[Please note: this page is no longer being updated. For current information, ask your local librarian.]


Blood at the Source: Research Tips for Mystery Writers
Barbara Fister

All writers have research needs, but only some of us are librarians. I write mysteries and, while I sometimes make it up as I go along and check the facts later, I have also been a librarian for many years, so thought I'd share some tricks of the trade with other mystery writers and aficionados.

This selective guide is more about how to get the most out of libraries and the Web than about specific sources. I've limited its scope to contemporary matters - primarily to do with crime, criminal justice, and general research - and there is a U.S. emphasis, particularly in the section on government documents. I've included in an epilogue a few links to information about mysteries and the book world, but that's not the focus of this guide.

Blood at the Source is arranged as a single page, but the contents should help you find what you need quickly. Or use your browser's "find" command to seek out a particular word or phrase. I'd love to hear any suggestions you might have for additions or corrections.


using libraries

taming librarians
finding libraries
finding books
books on criminal justice
special collections and services
libraries of note
recommended reading

using the Internet

what is - and isn't on the Web
search engines
we're from the government . .
sources for statistics
ou are here: finding your place on the Web
legal resources
primary sources
books on the Web
the good, the bad, and the flaky
using the Internet to keep up

a word about fieldwork


wondering what to read next?
everything you ever wanted to know about mysteries
talk it over with the experts
keep up with publishing and bookselling

about the author


taming librarians

"You see, I don't believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that's been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians." Monty Python, Gorilla Librarians

If you think libraries are baffling places, you're not alone. Computer catalogs offer options the old card catalogs never had, but they can be utterly confusing. Academic and public libraries often shelve things differently. And now so much of what the library offers is electronic - and each option has its own quirky interface which, the minute you think you've got the hang of it, is upgraded to offer even more confusing features. To make it worse, when you go into a library you've never used before everyone but you knows exactly what they're doing.

Actually they don't. They either got help some time ago, they've spent a lot of time working it out on their own, or they're faking it. Don't be intimidated. Libraries exist to be used by people like you. Ask for help.

Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of reference librarians:

  • If you're a writer, say so. Librarians will help anyone, but they love helping writers.
  • Don't be surprised if the first person you approach sends you to someone else. There are many different specialists in libraries. Not all of them are reference librarians. (A rule of thumb at my library is that library paraprofessionals are usually much better-dressed than the librarians, but that may be a local idiosyncrasy.)
  • Tell the reference librarian what you need. Be up front about what you're looking for, how much time you're willing to invest, whether you want a small amount of stuff or as much as you can get, whether you want technical or lay information, and what you've tried already.
  • Sometimes you don't have a definite question. It's perfectly okay to simply say, "Can you tell me what resources you have on--?" Or simply say, "I'm new here. Can you give me some pointers?"
  • Be prepared for an interrogation. A good reference librarian wants to be sure she understands what you need. And if she starts giving you the wrong stuff or says something you don't understand, tell her so. Librarians are experts at finding information, but you're the expert at what you need.
  • If you have a bad experience with a librarian, try another one. People have off days, and like any workplace, some people aren't as good at their jobs as others. Don't write the entire species off on the basis of one unhappy interaction - particularly if it was Mrs. Robotham in the third grade. She's dead, already.
  • Librarians love to find out how things turned out. Keep in touch. Chances are, they'll not only buy your next book, they'll help you sell it to their friends, neighbors, and distant relatives.

Many libraries offer reference services via e-mail or by electronic chat. If you can't find what you need locally, you might want to avail yourself of these "virtual reference" services but be sure to read the fine print, explain as clearly as you can exactly what you need, and be prepared to pay photocopying charges if applicable. Don't expect immediate gratification.

finding libraries

Academic libraries - particularly at schools that have a criminal justice program - have great stuff for mystery writers. If there is a college or university library in your area, you usually are welcome to use it even if it's a private institution. There may be limits to what you can check out and in some cases you have to pay a nominal fee. Urban academic libraries tend to be more security-conscious by necessity that rural ones. But librarians, as a rule, like to share. You can usually find out from their Web site what to expect as an unaffiliated researcher.

Students and faculty are an academic library's primary clientele. Try to use the computers when students aren't lining up for them. (Mornings and Saturdays are a good bet; after ten p.m. is when most students really gear up. There will be a greater crush near the end of a term than at the beginning.) And if you're working with a reference librarian, offer to wait if a student starts to hover nearby.

Public libraries, except for large urban ones, tend to be less research-oriented, but most are linked to other libraries and can get you what you need, even if it's highly specialized. Ask about interlibrary loan.

