Could Researching My Book Get Me in Trouble?

author list murder researchI took a day trip with the freckle-faced girl recently to the United States. We live in Canada, a few miles from the border, so occasionally Costco’s ice cream or some other worthy endeavor calls to us. I’m in charge of the shopping cart duties and with some minor instruction I usually manage to fulfill my obligation. We have a Nexus pass that allows us to get into the fast lane when we cross. This makes the process easier, but, even with my youthful transgressions occurring many moons ago, and nary even a speeding ticket to my name in years, I still get a bit nervous when I reach that little window. I keep thinking there’s something that I’ve forgotten to mention, and the border guard will click his little mouse, and check his computer screen. His eyes will light up like a UFO saucer and I’ll have some explaining to do.

During this particular trip I had been pried away from the writing cave, and the events of my work-in-progress were still very much in my head. And, as my author friends know, the things we write about really are happening. If they’re not happening to us then they’re not going to happen for the reader. So, our stories often become our reality. In order to continue in that world and keep filling in the gaps, I had my notebook with me and I had jotted down a few ideas pertaining to my opening chapter. In the first chapter of my upcoming novel there’s a dead body; someone has been murdered. So, I had jotted down questions in regards to dumping the body, whether the blood really would pool around the dead man’s head in the shape of a halo, who the killer was, and why the killer had left the body for the police to find. These are all normal questions that have to be addressed over the next eighty-thousand words. And, all those normal questions were written in my handwriting on a lined piece of paper in my notebook. The same notebook that was open in the backseat as we pulled up to the border guard’s little station.

What do you do? Do you quickly hide the notebook? We were in the freckle-faced girl’s car and I did not have any of my books with me, so proving that I’m an author might be challenging. Do I (as one of my writer friends later suggested), add a shopping list and other mundane details to my grisly questions? Or do I put on my most innocent look and leave the pad where it is? The problem with the last option is that I really don’t have an innocent look. I always look as though I’m up to something. And, quite honestly, in my mind I usually am.

I left the book where it was and (I’m sure due to the freckle-faced girl’s charm), the guard waved us through. And, later that day, we were allowed back into Canada as body-dumping thoughts continued to fill my head. It made me wonder, though. I don’t erase the history on my computer and I search some pretty interesting things as I create the worlds for my stories. It’s never concerned me that my mind goes to dark and even darker places. My first novel dealt with child abuse and although I knew a little about the subject I wanted to make sure I got it right. It’s such an important and, unfortunately for some, personal topic that in order to respect those who have had to endure the horrors of losing their childhood, I did some research. My second book dealt with the Irish Republican Army and a little-known incident that happened during the time of The Troubles. And, in my third book, I wrote about a soldier going to war and then being faced with marital infidelity when he returned. Some authors take on topics that are even weightier. Those were heavy enough for me. I have beta-readers just like everyone else, but I also utilize specialized beta-readers. So, I search out, or sometimes I’m already familiar with, readers who know these topics, and I rely on them to help me get the facts right. And, I ask questions using Google.

After publication, I’ve received confirmation from folks who lived the things I wrote about and fortunately my research paid off; I seem to have gotten it right. In my current novel, I’m dealing with police work and a murder as well as a very imaginative scheme. I have a couple of police personnel ready and waiting to fact-check for me and again I’ll use the internet to search terms like: What does it feel like to be shot? If a head is split open on a sidewalk where would the blood run to? And other facts that will help me authenticate my story. As a self-published author I don’t have a team in place to do my research. It’s just part of my job.

It makes you wonder though, doesn’t it? What happens if somebody looks? What happens if somebody reads that notebook and wonders what I’m up to? Think about it. What’s the strangest thing you’ve searched for? Did you erase your history afterward?

Come on, you can tell me…

Author: Martin Crosbie

Martin Crosbie is the administrator of and writer of seven published novels. His self-publishing journey has been mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes Online Magazine, and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. You can learn more about Martin on his Amazon author page.

30 thoughts on “Could Researching My Book Get Me in Trouble?”

  1. It’s less the history I would worry about and more the fact that all search data is being tracked and recorded by government agencies. 😉

    Remember right after the Boston Marathon bombing, a couple in New York City were investigated and visited by six police (of some sort) after the husband searched for a backpack, the wife searched for a pressure cooker, and the son was reading extensively about the bombing. All online.

