Recently, I was asked, "How much research do you actually do for fiction and how much of your work is true?” There’s quite a bit of research that goes into writing mysteries. I want to make sure that my stories are plausible and as accurate as possible. Readers notice when writers make mistakes.
I mix quite a bit of “real” in my short stories and novels. All of my settings are actual places. I tend to put my works in Virginia cities and counties because I write what I know. If a crime occurs, I make up that location's name. I wouldn't put a horrific or violent event at a real restaurant or store. But if you've been to the cities, you'll recognize landmarks, neighborhoods, and street names.
I get ideas for crimes and capers from real cases, but I usually take liberties with the details. In my short story, "Washed up," in Virginia is for Mysteries, a beat up suitcase washes up on Chick's Beach, and it's filled with some mysterious contents. Back in the ‘80s, there was a real crime where suitcases filled with body parts did appear on beaches along the East Coast. In my story, I thought it would be interesting for beach-goers to find something old and sinister in an unexpected place.
I base some of my characters on combinations of real people. I blend characteristics of several people to make an interesting fictional person. And phrases that family and friends say frequently appear in my stories. I carry a notebook with me wherever I go, and I am always jotting down names, interesting tidbits, and snippets of dialogue that might one day make their way to a story. I have two co-workers who keep asking me to make them villains. I haven't done that yet, but I do hint from time to time that unruly team members will end up in a dumpster in a future story.
I use friends and family member's names for minor characters. In The Tulip Shirt Murders and Secret Lives and Private Eyes, my sleuth, Delanie Fitzgerald, gives herself all kinds of aliases in her investigations. These are usually names of friends and family. And every once in a while, you'll find police, EMTs, or FBI agents named after my favorite authors, rock stars, or actors.
My sleuth is named for one of my favorite American authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And she names her company, Falcon Investigations, in honor of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
I am also very fortunate to be a “CK” (Cop’s Kid). My dad, now retired, is one of my best sources of information on crime and law enforcement. He helps me make sure that the crime scenes are described as accurately as possible. I email him all the time with questions like, “Hey, Dad. What’s a meth lab smell like?” or “How much damage would this type of bullet do at close range?” I am also very fortunate to be a part of Sisters in Crime. Our local chapter (Central Virginia) offers a variety of programs with professionals in criminology, law enforcement, and forensics. Over the years, our chapter has had an arson investigator, a CSX railroad investigator, a forensic psychologist, a search dog trainer, and an alcohol beverage and control officer as guests. These speakers are so knowledgeable and willing to share information. I also appreciate that they answer all my weird, author questions without giving me too many funny looks.
Even though my short stories and novel are fiction, they also contain some truth and reality. And research is important, so that the work is interesting, accurate, and close to true life.
Heather Weidner’s short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series, 50 Shades of Cabernet, and Deadly Southern Charm. She is a member of Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Guppies, and James River Writers. Secret Lives and Private Eyes and The Tulip Shirt Murders are the novels in her Delanie Fitzgerald series.
Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
Heather earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan College and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. Through the years, she has been a technical writer, cop’s kid, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She blogs regularly with the Pens, Paws, and Claws authors.
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