If you use a library a lot, think about joining its Friends group. This is not philanthropy, it's a very cunning plan; friends of Libraries are usually friends of authors, too.

finding books

Once you've located a library, you still have to find the books. Libraries don't deliberately hide them, but catalogs can be difficult to use. Here are some hints:

  • Keyword searches can be a useful place to start, but when you locate a book that looks on-target, scan the subject headings. These clue you in to the terms catalogers use. If you speak to the computer in cataloger's language, you'll find more. There's a list of headings academic and research libraries use - technically known as the Big Red Books. (They're big enough that there has been speculation on a mystery discussion list they could be used as a murder weapon.) You can check there to see what terms catalogers use, or you can try the online version - which also has a nifty way of finding out how authors' names are entered in catalogs. (Note: this site is designed more for librarians than for mere mortals; still, it's useful and you can always look up your published friends to see what the Library of Congress says about them - e.g., wow! Is he really that old?)
  • You can search for fiction by genre, subject, locale, or character. For example, a search for Los Angeles and Detective and Mystery Stories will retrieve a list of mysteries with a Los Angeles setting.
  • Be prepared to broaden your search. The information you need may be in a ten-page section of a book; think in terms of what kind of book might include the information you need and look for that book.
  • Most online catalogs have ways of refining a search by date of publication, language, or format. You can, for example, search a broad topic such as forensic sciences and limit it to books published in the past year to find out what's new.
  • Combine search terms using boolean operators, AND, OR and NOT. (While you're at it, drop "boolean operators" casually into a conversation with a librarian and you'll score 500 extra points.) AND will search for records that include two or more search topics. (Gimme a ham AND cheese. Yeah, I want both, you deaf or what?) OR will give you all results for the terms you use. (Gimme a sandwich, ham OR cheese, I don't care. Just don't give me the liverwurst.) NOT excludes terms from a search. (Gimme a ham sandwich; hold the mustard.) These operators work with many databases and search engines too.
  • Browse. The catalog will identify specific books, but the classification system used to shelve books (usually Library of Congress or Dewey) offers a different approach to subjects. It's often easier to find the perfect source when you can put your hands on the books themselves. Many library catalogs have a "browse" feature (sometimes the call number itself is a hotlink) that will let you see what's shelved around a particular book, a useful clue whether a section is likely to be rich browsing territory or not.
  • Oversized books are frequently shelved in a separate section. This is a great place to look for visual information - which writers often need as badly as text.

Reference books deserve special mention. There are incredibly cool things in the reference section. Swing by the reference desk to find out what's are available on the topics of interest to you.

Typically, the editor of a specialized encyclopedia will find out who is a leading expert on a topic and ask him or her to write an article on it. You're getting the lowdown straight from someone who knows the topic inside out. Better yet, at the end of the article there's a bibliography of the most important books on the subject so you can follow up. Here are some examples to whet your appetite - though not every library has these titles, it gives you a sense of the possibilities.

Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. 4 vols. (San Diego, CA: Academic, 1998) Cozy or noir, mysteries often engage ethical dilemmas. This amazing work takes all kinds of social issues - real world stuff that makes the newspapers daily - and unpacks the ethical conundrums behind them. Balanced, informative, and full of fascinating insights into the messy world we live in.

Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2002) Covers issues in law, criminology, and sociology; includes references to classic studies and recent research for further digging. Though the focus tends to emphasis the US, international perspectives are included. This is a long-awaited update of a work published in the 1980s.

Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. 4 vols. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002) Covers a huge range of topics in an accessible manner. If you want to take a break from writing while feeling virtuously on task, spend some time with this set. It may give you an idea for your next book.

Encyclopedia of Criminology and Deviant Behavior. 4 vols. (Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, 2001) Covers theoretical concepts, crime and juvenile delinquency, sexual deviance, and your garden-variety self-destructive behavior. This is a good place to find out what the experts are saying about people behaving badly. Especially nifty if you want to need some big words for a behavioral scientist character to throw around.

Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences. 3 vols. (San Diego, CA: Academic, 2000) The most comprehensive reference work for the field; there's also an electronic version available in some libraries.

Encyclopedia of Psychology. 8 vols. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2000) Want a quick rundown on just about any aspect of quirky human behavior, but don't have time to read a hundred articles? Analyze this.

books on criminal justice

These links provide annotations and reviews of current books in the field, sorted by topic. You'll also find book reviews in many criminal justice periodicals.

Book 'Em A special issue of Law Enforcement News listing short reviews of notable books published primarily in 2002 and 2003, sorted by topic. A previous special issue, Central Booking, covered books published 2000 - 2001. Law Enforcement News was published for many years by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but sadly it has gone to the morgue. 

Crime Scene Investigation Books (Crime Scene Investigator) Claims to be the most complete listing of crime scene books on the web, both technical and popular. Includes summaries.


