Some questions raise eyebrows and suspicions when asked. Questions like "What's the best knife for slitting someone's throat?", "What do you need to make a pipebomb?" or "How would you go about hacking into the FBI's database?".
Occasionally these are things that characters in fiction need to know how to do in order to do what they do. Which means the writers need to consult experts, otherwise overly pickygeeks will go onto websites and wikis and complain about how they got their facts wrong.
Luckily this works for characters in fiction too. Bob can ask for suggestion how someone could hide the bodies in his trunk by telling Alice that he's writing a book about a murderer with several bodies in his trunk. Occasionally, she will Pull the Thread on this and Bob will either come up with a story or have the plot be what actually happened.
Similarly, a High School student can get away with just about anything by claiming "it's for a school project" or "it's part of my homework". This includes acquiring dangerous objects for an art or chemistry class.
Sometimes. Of course, this can be inverted: Bob really was researching for a murder mystery book and becomes a chief suspect when a former friend of his drops dead.
Unfortunately, there are instances in Real Life where people trying to research potentially dangerous or volatile information got investigated, and in some cases arrested, despite the fact that they were actually researching for a book or paper. However, pretending to be researching is also a tried and true Social Engineering tactic, making this an example of Truth in Television (with the variant that information as suspicious as the listed above is usually not requested for obvious reasons: usually Social Engineers ask apparently more harmless tidbits like technical jargon or internal proceedings, so they can impersonate employees more easily). Even authors who hadn't heard about this tactic could probably figure it out, since as they did research for their book, people gave them potentially dangerous information without batting an eye. Examples of this can be found in Kevin Mitnick's book The Art Of Deception.
A subtrope of the Bavarian Fire Drill, compare I Have This Friend. Comes up a lot because Most Writers Are Writers. See also Film Felons.
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In Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, Syaoran uses this excuse in one of the worlds to gather information of legends. He got the idea from his father, an archeologist, who used it all the time.
In Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni, Keiichi asks his mother how to go about committing the perfect murder, as he's planning to kill Satoko's abusive uncle.
(The answer is, "cover it up and have an alibi." You know, the answer that would presumably come to mind immediately.)
Later, Rika uses a better example of this trope; asking "What would a villain's motivations be and how should the heroine fight back?", claiming that she needs help with the manga she's writing.
Schoolwork variant: In Monster, Johan isolates, Mind Rapes, and ultimately kills Richard Braun by claiming he wants to interview him for an essay.
Jiraiya from Naruto is always peeking on women in the hot springs in the name of research.
DC ComicsGolden Age superhero Tarantula got into the superhero business mostly for writing a book about the exploits of "mystery men". In JSA The Golden Age, once his book became successful, he found it very difficult to follow it up with something else.
Part of the plot of Basic Instinct is that author/suspect Catherine Tramell wrote a book with a murder that matched a real one with chilling accuracy; a second murder then occurs that matches one from a second Tramell book.
Subverted in Kevin Smith's Mallrats, where there is a high-school aged character who has sex with older men (and films it) for a book she is writing. The book is actually published, and becomes a best seller.
In Hollywood Homicide, we briefly see the acting equivalent; a plummy actor (played by Eric Idle) is marched through a police station vehemently insisting that he wasn't soliciting a prostitute, but was doing research for a role. He then briefly says hi to Tina, a lady of the night he presumably has some acquaintance with.
Played straight in How To Murder Your Wife, where Jack Lemon's character is accused of killing his missing wife after people who've sold him gadgets for the comic-strip murder go to the police, who then find the photographs he used to create the strip.
To be fair, Jack Lemon's character was completely incapable of drawing from his imagination/was doing the research incredibly well, so in order to draw a comic about a man murdering his wife he enacted the murder of his wife, substituting her actual unconscious body for a dummy at the last minute. She got a bit upset and left him, and due to family tensions his servant believed he really had killed her and told the police, so he really was in a tight spot.
— the woman kissing the sailors claims "it's for research". "Dr. Kinsey, I presume?".
