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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Research Tips for Strengthening the Suspense Threads in Your Novel

Sandra Orchard is the award-winning author of Deadly Devotion and Blind Trust with Revell Publishing and of many novels with Love Inspired Suspense. Her stories have garnered several Canadian Christian Writing Awards, a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, and a Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. She and her husband of 25+ years live in the heart of Niagara, Canada, not far from their three grown children and two adorable grandchildren. Learn more and check out the special bonus features for all her novels on her website or connect on Facebook


Since books and movies are fraught with inaccuracies when it comes to police and forensics etc, it’s easy to perpetuate those in our own stories. And to be honest, when I ask my go-to detective or my go-to former FBI agent questions, they’ll often say it’s fiction, you can fudge it to work. But…

The more you know about the elements in your story, the more authentic you can make them sound.

If you write in your contemporary novel that she smelled cordite after a gun was fired, every reader who knows anything about guns will know that you haven’t done your research—not the impression you want to make.

So where do you get your information? 

The internet is most writers first stop. You can input just about any question into Google’s search engine and get hundreds of thousands of answers. Some that might even be right.

But don’t let the internet be your only stop.

Other fabulous secondary sources include training manuals and autobiographies. They are great references and provide tons of inspiration for actual scenes you might use in your book.

When I wrote my upcoming release, Identity Withheld, which has a firefighter hero, I read a firefighter’s training manual and watched countless YouTube videos of fires to see how they travelled and to see what firefighters were doing and to hear what was going on. I often Google sounds and listen to them over and over so I can describe them.

Another great thing about the internet is that it makes it easy to connect with primary sources. Professionals in various fields, from police to lawyers to weapons experts, have started websites or yahoo loops to answer writers’ questions. A couple of my favorites are The Graveyard Shift and the Crime Scene Writers’ Loop.

But don’t be afraid to call or email professionals directly. While researching Identity Withheld, I spoke to volunteer firefighters, full-time firefighters, a retired fire chief, a paramedic and a retired fire marshal. Each provided different insights that proved vital to crafting the story. And all were eager to share their knowledge.

If you can visit such professionals in person, all the better!

Seeing and handling and smelling and otherwise experiencing the things you wish to include in your book is invaluable in depicting it in a gripping way. The Writer’s Police Academy was such an opportunity for me.

I did the same Firearms Training Simulator that recruits do and I’ll tell you when I shot a hostage taker in the head and saw his brains splattered on the wall behind him, in the uncomfortably realistic interactive video, I nearly went ballistic on the cop who commended me on my great shot.

But whew, afterward, could I ever accurately write about what goes through your mind and body in moments like those. And I had a far better appreciation for the internal conflicts my characters might deal with as a result.

Locally, you could visit a shooting range or participate in a citizen’s academy.

Be bold.

Thanks to being bold, I was able to meet my heroine’s “colleagues” at the St. Louis FBI headquarters while visiting the city to research the backdrop for my next mystery series with Revell.

The FBI has a unit dedicated to providing assistance to authors and movie producers. There is a formal process for seeking assistance, which you can read about here:

My contact has been fabulously helpful and arranged for an on-site interview while I was in St. Louis. The Special Agent and media contact I met while there were incredibly generous with their time, and patient in answering my questions and offering insights into how they operate.

It will be another year before that story hits bookshelves, but in the meantime, you can check out how I incorporated my fire investigation and witness security research into Identity Withheld:


After exposing an illegal adoption ring, newly named “Kara Grant” is promised safety in Witness Protection. But someone has found her—and wants her dead. If only she could trust the handsome firefighter who catches her fleeing from a suspicious fire. Jake Steele seems to think she’s guilty of burning her own home. But how can she tell him who she really is and what she’s been through without bringing danger to the widowed father’s door? Yet with the criminals fast closing in, taking such a risk might be her only chance at survival. Because the price she’ll pay for her silence could be her life.

As a special bonus, Deadly Devotionfirst book in Sandra's Port Aster Secrets will be offered in free e-format on October 16th for one day only.


  1. Some very cool and useful tips here, Sandra. Thank you.

  2. I'll never forget the time I entered my first chapter in a contest and had used 'cordite burned her nose'. Oh.My.Word. was I embarrassed when one of the judges informed me cordite hadn't been used since the 40s. But it taught me a valuable lesson--don't rely on what you think you know. Research and find out.

    Great links you supplied--I use them all.

  3. Thank you so much for these tips. I had no idea the FBI had a staff that works specifically with writers. Great information here.

  4. Great post, Sandra. Thanks for the tips and links. Sounds like you had lots of fun researching in St. Louis!

  5. So glad you've all found the tips and links helpful! Yes, Darlene, I had a blast in St. Louis. :D

  6. Great post, Sandra. I love that the FBI has a special section to accommodate we creative types. I guess they feature in so many movies, novels, it makes sense. One question, do you have to pay for their time?

  7. That's so funny. I just read a book and it mentioned the smell of cordite. I snickered, but read on, and now you mention it again. :)

  8. Thank you, Sandra. You provide some great advice. I'm going to save this post and refer back to it. I just bookmarked the FBI site, too. You rock!

  9. Hi! I got here by clicking on a tweet from DiAnn Mills. I always enjoy her stories of the Writer's Police Academy, and I appreciate authors like you who do serious research when they write mysteries and suspense!

  10. No, Ian, you don't have to pay. You don't have to tell them about your project, planned completion and all your info and give them your first born child...okay, just kidding on the child bit. ;) But they do check you out to ensure you're legitimate.

    Katy, I know what you mean. I drive my family crazy when we watch movies, because I'm always pointing out what the police won't do. Of course, in my books sometimes I have to make them do it anyway or the story wouldn't be nearly as compelling. :)

    Lenora and Cathe, so pleased you found the post helpful.


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