In addition to the catalog, libraries typically have a dizzying array of electronic databases. These include databases to specialized information by discipline and interdisciplinary databases of magazine and/or newspaper articles. Some include the full text of articles, some merely citations and perhaps abstracts, others a mix of full text, citations, and abstracts. They will include material that isn't available in a particular library, but those may be available through interlibrary loan. Check with a reference librarian or visit a library's Web site to see which databases they have. Chances are your public library may provide online access to a wealth of databases from your home. 

With some exceptions, I can't link to them here because they are licensed to particular libraries for fee - often a very large fee. (Did I mention joining your library's Friends group? These resources are great, but they chew through library budgets.) Technically, a guest to the library may not be covered in a license agreement with the database vendor. That's not usually an issue - most vendors have learned to live with the fact that libraries entertain guests - but be forewarned it could be a problem in some cases. Here are a few databases of particular note for mystery writers.

Criminal Justice Abstracts. Provides summaries of articles and reports in the field, from 1968 to the present. Tends to focus on research-based articles. But hey, you want to hear from the experts, right?

Criminal Justice Periodicals Index. Full text of 59 core publications plus summaries for the contents of 100 others. Includes practical information for professionals as well as more theoretical articles.

Lexis/Nexis. Like a Chinese puzzle ball, this service is a seemingly-endless set of nested databases. Of particular note: full text newspaper coverage, law review articles, and arcane industry newsletters. (There is a much more limited free version availble, but it only samples current US political news.) If your library doesn't have this resource, it may have other databases covering similar ground, such as Proquest Newsstand. For all the news that isn't mainstream, try Ethnic NewsWatch or the Alternative Press Index. These offer valuable perspectives you might otherwise miss.

Medline (via PubMed) Free to the entire world courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, this amazing database offers abstracts and sometimes links to full text of articles about medicine. Millions of them. (Cool tip: click on the "limits" tab and select "free full text" if you are impatient and want it now.) From here, you can also choose your poison by accessing the TOXLINE toxicology database. These articles are usually highly technical. A separate archive called PubMed Central contains the full text of many life sciences journals.

NCJRS Abstracts Database. Over 190,000 abstracts of research publications from the 1970s to the present are searchable here from the National Criminal Justice Research Service; thousands have links to full text. 

Organized Crime and Corruption Database. From the Nathonson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at York University (Canada), this database includes annotations for books, articles, and reports on worldwide organized crime up to 2005. Because many of the entries cite older publications, this database could be particularly useful for historical research.

PsycInfo. Want to find out what the latest research says about your villain's psychotic behavior? How your hero's PTSD might interfere with his love life? Go nuts with PsycInfo, the database formerly known as Psychological Abstracts. The most complete database of psychology literature, including books, articles, and dissertations, with abstracts. At some libraries selected articles are in full text, but most entries offer summaries only. Still, you get the juicy bits and if you need the gory details, you can seek out the original source.

Social Sciences Index. Covers core journals in the social sciences; some libraries have this database with abstracts included. For more complete coverage of research in the field of sociology, try SocioFile (the online version of Sociological Abstracts) of Social Sciences Citation Index (which sometimes goes by the alias Web of Science).

WorldCat. The Mondo-Catalog. Merges the catalogs of over fifty thousand libraries around the world that own over a billion books. Find out what a writer wrote, whether a title has been used already (it has, but don't let that stop you) and how many libraries bought your last book. You should realize, though, it's not a total count - not every library lists their books here, and not every library catalogs all of their books. Still - it's big. Very big. And recently they've incorporated references to articles, as well. The results include a handy citation gadget that will format a reference for you and also a map to the nearest library. However, check locally first - some libraries are not included, and when it says the nearest copy is 76 miles away it could be fibbing. 

special collections and services

Federal government documents are terrific sources of information and there are document depositories all over the country for citizens to use. They can be confusing, so definitely ask a documents librarians for help. Docs librarians also keep up with what's available from governments on the Web. Some depositories limit their collection to materials they think their communities need most, but every region of the country has a major depository.

Libraries often have special collections of rare books, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings and videos. In addition, they often have amazing things on microfilm ranging from newspaper backfiles to collections of political pamphlets, posters, or zines. Cool stuff.

If a library doesn't have a book or article you need, staff are likely to be able to get it for you through interlibrary loan. Ask if it's an option and how it works.

libraries of note

Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City. If it's about criminal justice and you can't find it here - it's probably just checked out. This treasure has 300.000 volumes, the majority of which are sociology and criminal justice sources, including otherwise difficult-to-locate reports from organizations and police agencies and a fabulous array of specialized databases. They also have special collections such as New York criminal courts trial transcripts from the 1890's through the post World War I years. Unaffiliated researchers can make arrangements to use the library by contacting the reference desk by phone (212) 237-8247 or by e-mail.

