What You Don't Know Is Gold

I envy people who simply know things--facts, histories, how the world works. Then there are those of us who have to look up just about everything. I'm one of the latter. Disaster for a writer? No, not necessarily. In fact, often it's a boon. Research is fun--particularly the sort of research that leads to crime novels and police thrillers. In my case, some of the information I need comes from books, some from databases like Lexus Nexus and some from people doing their jobs. I like all of it. I like the ways new information can surprise me and make me write something I didn't have in mind. And the conversations with people are the best. There is always the unexpected fact that throws your plot off and then brings it right back to the track, fresh, alive.

Mostly I'm happy about not knowing things because the information I need then comes to me sharpened and focused by my questions, my need to know. When I know something too well, the subject gets muddied by excess. I write more or less than the scene requires. So I encourage writers to dig in and find out--to not be discouraged by what they don't know, but to get to know it. And that measure, that knowledge, will likely be just right.

The first time I consulted with an FBI agent (frisked, wanded, all that before I was allowed up to the office), I asked about the process of investigating an abduction. That was all well and good. I got files to read. I got a sense of the FBI/police relationship. But then I had a second plot in mind and went back to ask about financial crimes. I tried various ideas on the agent. He told me I had a very good criminal mind. I didn't know that about myself. But the agent's observation explained why I kept thinking up plots for crime novels. In a way, it gave me permission.

I've never been a druggie and yet I had to learn about drugs because of characters I was writing. I needed to find substitutes for first hand experience. I went to the Forensics lab and studied drug samples and talked to the scientists there. I consulted at length with an undercover narcotics agent. And I interviewed several former addicts who were generous with their stories of how they had kicked it.

At one point I got tired of reading online about autopsies and the holding of corpses. I wanted to know exactly how families were treated and how they came to see the bodies of family members. I got myself a visit to the County morgue and was jolted by the smell and the use of television cameras in place of actual contact. But how very interesting (and useful) those details were.

When I needed information about jail cells and inmate behaviors, I got myself a visit to the Allegheny County Jail. No movie could have given me the sharp understanding of the metallic sounds, the smallness of the bolted down table and stool in each cell, the smell of the toilets, the thinness of the futon that served as a mattress. To me, these details were gold, not just for themselves, but for the emotions they evoked in me. And I got an unexpected bonus. While I was there, the jail facility went into lockdown. I hadn't planned a lockdown scene, but the surprise was a gift. It gave me a great idea.

I'm a big believer in writing about what you don't already know. Of course it's scary. But being frightened, being worried about getting something right, well, that's a good thing. It beats being ho-hum about the things that are already familiar but not charged with intensity.

I'm currently scaring myself with a whole lot of new questions. I need the library for sure, I need to drive to places I've never been, to go into businesses I haven't patronized before, to read all kinds of articles on the internet about subjects that scare me (and one of those subjects in particular could get me arrested if somebody suspected me of a crime). But best of all, I get to talk to people in the know. And people make for exciting research.

Be afraid. But poke your head into places you need to know about. And pick up the phone.

Kathleen George is the author of the new book A Measure of Blood.