night vision goggles work, and what are the choices in buying a pair?

17. Does a car rental agency ever make a copy of a renter’s driver’s license?

18. In Idaho, can you tape record a conversation when only one person in that conversation knows it’s being recorded? (Answer: yes. This is not true of many states.)

19. How is Pitocin (drug used to induce labor) administered?

20. How long before a cigarette in a couch burns a house down?

21. What’s the frequency for Oakland, California air space?

22. How do forensic anthropologists determine gender/age from scattered human bones?

23. What’s the procedure for a private adoption?

24. How long before wild animals eat a corpse in the woods?

25. At what stage of development was DNA in 1992?

26. What kind of little wild animal might steal bones?

27. On car dealership lots, where are the keys kept for all the new cars? (Answer: in a lock box on the car. The sales person carries a key to get into the lock boxes.)

28. Are the windows in the parking lot shuttles at a certain airport tinted?

29. Where do out-of-state media get their big news trucks?

30. Under what conditions can a single hair yield useable DNA?

Readers—did you ever stop to think of all the things novelists have to learn just to write one book? Writers—you have some interesting research questions of your own? Let's hear them. Who knows, maybe you’ll mention a factoid I'll need to know some day...


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Liberty Speidel said...

Great questions--I'd love to know all the answers to some of those you mentioned!!!

I recently had to find out how my local police department--a big city, in a big metro area, but with lower violent crime rates--would handle a self-defense shooting where the shooter still had the gun in his hand when the cops arrived. (Though the debate is still ongoing at one of tho forums I've been frequenting, the local cop said that my hero would be detained until everything could be sorted out--and he and his girlfriend would be taken to police headquarters for questioning!)

Tim King said...

Good post. Here are a few I've had to dig up, off the top of my head:

* What's the most important thing a lawyer needs to know before cross-examining a witness?

* Why don't defense attorneys usually depose prosecution witnesses in criminal cases?

* What different ways can a therapist put a subject into a temporary hypnotic state? And what could he potentially do in that state?

* What does a sexual-abuse counselor do? And what is her primary role?


MommaMindy said...

Hilarious, educational and usual. Thanks.

If you still need to know the answer about the coach, there actually is one sitting on the boulevard two blocks from my house.... :0


Jason said...

I have a link bookmarked that talks about why bodies float face-down, and gives some detail about how different circumstances can change things. Right up your alley, I suspect! ;)

Heather said...

Most of my research pertains to castles, swords, and medieval history type things because I write medieval fantasy. However, in one story idea I did come across the need to have this question answered:
How long would it take for a 170 lb man wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a leather bomber-jacket to freeze to death in a cold-storage unit set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit? :0)

Katie V said...

Great post. I've used the tide / sunrise / temp charts too. And found weapon / holster information on the web.

I interviewed my Fed. Marshall friend, and among other things, asked if there is anything a fugitive on foot can do to throw scent dogs off his/her trail - walk through water? use animal scat? The answer is no, there really isn't

One question that I'm curious about but haven't needed for my fiction is why (on TV, which may not be accurate) do CSIs enter crime scenes with guns drawn and flashlights? Why do they not turn on the lights? I keep meaning to ask my CSI friend if this is realistic, and if so, why?

Thanks Brandilyn!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Katie, the CSI stuff on TV dramas is highly inaccurate--which is why I can't watch it at all. The low lighting on TV is for mood. In truth they use all the lights they can to see evidence, unless they're doing something like spraying Luminol. As for going in with guns drawn--this is a mixing of law enforcement people in order to keep the story with less characters and within the allotted 42 minutes (or something like that for an hour's show with commercials). A first responder--cop--may go into a scene with gun drawn, depending on the situation. Techs go in later after the site has been secured to gather evidence. No need for drawn guns at that point.

If you're writing suspense, I highly recommend that you stop watching all TV crime dramas. They'll skew your research. Watch the true crime stuff instead.

Rachel said...

#27: In Louisiana, the keys to the cars on the lot are kept in a lock box inside the showroom. Not actually in the cars.

I've got a head full of crazy and strange historical facts, since that's mostly what I write. I also know quite a bit about human trafficking and what's known as the T visa.

Liberty Speidel said...

Brandilyn, on your last point in the comments, I almost have to agree with you. I watch very little TV--in fact, I never did the digital conversion, so everything I watch is on Hulu. My favorite show is 'Bones', which I think one of the science magazines indicated was one of the most accurate shows on TV. Last night, I caught up with the most recent episode, and part of the show really bothered me. The techs were looking for a murder weapon and were spraying Luminol--in the broad daylight!

I almost yelled at my computer, despite the fact my daughter was asleep 20 feet away. Ugh! It was almost enough to turn me off from the show, despite my interest in the characters.

Domino said...

Great information!

Your number 13 made me laugh. I may not have been totally awake when reading it. It came across as "various ways to phone a bug".

Strangely, it made perfect sense in my sleepiness. I wondered if a teeny little bug would use Sprint or Squint.

Hannah said...

Interesting questions! Can we have the answers now? :)

As a science fiction/fantasy author, I don't have so much research as other genres, but I still like picking up some information about things like fencing and hunting and the like. One thing I learned was that unlike the portrayal in movies, long swords don't last forever. Even the strongest carbon steel eventually develops cracks inside and breaks.

Somehow I don't think they'll be showing that scene in the next Chronicles of Narnia movie...

Cathy Bryant said...

For my first book, I had to learn all about brain tumors. I didn't want this character to die, but I wanted it to be serious enough that it served as a plot point for my story.

My husband loves to watch the surgery shows. (Please! During dinner? Ugh!) Guess now that I'm a writer I should join him! :)

AnitaS said...

Yes, I have often thought about all the research that goes into a good book, and I also recognize when authors are too lazy to do it. I also think about the difficulty of explaining things enough w/o explaining them too much! :-)

Robin Caroll said...

Here's the question (to which I DO know the answer-heehee) that drew the oddest look from one of my sources:
If a dead body is put in a bathtub with enough Draino to cover said body, would it turn the body into mush and if so, how long would that process take?