New York Public Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library. When you've finished your work at John Jay, take the subway down to 42nd and visit the Humanities and Social Sciences Library on Fifth Avenue. You can't miss it: look for the lions. (Their names - Patience and Fortitude - are just what every researcher needs.) The library is open to all. You can't go into the stacks, but that doesn't matter because books here are shelved by size, not subject. The library has an interesting mix of popular and research materials and a fantastic collection of newspapers on microfilm with indexes. Other research divisions include Science, Industry, and Business, the Library for the Performing Arts, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Incidentally, NYPL serves three of the city's five boroughs; Queens and Brooklyn have their own, quite wonderful library systems.

Library of Congress. It's a bit more of a hassle to use LC than NYPL - you have to get a Reader's Card in the neighboring Madison Building - but the extraordinary collection and the top-notch reference librarians are well worth the trouble. Like the NYPL Humanities and Social Sciences Library, you can't go into the stacks, but you can virtually browse by call number using their online catalog, which can really expand a search. The Web page for LC says "more than a library" - and, yes, their digital collections are great - but the library itself is a public treasure. You can take a tour and see exhibits without a Reader's Card - but you'll only get to peer down at researchers in the famous round reading room and envy those few, those industrious few who got their cards. Don't leave DC without it.

recommended reading

Thomas Mann. The Oxford Guide to Library Research. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. By one of the above-mentioned top-notch Library of Congress reference librarians. He knows his stuff and offers several different approaches, all of them grounded in experience. This new edition is well worth the price. Incidentally, Mann started out as a private investigator. For a more detailed description, see the entry in the OUP catalog.


The only people who think everything is on the Internet haven't used it much - typically, elected officials and college administrators who are so computer illiterate they have to have their secretaries print out their e-mail for them. Or people whose definition of "everything" is limited to what they can buy on eBay. It's not all there. Not by a long shot.

Nevertheless, the Internet is an essential research tool. Frustrating, goofy, full of technical glitches, and beset by annoying pop-up advertising - but essential. Sort of like libraries, come to think of it, except for the advertising.

what is - and isn't - on the Web

The Web is good for some things, not so good for others. If you're looking for information on current events, the law, computers, popular culture, guns, organizations, government affairs or whacked-out conspiracy theories, the web offers a lot; if you're looking for anything that someone might have reason to believe is marketable, you aren't as likely to find it on the Web.

That's because intellectual property is - well, property. Why give it away for free if it's your bread and butter? Libraries make intellectual property available to you for free, but only because they already paid for it.

The US Constitution recognizes that a balance has to be struck between encouraging production of art and knowledge and the social benefits of making it widely available. Concepts of first sale and fair use preserve that balance. Mystery writers usually don't object to seeing their books bought by libraries and shared widely; the payoff comes in attracting a wider readership who might buy their next book. Most academics, on the other hand, give away their copyright to the journals that publish their work because those starry-eyed idealists want to spread knowledge and (let's get real) they need the cred for tenure. They don't always understand that those publishers charge money for those journals. Lots and lots of money in some cases. (If you want to see an academic librarian spontaneously burst into flames, just say "oh by the way, what's the subscription rate for Tetrahedron Letters these days?") There's a movement afoot to make scholarly journal content free after a period of time (the PubMed Central archive of life science journals from the National Library of Medicine is an example) but there will always be a necessary tension between free and fee when it comes to valuable information.

So there's a lot of good stuff you won't find on the Web. Except - well, it gets confusing. Many of the databases and electronic books and journals that libraries pay for are accessed through a Web browser. These are "on the Web" but they aren't free and you can't tap into them unless you're in the library or you're authenticated remotely as a library user under the terms of a particular library's license. Further, the materials in these databases aren't typically included in search engine results.

One last point: Searches can take you to the websites of publishers who are happy to sell you that article for the low, low price of, say, $30. No, they aren't joking. Before you whip out your credit card, remember these may well be available to you through a library database. And if all else fails, scientists and scholars are often happy to share copies of their papers if you send them a polite e-mail request. 

search engines

There are many search engines and they have different protocols, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I'm used to Google and rarely use anything else, but you can find a list of all kinds of search engines at Wikipedia. 

Here are some general hints for using a search engine.

  • Think small. The more specific your search, the more likely you'll find what you want without wading through thousands of hits to get there. If your topic is broad and you're looking for a few good sites, skip the search engine and try a directory.
  • Put a phrase in quotes to search for those words in that exact order.
  • Use multiple terms. Google assumes you want all of the terms you type in to show up in your search - you don't have to use the boolean operator AND, but you can expand a search with OR in caps or exclude terms by placing a minus sign in front of a word: guns -roses.
  • Check out the advanced search options. With Google you can, for example, limit a search to sites updated within the past three months or to a particular domain type (e.g. .gov if you think what you are looking for is on a US federal government agency site.)
  • You can add a Google toolbar to your browser. This can save you time if you do a lot of impulsive searching. Then again, all that goofing around may be a symptom you're in denial about a looming deadline.

