Inspiration Station: Research For Mystery Novels

Research for Mystery Novels

We all enjoy the mystery genre whether it’s reading a book or watching a TV show. We love to play detective and figure out who the culprit is. We love piecing the clues together. We especially love trying to figure it out before the protagonist does.

However, when you’re writing a mystery novel you need to play from all angles. You’re the victim, you’re the detective, and you’re the culprit. You’re every witness and every suspect. You should know the beginning, the middle, and the end when going into the mystery. You lay out all the clues for yourself and then start searching for them right after.

But how exactly can you have all this knowledge?

Well, you watch plenty of TV mystery shows, don’t you? You know, like Psych, where you follow a hyper-observant man with no job and no education. Yet, he’s still able to solve crimes much better than the police station.

What about Chuck? Or Burn Notice? I’m sure there’s some truth to those shows… Right?

Even some mystery novels can bend the truth a little because… Well, they’re fictional. So how can you do effective research for the mystery genre?

True Crime:

There are some books out there with their own genre called True Crime. These books are non-fiction based upon real life history events. They will help you learn about police investigation, how criminals think, and the many different kinds of crimes that can occur.

I’m also sure there are biographies and memoirs about certain criminals and certain detectives. One could learn a lot from that as well.

Writers Guides:

There’s a series I enjoy reading by Lee Lofland. He worked in law enforcement for a long time and now he writes guides for writers on police investigation. There’s Police Procedure & Investigation, Forensics, and Book of Poisons. I have read and reviewed Police Procedure & Investigation on my blog. I own the other two books, but have yet to read them.

The books’ topics range from different criminal profiles, to the way police and detectives are trained, their ranks, drugs, weapons, laws, etc.

There’s a lot of useful information stored in those books. If you have a question, one of those books will most certainly have the answer.

Study Guides:

I don’t do this often, but I have sat down at the local bookstore and thumbed through a study guide or two of the Police Officer exam. It gives me a good sense of what an officer has to learn in school and what they need to know. I can get a sense of my what character knows or, if s/he is a younger character, I can get a sense of what s/he is working on in school.

Plus, I enjoy taking the practice test. There’s a section where they give you a picture and you have to study it for a certain amount of time. Then you answer questions based on the scene and see how much you remember.

Take Classes:

Skimming through study guides is quick and easy, but you could also take a course here and there. Do you want to get a hands-on feel for forensics? Take a college course on the matter. It’d be much easier to write the five senses after you’ve actually lived it.

Even if it is just a mock-up in a classroom.

Talk To Real People:

Do you know any police officers in real life? Talk to them. Ask them questions. It’s all research and depending on how well you know the officer, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to ask for certain information.

Or you can always talk to a family member or close friend of an officer. Talk to retired officers and listen to their stories. I’m sure they all have interesting ones.

So there are many different ways to research the mystery genre. Despite it being fiction, you should have some sort of truth in there. You should have some sort of knowledge of the profession.

After all, you are your protagonist.

Writing Prompt:

Write down what you know–or what you think you know–about the law enforcement profession. Then do some light research to see how much you really know. Do you need to do a lot of research before starting your novel? Or do you have enough real information to get by?

Related Articles:

Mystery Novel Writing: 5 FAQs on How to do Excellent Research for Your Novel
Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers
Conducting Forensic Research

8 thoughts on “Inspiration Station: Research For Mystery Novels

  1. Actually, calling true crime books “novels” is a misnomer. Though many use that description, the very definition of novel is a work of fiction, or “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Novels can be based on actual events, but true crime generally means it is non-fiction presented in a creative way (or creative non-fiction) to interest readers. They are usually journalistic in style.

  2. Oh gosh, I wish I could write a good mystery – although I absolutely love reading + watching them (ahem, Sherlock Holmes), I can’t write one to save my life.

    These are great tips, though… and perhaps one of these days I’ll work up the motivation to dive in and try out the mystery genre again. It’ll certainly be an intriguing exercise, if nothing more!

    • Whether you’re good at it or not, it is certainly a great exercise. It really gets your mind working and it’s a lot of fun; especially since you know the answers (most of the time) so you’re not freaking out and waiting for the next episode, lol.

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