Ed’s Casual Friday: When good research goes bad

Today, I’ll be pushing the bounds of the “Casual” part of the column title, as this is more of a story than a post. However, it’s the sort of thing that often makes my fellow writers smile ruefully, while “regular people” look at me like I’m psychotic. So here we go.

Back in the mid ‘90’s, when flannel-clad Grunge bands roamed wild and free, I was an apple-cheeked (just go with it) student at a Midwestern university. I was studying Literature, with a Creative Writing emphasis, which of course means I was writing a lot of short stories. And reading a lot of short stories. And talking about a lot of short stories. But because nobody actually wants to grow up to be a short story writer (“I have a burning need to express myself through the written word…briefly.”), of course I was working on a novel.

I’d written novels before, though both “written” and “novels” is being a bit loose with the language. They were the sort of youthful attempts at something that probably too many new Indie writers are nowadays uploading to the ‘Zon before the virtual ink is even dry, but thankfully I didn’t have that option as a wide-eyed newbie. My early efforts disappeared years later into the netherworld of 5 ¼ inch floppies, and rightly so. But at school, I started working on something I took a bit more seriously, and while I felt then (and still feel now) that “write what you know” is the worst writing advice ever if taken to extremes, I must admit there were certain similarities between the narrative, and my life at the time. To wit: I was a broke-ass, ne’er-do-well grad student trying to scrape together beer money for the weekends, as were most of my cast of characters. The characters, however, had decided to improve their circumstances by the financial expedient of robbing a bank.

Now, while I had the broke/ne’er-do-well/beer money part of character research surrounded, I had never robbed a bank before, and so, of course, I did more research. Because that’s the other thing you do a lot of in college. I read a ton of books, the best of which was Willie Sutton’s classic Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber (Library of Larceny). I prowled federal databases on bank crime statistics, researched alarms and vaults, read teller and police manuals and how to react during a robbery, so forth and so on. I mean heck, it was more interesting than reading about the 18th Century textile output of Lowell, Massachusetts for the history paper I should have been working on.

Thing was, of course, that web and book research can only tell you so much, and at some point once I had all the background stuff stuffed into my brain and I was actually writing, I realized I needed to know more. In the story, the prime mover MC who has the idea and the plan for engaging in larceny does as I had done as far as research, but of course there had to be more to it for him. And so there had to be more for me too, before I could write him. So I did the logical thing. I picked out a local bank, and I staked that bad boy out for two weeks.

Each morning before daylight, I rode my bike to the edge of campus and chained it to a tree a block away, then crept up on my quarry. I found a couple good vantage points, including a stairwell for an apartment building, and a spot on the roof of the Memorial Union across the street. From daylight until the bank opened, I watched it, and took notes. How many employees arrived, when they did so, what doors they used, how long until the blinds were raised, how many teller stations opened on what days, when a police cruiser did a regular roll by like clockwork, etc. and etc. And of course, for the sake of the book, I tried to figure what the best way to interrupt the routine would be, with the goal of robbing the bank. The bank in the book, let me repeat that.

After the two weeks, I had a plan, and I wrote it up as a chapter, following the MC through the process I had just completed myself. And then one week, instead of taking a short story to a regular writing workshop that was part of my curriculum, I submitted that chapter to the class. Two days later, I came home from a day class to find two uniformed officers and a detective at my apartment, waiting for me.

Here’s what happened. Unbeknownst to me, one of my fellow students in the workshop worked a day shift at the very bank I had worked into my story. I had no idea, though of course if she had worked mornings, I would have seen her there. She recognized the bank as I had described it, as well as several people who worked there, and not to put too fine a point on it, it pretty much freaked her out to read about her workplace and coworkers getting staked-out and spied upon. She had contacted the authorities, and the authorities of course contacted yours truly.

In the end, it all worked out, though it took a little doing to convince the 5-0 that I wasn’t really going to knock over the bank on Lincoln Ave., and once that had been settled they were actually willing to put their own two-cents in for research purposes (“Here’s the time of day you should rob a bank if you’re gonna…”). My classmate was mortified, but that worked out too, and she eventually had some more advice for the robbery in the story, as a teller. While I’ve never “gone to print” with that book, virtually or otherwise, writing it was a big part of my journey as a writer, and maybe one of these days I will actually unearth the old files and see if there is anything there worth salvaging.

And if not…well. At least I’ve got something to fall back on the next time I’m short of cash. 😉


As always in closing, an excerpt from an actual one-star review of a real book, by a real reader, just as a pick-me-up in times of travail.

“I gave it a try……couldn’t get into it. I have seen the show….didn’t really understand that either. “

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo


M. Edward McNally is the author of the Norothian Cycle books: The Sable City, Death of a Kingdom, and The Wind from Miilark, and multiple free short story volumes titled Eddie’s Shorts. He has been writing for twenty of the last thirty years and does not recommend the ten year spell of writer’s block in the middle. Ed is a contributor at Indies Unlimited (IU Bio Page) and tilts at his own windmills over at http://sablecity.wordpress.com/


Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Ed’s Casual Friday: When good research goes bad”

  1. I guess her recognizing the bank and her co-workers is testament to your skills of observation and description. 😉 Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hmmmm, maybe I should write the tale of when I got 'busted' for drugs – that I did not have. There are similarities.

    Maybe the title would be "How to Appear Guilty When Innocent".

    Cool story.

    BTW Les Miserables is my all time favourite book.:-)

  3. Haha! Great post. McNally!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I've never staked out a bank, but there are some things I've looked up online that either scream WRITER! or PSYCHOTIC KILLER!. Dear Google, how long does it take to drain a human body of blood….

  4. I know how you feel, apart from the visit from 5-0. I've been researching a prison break, including talking to a prison guard. Timing is everything. If the wrong person saw the work I was doing, I could indeed spend some long hours talking to some very serious people. You have to dig deep and put yourself into the actual role of a criminal, hopefully, mastermind.

    I have another idea I'm working on, that involves a terrorist plot. I NEVER EVER talk about it in emails to other people. Can you imagine homeland security reading one of those emails … I'm a visitor to USA, and I'd like to come back …

  5. Great story, Ed. I could see that one coming. I have the first draft of my novel on a 5 1/4 floppy and I would love to read it to see how my writing has improved since then (at least, I hope there's been some improvement). But alas, the charge for converting it is $65.00 and it's not worth that to me just to satisfy my curiosity. I wish I had thought about it back when I had a computer with both 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 floppy drives. Oh, well.

    1. Diane, for the record, most of what is presently my "back list" is stuff I salvaged just by buying a free-standing 3 1/2" drive with a USB for about $10 from an electronics store. It's only about the size of a deck of playing cards, and modern word processors were able to convert the old files without much trouble, might be worth a shot. 🙂

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