When reviewing your results, try these tricks:

  • Look at the URLs for clues. If the domain ends in .gov, it's likely an official government page. If there's a K12 in it, it's hosted on a school site and may be aimed at a young audience. Those with .edu are at institutions of higher education - no guarantee the site has any intellectual content. Those with .org are non-profit organizations. though nobody really checks; it could by your Uncle George. Countries also have abbreviations: .ca (Canada); .au (Australia); .uk (United Kingdom), .se (Sweden) and so on. You can limit a search in Google by adding the word "site" a colon and at least part of a URL: site:whatever.domain.
  • If something looks as if it came from a promising site, try shorting the URL by deleting everything after the first slash. Say you found a document on computer privacy issues with a long dot-org URL. Erasing most of it takes you to the parent site - which may have a lot more material on the topic.


You may want to save time by using a selective directory focused on your topic. These often have their own search engines, but focus your search to selected, vetted sites. Fortunately, there are many obsessive-compulsive types out there scanning the Web for good sites, and many of these directories are compiled by people who have subject expertise for evaluating their quality.

crime fiction research directory

In Reference to Murder. A blog focused on research tips that includes a wealth of useful links under such headings as "guns," "forensics," "police procedural," "private investigation," and more. I wish I'd thought of that.

criminal justice directories

MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. The personal obsession of Dr. Thomas R. O'Connor, professor of criminal justice and global security studies at Austin Peay State University. See also his lecture notes and course materials on a range of criminal justice topics. (The mystery of "what's up with the dancing hotdogs?" remains unsolved to this day.)

Selected Internet Links. These CJ sites are selected by the incredibly knowledgeable librarians at the Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Nicely organized by topic, with lots of new content added regularly.

Zeno's Forensic Site. An essential resource maintained by Zeno Geradts, a forensic scientist at the Netherlands Forensic Science Laboratory.

general directories of note

Internet Public Library. A long-standing collection of useful online research tools, now incorporating the selected and annotated links from the venerable Librarians' Internet Index.  

Scout Report Archives A searchable archive of Web site information from the University of Wisconsin, with descriptive and critical reviews. These sites were chosen for their valuable research content rather than for charming flakiness. You can also sign up for weekly e-mail alerts of new reviews.

WWW Virtual Library. A world-wide effort to compile expert guides to the Web - the original Web directory of directories.

we're from the government . . .

And we're here to help you. Really. The Web has enabled governments to distribute public information in ways never before possible. The material produced by government agencies typically is in the public domain and there's lots and lots of it. Though you may not always trust the government, one thing you can say for their Web sites is that they are quality controlled; employees can't post whatever they feel like. It's official. Of course, what's official can change when a new administration takes office.

Increasingly, state and local sites have a wealth of information. Need to find out if your PI needs a license to operate in a particular state? Get information about how a state crime lab handles evidence? Find out how many domestic assaults have been reported in a particular Chicago neighborhood in the last year? Chances are, it's online. Go quickly to state sites using this formula: http://www.state.stateabbreviation.us (for example, http://www.state.il.us). City URLs are less predictable than state ones, but many can be found using this formula: http://www.ci.nameofcity.stateabbreviation.us (for example, http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us). Or use one of the portals for government information listed below.

agency pages of note

Chicago Police Department. An example of a local law enforcement organization's page. The CLEARMap crime mapping program is amazing. You'll find similar geographic information systems and neighborhood data for many larger cities. 

Drug Enforcement Agency. Facts sheets on drugs, drug intelligence briefs, money laundering, and operations. There's even an online gift shop. No, they don't sell dime bags, but you can get a nice DEA hat.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Includes lots of information, including the very useful Handbook of Forensic Services, Forensic Science Communications, Law Enforcement Bulletin, and more.

Federal Bureau of Prisons. Includes some research articles, a basic overview of the system, and a database of inmate information so you can find out when Cousin Bubba is due for release. (Many state departments of corrections have similar inmate information available over the Web.)

Interpol. The Web site for this international organization includes information on terrorism, forensics, financial crime, and even football hooliganism. Includes fact sheets in various languages and international crime statistics.

National Criminal Justice Reference Service. An information resource jointly funded by a number of federal agencies. Includes a database of criminal justice articles and reports such as Crime Scene Investigation: A Guide for Law Enforcement and Guide for Explosion and Bombing Scene Investigation. What a blast!

