Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Leave the computer behind.

By R.J. Harlick

What’s your best research story?

As a crime writer, I’ve goggled some rather nefarious websites, all in the interests of research of course. You know, sites for exotic poisons that kill instantaneously, getting rid of bodies without leaving a trace, the ins and outs of bondage sex and the like. I figure I have lit up a number of police alert systems and wouldn’t be the least surprised if some day I get the knock on the door. But hey, it’s all in writing the realistic crime novel, eh?

But as intriguing as these sites can be, I’ve had more fun and learned more by leaving my computer behind and getting out into the world I want to write about. Since I don’t write a police procedural I’ve never done a ride along with the police. The closest I’ve come was during a research trip to Baffin Island when I found myself with an RCMP constable who had to check prisoners in at a courthouse pending their court appearance. But none were up for murder and most were for drunk and disorderly with one accused of break and enter. Hardly the hardened criminals many of us write about. In fact I found them a rather sad lot.

Perhaps one of my more memorable research experiences is one that had nothing to do with crime or criminals. It happened while I was waiting for a flight in the Iqaluit airport on Baffin Island. In the far north the fuselage of small passenger planes are often divided to transport both passengers and cargo. I was watching them load the cargo into the plane I would be flying in, when a forklift drove up with an unusually large and long rectangular box.

Up until then, the boxes had been your standard square carton in which most goods are shipped, so I was curious to see how they would load this one onto the conveyor belt. But they managed with little fuss likely because they’d done it many times before. I got on the plane and didn’t give it another thought until we landed in Pangnirtung.

I wended my way through a surprisingly large throng of people waiting in the tiny airport. All of a sudden they began keening. It sent chills up my spine. The minute I heard this heartrending sound, I knew what the long rectangular box was all about. It was a coffin.

Though very tragic for those intimately involved, as an observer and writer, I didn’t hesitate to include a similar coffin scene in the book that eventually became Arctic Blue Death. I also learned the value of getting away from my computer and going into the field to do my research, because you never know when you might come upon something that will inspire your story.


Meredith Cole said...

What a great story, RJ! It's so true that leaving the computer behind for research gives us great ideas (I just have to make sure I have a notebook handy to write it all down!).

Robin Spano said...

Wow, what a powerful experience that must have been.

RJ Harlick said...

It was rather powerful, Robin, and also rather unnerving. I'd never heard keening before. Even the memory of it still sends chills up my spine.

Paul D. Marks said...

Right on, RJ, about leaving the computer. It's great to do research online and light up all those alert systems, but it also helps to get out in the real world and both experience and observe.

Susan C Shea said...

Isn't it funny how small bits of real life get transmuted and woven into our fiction? I used to be afraid someone would recognize a real incident no matter how I had changed it, but I have learned it never happens unless I clue in the person who was there, and even then, they sometimes don't see it.