by Robin Spano
Question of the Week: What is the research tool you turn to most often? How important is visiting the site of your story to your research?
My favorite research tool is Google. This morning I was writing a scene inside the US Senate. I had a senator racing to make it into the chamber for a vote, but I wasn't sure how the Senate calls its members or when and if they lock the doors. I typed something into Google and followed my fingers to find a government page that explained in micro detail how the vote happens, as well as the potential variations of voting format, that helped me give the scene the credibility I was looking for.
But while I've visited enough political arenas to feel like I have a realistic feel for the energy inside the building, I haven't written any scenes outside in DC. The senator lives in Miami, visits Boston, Paris and London. All of these places have city scenes because I've been there. But since I've never visited DC, I stick to the inside of offices and buildings - and even that as little as possible.
I've used Google Earth street view to refresh my memory, or to browse an area to figure out where a sniper might hide. But Google Earth, or even excellent travel writing, won't give me the feel of a place, the taste in the air, the quirky ways of the people who live and work there.
Another awesome research tool is the yahoo group "crimescenewriter". Anyone can join, so if you're writing crime, I highly recommend it. I've asked questions about US law enforcement and received helpful answers from police officers, FBI agents and lawyers, some of whom are writers now and some who just follow the thread and help out. I also like to read their daily digest, because sometimes I'll learn something that can help me down the road.