National Institute of Justice. The research arm of the Department of Justice. Publications include reports on using DNA to solve cold cases and human smugglers.

Popular Baby Names. Stumped for a character's name? Want something appropriate to the character's age? This site lists popular names by decade, by year (1880 to present), and even by state if you're looking for a regional flavor. From the Social Security Administration.

US Department of Justice. Tons of stuff, from legal briefs to reports on topics such as computer crime and Waco. Wondering what kind of warrant you need for your character to seize computer records post-Patriot Act? Check out their Search and Seizure Manual - just don't hit "print" too soon; it's 256 pages long. The site includes a useful search engine that pulls up reports from many federal law enforcement agencies. 

general portals to online documents and public records

USA.Gov. An interagency effort to provide a portal to federal and state government information of all types.

Free Public Records Search. A commercial directory of US federal and local public records sources online, most of them free.

GPO Access. From the Government Printing office, a portal to government information.

Open CRS: Congressional Research Reports for the People. The Congressional Research Service compiles impressive reports on a wide variety of topics. Unfortunately, they aren't available to the public unless a member of Congress releases them. The Center for Democracy and Technology provides this handy central clearinghouse for over 8,000 CRS reports available on various Websites. Great stuff.

University of Michigan Documents Center. A well-maintained site with links to governments of all sorts, from local to international.

sources for statistics

Because so many beans are counted by government agencies, there is a wealth of numerical data on the Web. This is just a sampler of some criminal justice and general sources for stats. If you have a specific number you can't find, ask a librarian; they keep up with where to find these things in print or online.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. Lots of data on crime, victims, offenders, law enforcement, and topics such as drugs and crime. Includes the World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems, Homicide Trends, and the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online.

FedStats. A portal for all sorts of statistical data from federal Web sites.

National Archive of Criminal Justice Data. An archive of data from US federal and state data files as well as data collected by researchers. For hardcore number-crunchers.

Uniform Crime Reports. An annual compilation of crime data in the US compiled by the FBI.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. More numbers here than you can count, and not just about population. The Census also tracks business, agriculture, transportation, and lots of social variables.

you are here: finding your place on the Web

Readers love encountering a familiar place in fiction. The downside to this is that if you put a gas station on a corner where they know there's a flower shop, your poetic license gets revoked immediately. Never fear. Geographic Information Systems are getting so good at helping you find your way around, it's scary.

Google Maps. Look up a city or address to get a nice, clear street map, or better yet click on "satellite" to get an aerial view (or "hybrid" to combine them). Use arrows to navigate, or zoom in and out with the zoom tool. You can even make your own maps with the "my maps" feature. Many cities have street-level images that let you ramble down a street and see what it looks like. (More below.) 

Mapquest. Get a street map of Anywhere, USA.

on the street where you live . . .

EveryBlock. Want to know what's going on in a particular neighborhood? If it happens to be in Chicago, San Francisco, New York or other cities mapped by this service, you're in luck. Some enterprising programmers have teamed up with newshounds and the terminally curious to create mashups of public data sets, news feeds, and spatial data. You can easily set up an RSS feed to watch what's going down on those mean streets by zip code, neighborhood, police district, or address. Absolutely amazing.

Google Street View is a new feature of Google Maps that lets you scan 360 degree views of many streets in selected cities. This has been a tad controversial as people who live on those streets notice you can zoom in on things like cats in the window or your neighbor picking his nose. But it could help you remember if there's really a gas station on that corner or not.(Note, Google, in its usual mysterious ways, doesn't tell you when the pictures were taken; they are not up-to-the-minute.)

Is your city not among the chosen? There may be other sources of street-level views through the county assessor's office or a city GIS department. For example, you can see snapshots of every property in Cook County, Illinois and (with a bit of fiddling) virtually stroll down any Chicago city street, even those too scary for the Street View team. 

legal resources

There is a great deal of statutory and case law available through the Web. In addition to the portals listed below, don't forget that your library may have additional legal materials. Lexis/Nexis, for example, has the full text of law review articles that analyze legal issues in depth and trade journals that report legal news.

Findlaw. A commercial directory to law resources. Includes a handy law dictionary and a well-designed full text database of US Supreme Court decisions from 1893 to the present.

Legal Information Institute, Cornell University. A great place to start. Include links to statutes and case law by jurisdiction as well as topical guides to the law.

primary sources

Historians, museums, and libraries are putting huge collections of primary sources on the Web. These are in the public domain, so tend to be either out-of-copyright (a.k.a. pretty old) or they are official documents that are not copyrighted. The following links are merely examples of a growing number of virtual collections. If you can't find what you want, one of the directories might help. For example, there's a fabulous WWW Virtual Library directory of history sites that includes many primary source sites by region and period. 

