LONDON Thinking about killing someone and can't figure out how to finish the job and make crime pay? It's the kind of stuff that keeps crime fiction writers awake at night.
If the blood-splattered creative juices aren't flowing, the authors of crime and thriller novels are increasingly turning to the Web and digging up, often by chance, the idea for their next blockbuster.
Writers can find out about street layouts, building locations, or the latest in guns, poisons and nuclear bombs. They can also learn how victims would react to acid or bullets or being pushed from a helicopter.
"I needed to find out what a body would look like if dug up from a shallow grave after three months," said London-based crime writer Mark Billingham, who pens novels featuring detective Tom Thorne (www.markbillingham.com).
"Within about 10 minutes of searching, I was in touch with a forensic anthropologist news group in the States and got all manner of helpful stuff," he said.
Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer based in New York whose novels follow the adventures of former U.S. military policeman Jack Reacher, found inspiration for his next book, due in 2009, while dabbling on the Internet.
"I was just surfing the Web and came across some law enforcement sites where there was a list of visual indicators for recognizing a suicide bomber," said Child.
"I started this new book with the idea that my hero is on the subway in New York late at night and gazing at this person and realizes that this hits 11 out of 11 on this list and what is he going to do about it," he said. "It started just purely from some idle browsing on the Web."
DARK HEARTS AND MINDS
Web-based forums like www.crimespace.ning.com and the Crime Writers Association www.thecwa.co.uk have flourished, bringing together writers and fans around the world.
Authors I spoke with for this column rated among their favorites the crime fiction sites "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" at www.sarahweinman.com, www.thrillerwriters.org and www.crimespot.net.
Seasoned or aspiring writers also track blogs run by police officers where they can read tales and learn jargon -- something that was not possible a few years back.
Child said one of the great benefits of tapping into the right police blog site is that writers can learn about tension between departments, staff and bosses, personal concerns and how they balance the "banal with the extraordinary".
"It's like coming up out of a tunnel into a different world. If you are reasonably sensitive to words and nuance, like all writers ought to be, you can actually pick up a tremendous amount of good stuff almost accidentally," said Child.
Peter Robinson, the novelist behind the Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks books (www.inspectorbanks.com), is another one who finds the Web a useful resource for research.
"I used to use big heavy reference books or go to the reference library, but now I find I can get most of what I want without leaving my study, or even my chair."
Robinson, who teaches crime writing at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies, occasionally writes at a remote lake house in Northern Ontario where he has no Web access. The setting suits him, although he is likely to return home with a stack of questions to answer online.
Established writers often like to get new ideas from face-to-face meetings with police and legal contacts, but that can be impossible for a writer who has yet to make it big.
Billingham says it was not until he had two published crime fiction books behind him that doors began opening to detectives, many of whom have become friends.
"For the first couple of books I was just ringing the press office and having to use the Internet. None of it can take the place of sitting down with a cop for half an hour," he adds.
Technology cuts both ways for authors, particularly when it comes to plot twists in a Web-connected world.
"With the Internet, computers in general, mobile phones, CCTV and DNA to consider, the crime writer has to find new ways for the criminal to avoid leaving too many traces, or there would be no story," said Robinson.
And sometimes old-fashioned research -- the sort found in books and at the library -- still works best.
Child says he likes using picture books, particularly to help get the look and feel of guns.
Others share that view. Among recent posts on the www.crimeonline.net portal is one from an aspiring author who has tried unsuccessfully to find the right information via the Web about how a detective agency worked in the early 1900s.
The reply is to consider a trusted resource -- books.
(Reporting by Gavin Haycock)