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Researching a Murder Mystery

Writing a story – a plausible story that can extend reasonably throughout the 80,000 word-up-and-down arc of a novel is no easy task. A story idea likely has a main plot, and at least one (if not several) subplots that are carefully crafted and thought out to keep readers glued to the edge of their seat. It’s a tough task, and one I love.

But all good story-telling is grounded somewhere in a nugget of truth. Depending on the genre, that nugget may be teeny-itsy-bitsy-tiny. A supernatural thriller, for example, isn’t based on your true-life experience with vampires (if it is – you’re sitting on a freaking-amazing story and you’re about to be worth millions. Call me.)

If not, you’ll likely only need to research the setting for your novel, or look up the hair color for your charactes to help you get a better visual. For crime writers and murder mystery writers, the nugget is a little bigger. That doesn’t mean we all tell true crime stories – in fact, we don’t. At least, I don’t, but the more believable the details of a murder are, the more realistic the crime is and the more gripping the story is for a reader.

If I am writing a crime story and the suspect kills his victim with the licks of a thousand puppies, my reader suddenly realizes that either:

1.) Those are deadly puppies.


2.) I am not a serious crime writer.

That means: bum, bum, bum…


How a writer feels about research depends on the person. I don’t mind it, but researching crime scenes can take you down a…well, an interesting path. Let’s just say, I don’t recommend doing book research for a crime story over breakfast.

So, you’ve decided to go ahead and write a crime story and you’re in front of a Google search engine with your fingers fully extended and ready to type. Now what?

A murder can be as outrageous and outlandish in your crime novel as you choose – have you caught the five o’clock news lately? There is probably nothing you can come up with that hasn’t already been done. But unless you want to venture into the non-fiction genre, avoid real names, places, and details. The goal for research is authenticity, not a documentary.

If you’ve spent some time researching your novel, you might notice that your Internet history looks like a cross between Stephen King’s personal notebook and a serial killer’s memoir. It happens.

search history

Things I’ve personally googled while doing research for my last book:

  • demonic worship rituals?
  • how long does it take to drown?
  • how long does it take to drown in the ocean if the water is cold?
  • can a hacksaw cut through bone?

Writer will go to the ends of the earth to write an authentic story, to take our readers into the pages and make the story feel real. Research is the best way to make writing feel authentic. But, always clear your search history and be ready for these guys to show up at your door:

Hopefully they’ll be followed by a call from your agent.