American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Libray. Extraordinary collection of texts, photos, film and audio clips from the Library of Congress.

The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. Documents from the 18th century to the present, carefully prepared and well-organized.

EuroDocs Wiki. Selected facsimiles, translations, and transcriptions of key documents in European history.

Homicide in Chicago, 1870-1930. An amazing online coded database of the records of every homicide in Chicago for sixty years compiled by researchers at Northwestern University using handwritten police reports. Includes the Haymarket affair, the race riot of 1919, deadly packinghouse strikes, Leopold and Loeb, and gangland murders connected to Al Capone.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. Full-text access to over 100,000 trials held at London's Old Bailey between 1674 and 1834. Not only of interest for its legal content, but because of what these documents reveal about the lives of ordinary Londoners. 

books on the Web

Since the Web's earliest days, people have been putting books on the Web. Most of those available for free are old enough to be out of copyright, although there are exceptions. The book collections below are particularly helpful for full text searching to locate a half-remembered quote and for browsing contents. For more recently published books, the "search inside" feature of Amazon allows locating and viewing specific passages in thousands of books, though the pages can't be printed and you have to have made a purchase there to play. Google has a similar full-text book search, with full text access to out-of-copyright books and short snippets of newer ones.

Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia. Offers 70,000 electronic texts in the humanities, including many classic works. Of these, 1,800 can be downloaded to be read with the Microsoft Reader or Palm software.

Making of America Books Page. Full text of over 9,000 19th century books. Especially strong in education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology.

National Academies Press. Over 3,000 current books are available online. Among these are Firearms and Violence (2004), Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing (2004), Forensic Analysis: Weighing Bullet Lead Evidence (2004), Information Technology for Counterterrorism (2003), The Polygraph and Lie Detection (2003), Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice (2001), The Age of Expert Testimony (2002), Transnational Organized Crime (1999), The Evaluation of Forensic DNA Evidence (1996), and Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs (2001).

The Online Books Page. Created and maintained by John Mark Ockerbloom at the University of Pennsylvania, this page provides links to thousands of freely-available e-books, most of them previously published and no longer under copyright.

the good, the bad and the flaky

Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man said "There is no way of exchanging information that does not demand an act of judgment." In the case of the Web – and how. Not only can anybody publish anything on the Web, the clues one uses almost unconsciously to select a source - details on a title page, book jacket or in a masthead - are often missing. And because the Web is a library that collects everything from soup recipes to raving nuts, it requires more work to sort out what exactly you've turned up.

Use the same questions you always use when deciding whether a print source is credible or not.

  • Who created it? Determining authorship can take detective work on a Web page. Look for a link to the author's personal page, sometimes at the bottom of the page, or if it's an organization see if there's an "about" link. If you find a personal or organizational name, sometimes a bit of background checking with a search engine can help, especially if the author is kind enough to have an unusual name.
  • What does it provide? Is there any explicit description of what it covers and doesn't? If not, do clues in the language and presentation suggest its intended audience? Is it a research report, a spoof, a personal obsession, or a rant in search of like-minded crazoids? Each of these genres can be useful - doing a face-to-face interview with a crazoid isn't always convenient - but if you're looking for reliable facts or thoughtful analysis, seek confirmation in another source.
  • Where does it come from? URLs can offer clues about whether the site is an official government site or what country its server is in - see reviewing results of a search, above, for more details. Beyond that, shortening a URL by erasing everything after the first slash can sometimes take you to the host site where you may find more context.
  • When was it created? A few years ago, everything on the Web was fairly new. Now, finding up-to-date stuff is increasingly difficult. There may or may not be an indication of the date the page was created or updated. If currency is an issue, limit your search to pages updated within a recent period of time. (Google offers this limit in its advanced search.)
  • Why did someone put this information on the Web? Lots of people have means and opportunity - but what's their motive? Are they trying to persuade you of something? Express themselves? Amuse or instruct? Are they sharing information with other specialists, explaining something slowly and patiently to the uninformed, or hoping to sell you something? As any judge will tell you, intent is a crucial consideration in making a decision.

using the Internet to keep up

The Internet allows for rapid sharing of news, views, lies, innuendo, and everything in between. RSS feeds and e-mail alerts make it possible to regularly scan whatever frequency of human weirdness you want to monitor. The following sites can help you sound like an expert, or at least like someone who's been hanging out with experts. Some additional ways to keep up with the weird channel known as the book trade are listed in the epilogue.

Google Reader. A tool for gathering and gathering RSS feeds (short for Really Simple Syndication) that you want to follow. 

Google News. Offers continually updated news stories from around the world, gathered and sorted automatically. You can set up an alert to have news or web mentions of a particular topic sent straight to your inbox.