    So what I *hope* is that when the NSA inevitably sees my searches flash across their screens, they also have “science fiction and fantasy writer” in their profile of me, and wave it aside as a waste of their time. 😉

  2. What Kevin said. I’ve done a lot of research on psychopaths. I wonder how you’d go about proving you weren’t one?

    Good luck with your murder mystery, Martin. 🙂

  3. Great post, Martin. I’ve wondered the same things. I’ve researched how to poison someone without a trace, how to escape prison, and what the most popular handgun for home protection is in the U.S. Like Kevin said, I just hope they see “writer” and decide I’m not worth their time.

  4. Hey, you never know. Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful Peter Wimsey novel HAVE HIS CARCASE puts a mystery novelist on trial for her life because her boyfriend dies of arsenic poisoning and she’d been researching it, even buying some as research.

    (Sadly, although I went on to read and reread all the Lord Peter-Harriet Vane novels and surely know better, I can’t stop mispronouncing that in my head as “HAVE HIS CAR CASE.” Which is not a very inspiring title.)

    1. I haven’t read that book but I’ve heard of it. On the flip side I wonder if there will be a bunch of bad guys becoming novelists all of a sudden. It is a great excuse.
      Did I just say that out loud?

  5. I’ve wondered the same thing! Googling how long it takes a person to freeze to death, and what happens if someone is stabbed in the kidney with a fiberglass deer antler (“antler fu”) are my “worst,” so far. I suppose these kinds of things could be explained by proving we’re authors. Unless, of course, someone you know is found murdered in the same way, then that could be AWKward… The only thing I’d really worry about is Googling for child pRo-n (hope that threw off the bots) and abuse and trafficking – remember what happened to Pete Townshend of The Who years ago when he was researching for a book (he was arrested.)

    1. I do remember when Pete Townsend got into trouble, but I didn’t know it was related to a search for a book. Interesting. Thanks Candace.

  6. Oh look – this is timely. I just got an email from FutureLearn listing their new courses. Have you heard of them? You can take FREE online courses in all kinds of subjects, each taught by staff at British Universities. The email is specifically about forensics. I’ve taken several courses from them in the past and they are fabulous. Haven’t taken the forensic ones, though. Here’s their website:

  7. I can relate. A few years back I was researching my thriller in progress. I needed a new plot twist for my character to foil and so I was brainstorming and Googling all kinds of things to check if they were feasible. Some of the things I researched that day were chemical weapons, dispersal over a city, crop dusters, ricin, sarin, tug boats (thinking the Chicago River, which flows through the heart of the city, hehe).

    So, a few days later, my blog got a hit from the U.S. Department of State. A few weeks after that, the DoD.

    I’m sure they took one look though and realized what the info was for since I’m still walking free. 😉

  8. My lawyers have advised me not to talk about that. 😉 Although there was one police officer who might have scribbled a few notes about me when I called to ask the street value of a tennis-ball-sized bag of cocaine. That was in the pre-Google days, but one day I fully expect to end up on some list, for all my searches about nefarious activities.

  9. Great post, Martin, and fun–for now–questions. The same issue has crossed my mind as I’ve researched a few things; who else knows what I’m Googling? In Carol Wyer’s book, Just Add Spice, she writes about a writer who’s learning to break into cars by doing just that, and has to worry about the police coming around. Great stuff. The things we do for authenticity!

  10. Great post Martin – I’m working on my second book and in the beginning a car gets blown up. While I was researching IED’s and other forms of bombs and explosives, I had the same thoughts. Has this been flagged somewhere? What if they think I’m building a bomb? Anyway, you get the drift. Interesting inquiry.

    1. It’s really great to hear that so many of us are taking our content seriously and doing the research. Good for you Ellen and thanks for commenting!

  11. It’s a good thing you didn’t actually write down any of your ideas while you were across the border. That would have made you an illegal alien worker, and then you’d really be in trouble!

  12. Good post, Martin. I think you’re all good unless something bad actually happens to people you know (love or hate). There was, of course, the infamous case of the guy who asked Siri where to hide a dead body (

    So keep doing your research, and tell the people around you not to disappear without a trace. 😉

  13. Who realised that searching for information would be so risky? I don’t think it will stop us looking for those details we need to sound convincing though. Great post.

  14. Great post, Martin. I often wonder about the same things. I search many a strange topic. Most of the time, I’ll do it in private browsing so that I don’t get ads pertaining to my searches plastered all over my pages.

    I hope that nobody spends too much time trying to piece together my search history. It certainly wouldn’t make much sense.

    1. You’re right, Jim. I suspect that there’s no rhyme or reason to any of our searches. Just the product of overactive imaginations. Thanks for commenting.

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