Used by the main character in Catch Me If You Can, who approaches an airline executive on the pretense of writing a report for school, and in the course of the conversation learns enough pilot jargon to bluff his way through a conversation with actual pilots when riding along in the jump seat.
In Militia, a Made For TV movie starring Dean Cain, a radical racist group plans to launch a nuclear missile at a city where the President is going to be giving a speech. To this end, they send a few men to a nearby silo, watched over by an old soldier, to scout out the defenses. When questioned, they claim to be filming a movie about a military base and want to use realistic props.
Gandalf in The Hobbit gives a variation of this as his initial explanation for why they needed the map to be translated by Elrond.
In P.D. James's Original Sin, the villain finds out on whom he needs to take revenge for things that happened decades ago, by pretending he's doing research for a novel called Original Sin.
In the Stephen King short story "Dolan's Cadillac", Robinson claims that he's writing a Sci Fi story and asks someone how much dirt the characters would have to excavate in order to trap the alien's vehicle. The person who gives Robinson this information comments something to the effect of "It's funny, the dimensions of that vehicle are almost exactly the same as a Cadillac."
King himself had to ask his brother how he'd go about burying a Cadillac, and got extensive details (even down to how to hotwire a digger). Of course, King had spent years preparing the alibi of being a best-selling writer by this point. He also claimed (in the author's notes of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which this story appears) that details of the crime were changed in the story so that it wouldn't actually work, just in case anyone reading it got ideas.
The Lord Peter Wimsey novel Strong Poison uses the inverted version: Harriet really is writing a murder mystery, and purchases arsenic to see how hard she should make it for her poisoner to get some. Then her ex-lover turns up dead of arsenic poisoning, for completely unrelated reasons, so naturally she's Wrongly Accused of killing him.
In the novel Wilt, by Tom Sharpe, Wilt claims he was researching murder methods which led up to people believing he murdered his wife.
If Saddam Hussein had said he was doing a project on Kuwait, the Gulf War would never have happened.
This trope even shows up in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo and his companions arrive at the inn in Bree, they realize they're going to need a plausible explanation for their wandering out of the Shire — so Frodo claims to be a historian who's thinking of writing a book about the relationship between the Shire and Bree. Two volumes later, as they're returning home through Bree, Frodo is asked if he's written his book yet. He says he's still getting his notes in order. He wasn't completely lying - like Bilbo before him, Frodo recorded the story of the characters in the Red Book, which was then passed down through generations of hobbits.
In an Animorphs book (#6, The Capture), the Animorphs are attempting to prevent the Yeerks from taking a politician when he has surgery at a hospital they control. To find out when he'll be there, Marco calls his office and gets his schedule by claiming to be from the press.
This kind of thing happened in real life, when writing the books, too (mostly by ghostwriters). Laura Battyanyi-Weiss had to look up limited information on Giant Squids when writing #27 The Exposed.
Lisa Harkrader, for book #44 The Unexpected, had to research planes, amputation, non-returning (hunting) boomerangs, and Aboriginal life. For the airplane research, she talked to a retired TWA mechanic "to find out how Cassie could get from the cargo hold to the passenger area of a jet." In #51 The Absolute, Lisa also had trouble researching tanks (how to steal and board them), arousing suspicion (and getting nowhere) when she called the army. Eventually a retired Army tank commander named Art Alphin provided Lisa with the info she needed and read over details in the book for accuracy.
In book 29, The Sickness, Cassie knows that someone must perform brain surgery on Ax to remove his Tria gland. She runs inside her house and tells her mom she's doing a school report on animal brain surgery. "Any books you think might help?"
Jo actually does research poisons for her horror stories in Little Women, and it's mentioned that she makes librarians suspicious.
In Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot is asked to reinvestigate a murder that had happened sixteen years earlier. When speaking with some of the witnesses, he claims he is writing a book about famous murders in order to get them to provide written accounts of what they remember.
In Third Girl, author surrogate Ariadne Oliver claims to be researching how easy it is to follow someone, when following a suspect on behalf of Poirot. She tells the suspect she's concluded it's quite difficult.
