I’m on a board for people whose write about murder and theft, poisons and fires. In addition to writers, there are a lot of professionals on the board - people who are or have been cops, paramedics, FBI agents, firefighters, PIs, and more.
A writer recently posted a question about what kind of gun her character should get. She said she knew nothing about guns, and she wanted to know what her equally ignorant character would experience if she went to a gun shop and asked for help.
At which point I (and several other writers) chimed in. Why not just go into a gun store and explain what she was working on and ask their advice? This was one real-life situation (unlike questions about, say, the best undetectable poison) where it would be easy to experience it.
And experience will give a writer so MUCH more than reading about it ever would. She’ll be able to describe the shop without trying to google images of “gun shop.” She’ll know the heft of a gun, and the feeling of the grip, learn it’s surprisingly heavy even though parts of it appear to be made out of plastic. There may be smells and even tastes she would not expect. Since her character and the writer herself are both coming from the same place (not knowing much about guns) she’ll be able to ask the questions her character would and hear the answers her character would as well.
I have found that almost everyone likes to talk about themselves and what they do to an interested person. I have interviewed teens, death investigators, DNA experts, and curators. In some cases, I have gone in cold (as I would in the gun situation above). In others, I have done the professional the courtesy of learning as much as I could before I went to them. With Dr. Dan Crane, the DNA expert, for example, it would be a waste of his precious time to sit down and say, “What’s DNA?” Instead I learned a lot on my own and asked about Y-STR and familial DNA testing.
When I was working on the end to The Body in the Woods, I knew it took place in Forest Park. And I knew my bad character would be armed, and my good characters wouldn’t be. They needed something they could use as a weapon. But what? I took the same walk they would have to get into the park, past nice homes, and I photographed everything I thought they might consider for use as a weapon. Real life thought of many more alternatives that I did.