The Graveyard Shift - Lee Lofland's incredibly informative and very entertaining blog about police procedure, crime scene investigation, criminal law, and other nuts and bolts of interest to mystery writers.

Law and Fiction - Cross-examine your legal knowhow with legal scholar Leslie Budewitz by reading her columns and Q&A

a word about fieldwork

Of course, libraries and the Web can't entirely replace first-hand experience. For one thing, you don't get the smells.

On the other hand, the old rule - write what you know - could be not only risky but downright illegal if what you write about is murder. But with imagination and a little help from your friends, you can fake it. Writers do well to talk to professionals in the field, visit the places they plan to write about to saturate their senses with signals others might not pick up, listen to the expressions people use as they speak about their work and lives, and note insider anecdotes about the oddball events that nobody but a writer would put down on paper.

For one view of how library research and field work combine to make it real, check out an interview I did years ago with Gregg Sutter, Elmore Leonard's researcher.


Though this guide does not cover mysteries as a genre or book trade sources, I couldn't resist adding a few links to things I find indispensable.

wondering what to read next?

Mystery Scene Magazine. Interviews, profiles, articles about the writing life, and enough reviews (searchable if you use the search box in the lower right corner) to keep you running to your favorite bookstore or library. (Full disclosure: I write for them.) Other publications devoted to mysteries include Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers International (which has "At Home Online," a superb series of authors interviewing authors available at their Web site. For instant gratification, use the wonderful and totally free Web database, Reviewing the Evidence.

everything you ever wanted to know about mysteries

Stop, You're Killing Me is the ultimate mystery lover's resource. Find mystery series by author, protagonist, location, profession, ethnicity, genre ... it's amazing. 

The Crime of It All. Len Wanner's excellent and intelligent collection of over 250 author interviews and other treats.

Mysterati A wiki that is being developed to replace a long-running site, Cluelass. Includes links to authors, booksellers, events, organizations, periodicals, and websites. It's a work in progress, as all wikis are.

Have armchair, will travel? For European crime fiction material, try Karen Meek's excellent Euro Crime site. For a subset of Europe, see Scandinavian Crime Fiction, focusing on works available in English translation. For crime north of the border, check out Crime Fiction Canada and for downunder, there's AustCrime - a site for crime fiction in Australia and New Zealand. And just for fun, read Peter Rozovsky's Detective's Beyond Borders

talk it over with the experts

4_Mystery_Addicts. This list is not only for readers addicted to the genre, it's addictive itself. A warm and welcoming international community of readers who are, let's face it, a bit obsessed. One interesting feature is the twice-monthly group discussion of books chosen by the members. Another regular feature is "serial readers" who discuss several books in a series. Join in! You'll never run out of things to read - or messages to keep your inbox humming.

Crimespace. A social networking site for readers and writers of crime fiction. Like MySpace, only better. Daniel Hatadi, the Aussie proprietor, calls it "a place for readers and writers of crime fiction to schmooze, booze and draw up plans for the heist to end all heists" - but though the bar is a busy place, Daniel makes sure spam is not on the menu.

DorothyL. Sign up for this long-running e-mail discussion list and have a regular chat with well over two thousand mystery fans worldwide. Just be sure you read the instructions first. You WILL behave. And you will have fun. Unless, of course you break the rules, conveniently located on the Web page for handy reference. One of the neat features of this list is that there are searchable archives so if your plot has taken a turn for which must find those instructions for a potato gun that you vaguely remember reading in a digest a few weeks ago, you can do it in a flash. You will also never run out of things to read, with friends saying on a daily basis, "you have to read this book."

keep up with publishing and bookselling news

Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind - Sarah Weinman's peerless blog about crime fiction ... and more.

Publisher's Lunch. Stay au fait with Michael Cader's bouillabaisse of the latest news, gossip, and lunacy from the world of publishing, spiced with his asides. Sign up for a daily e-mail at his Web site. Though some offerings here are only available by paid subscription, a light Lunch is on Michael.

The Rap Sheet. Find out what's going down on the mean streets of crime fiction.

about the author

A native of Madison, Wisconsin, I've lived in Kentucky, Texas, Maine, and overseas, but now have settled in rural Minnesota, where I work as a college librarian. My main focus has been teaching students how to do research. I've consulted on the research sections of a number of writing handbooks published by Bedford/St. Martin's, including Research and Documentation Online, and have published articles on libraries and the book trade in Reference and User Services Quarterly, portal: Libraries and the Academy, American Libraries, SIMILE, Clues: A Journal of Detection and other publications.

I also write mysteries. My most recent book, Through the Cracks, was published by Minotaur in 2010.

The contents of this website, unless otherwise indicated, are licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License
. It was last updated December 2010.