Mystery Mondays: Elena Hartwell on Research and the Fiction Writer

Today on Mystery Mondays we host Elena Hartwell, three time mystery author. I met Elena through the ITW (International Thriller Writers), an organization run by Lee Child. Her latest book Three Strikes, You’re Dead came out yesterday. Congratulations, Elena!

Writing Advice: Research and the Fiction Writer

by Elena Hartwell

Discussing research with other mystery writers fascinates me. Responses to it range from “it’s my favorite part of the writing process” to “I hate research.”

The good news is there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for how much to research. It’s very much a personal choice.

For those of us who love to research, here are some common pitfalls for us to avoid.

First: it’s easy to get consumed in research and forget to actually write.

One thing about being a fiction writer is nothing you write is “true” in the sense of factual accuracy. No one gets hurt when fiction writers get it wrong (other than our pride when it gets pointed out publicly). At some point, your imagination and the best way to tell the story takes precedence. You can always check facts or talk to an expert as you polish your draft. And if you are writing about a topic where experts disagree, make the best decision based on your characters and storyline.

Second: it’s easy to love our material so much we want to share everything we learn with our readers.

Often termed “info dumps,” too much information bogs down the forward momentum. It can also shift the tone of a story from your character’s point of view to a preachy pulpit where the author shouts at the reader. Either one of these situations will likely stop your reader from turning the page, or buying your next book.

One way to deal with this issue is write all the facts you want into your early drafts. Then, as you begin the rewriting/editing process, locate the places where you have long paragraphs of “facts” or where the description shifts out of your characters’ voices and into your own. Beta readers are great at finding these moments.

Keep in mind, readers want to know what your characters are doing and thinking far more than they want to know facts about Victorian architecture or the history of cameras or the best way to chink a log cabin. Sprinkle in details through single lines and short moments. Details like this are fascinating in small doses and when they are motivated by the storytelling, through an observation or action of a character, a line of dialogue, or a short description.

Lastly, it’s easy to write a scene so accurate it loses dramatic tension. The storytelling is what matters most in fiction. In most instances, an author can write around something that wouldn’t happen in the real world by: finding an alternate solution, creating a unique situation that explains the unlikely outcome, or using a different scenario altogether. But, in those places where you need to shorten up a timespan, have a person do something they wouldn’t or couldn’t in the real world, or defy the laws of physics, if it’s the only way to keep the story tight – just do it. You are, after all, writing fiction.

For those of you who hate research, don’t despair. There are a couple ways to deal with that too.

First, create primary characters and situations that exist in your own realm of experience. Write a cozy about an amateur sleuth who has the same day job you do. There is no rule that says all mystery writers must write police procedurals or legal thrillers. For those writers who don’t love to do research, perhaps stay away from writing historical fiction or creating multiple scenarios that require characters with a lot of specific expertise. While most manuscripts require some research, there are ways to minimize it.

Second, foster experts. People love to talk about their areas of interest. I’ve never had anyone turn me down for an interview when I’m researching my novels. Talking to experts can be a lot of fun. Experts are often even willing to read a section of your draft to check your work.

Lastly, readers love characters and stories. If you fully understand your craft as a writer, imbue your characters with complex interior lives, strong intentions, dramatic conflict, and high stake situations, readers are going to respond positively.

My final advice, do as much research as you can, only include as many facts as you need, and above all, story first.

Three Strikes, You’re Dead

ThreeStrikesCoverPrivate investigator Eddie Shoes heads to a resort outside Leavenworth, Washington, for a mother-daughter getaway weekend. Eddie’s mother, Chava, wants to celebrate her new job at a casino by footing the bill for the two of them, and who is Eddie to say no?

On the first morning, Eddie goes on an easy solo hike, and a few hours later, stumbles over a makeshift campsite and a gravely injured man. A forest fire breaks out and she struggles to save him before the flames overcome them both. Before succumbing to his injuries, the man hands her a valuable rosary. He tells her his daughter is missing and begs for help. Is Eddie now working for a dead man?

Barely escaping the fire, Eddie wakes in the hospital to find both her parents have arrived on the scene. Will Eddie’s card-counting mother and mob-connected father help or hinder the investigation? The police search in vain for a body. How will Eddie find the missing girl with only her memory of the man’s face and a photo of his daughter to go on?

Who Is Elena Hartwell?

CREDIT MARK PERLSTEINElena Hartwell started out her storytelling career in the theater. She worked for several years as a playwright, director, designer, technician, and educator before becoming a novelist.

She lives in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, their two cats, and the greatest dog in the world. When she’s not writing, teaching writing or talking about writing, she can be found at a farm down the road where she and her husband keep their horses.

Elena also works as a writing coach and does one-on-one manuscript critiques.

For more information please visit You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.


10 thoughts on “Mystery Mondays: Elena Hartwell on Research and the Fiction Writer

  1. I like your even-handed discussion about research, with plenty of options for those who don’t have “the research bug” and smart caveats for those who do. I’ve given up on a couple of books that shared far too much detail that did not add value to the story. Wish they’d read your piece first! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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