Of course, it's pretty clear that Slughorn knows on some level that Riddle's story is complete bull: asking for info on Horcruxes for "a project" would be akin to a 6th grader asking for information about anal broomstick rape "for homework"... but he plays along anyway because he doesn't want to think badly of or disappoint his star pupil.
And several books earlier, in Chamber of Secrets, Hermione pulled the same trick to get Professor Lockhart's permission to get the book with the directions on how to make Polyjuice Potion from the Restricted Section.
Ron points out how pointless it was considering Lockhart didn't even read what they were looking for.
Inverted in one of the stories in Ken Hornsby's autobiography Is That The Library Speaking?: the librarians become suspicious of a man who takes out books on poisons and legal defence, but it eventually turns out he's a mystery fiction author.
In the book Aquila, the main characters told an archaeologist they were talking to someone in Latin online so they could get help with translating the interface on their spaceship. Later on, when they were trying to figure out how much water was needed to fully refuel the ship, one of them got his dad to do the maths for them, claiming it was for school. Also, one of them keeps the scrapbook on the ship by claiming it for something they're writing. Eventually one of the boys' parents finds the log of everything they have been doing and while the boys think they have been caught out, everybody just thinks that it is a book and bring the trope back to basics.
In Lolita when Mrs. Haze is staying with Humbert Humbert and discovers his diary, he claims that it is actually a fictional account, and he was merely using their names for the characters. She doesn't buy it, but "fortunately" she gets hit by a truck before she can act on her discovery.
This is toyed with in the Gold Eagle series Track. The main character, Dan Track, is a consultant to action writers on getting guns right and writing convincing combat. He is good at this because he owns a lot of guns and slaughters about a hundred guys per book (in justified shootouts, naturally).
There's a Nancy Drew book where a crook is using this as cover for casing peoples' houses.
In Aunt Dimity Digs In, a pamphlet is stolen from the vicarage, and The Vicar and his wife are deeply distressed by the theft. Hoping they may have seen something, Lori questions the owners of the neighbouring cottages by claiming to be doing research for Lilian Bunting's book on the village's history.
On Friends, Chandler leaves Ross's baby on the bus, and has to call the Transportation Department to get it back. Rather than admit he left the baby behind, however, he tells the operator it's for his book. "Yes, what's that? Yes, it would have to be a very stupid character to leave their baby on the bus."
On Journeyman, Dan calls a physics professor to ask about Time Travel, saying it's for a book he's writing. The professor obviously knew more about Dan's predicament than he was letting on but the series was canceled before it was revealed.
Simon used "It's for a school paper" to get information on baby safe haven laws on 7th Heaven (which didn't fool anyone).
One episode of Boston Legal had a woman ask for details in how to commit a crime, then added the phrase "for a book" after Alan Shore said he'd have to call the cops.
Veronica Mars used to use "it's an assignment for health class" (or some variant thereof) to cover all kinds of activities, including collecting a DNA sample from her dad. Somewhat justified in that she's a good actress and usually plans out her requests beforehand instead of making them up on the spot.
The series actually inverts it in the third season. The final assignment from Veronica's former FBI agent criminology professor? A paper on how you'd commit the perfect murder. When the Dean ends up dead in a manner that copies elements from Veronica's paper, she is seriously wigged.
One episode of the show Cheaters featured a man who used this excuse after being caught with a hooker.
The titular character of Merlin once claimed that he needed a book for 'homework'... and appears to be believed, despite this being both illogical and anachronistic (though also rather amusing).
It's inverted in a later episode, after Merlin gives Arthur some startlingly good advice, and on being asked how he's so knowledgeable, tells him "I read a book."
In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Earshot", the Scooby Gang pretend to interview teachers and students for the yearbook at Sunnydale High to find out the identity of a potential gunman. "Hi, Mr. Beach. I was just wondering if you were planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? Oh, it's for the yearbook."
And the profiles turn out so interesting that they end up actually being used in the yearbook.
And they also claim to be in the school "archaeology club" to explain their sudden interest in Incan mummies to someone that they assume is a muggle. ( Turns out she's the mummy.)
"Rehearsing a play" tends to be used if a Muggle catches the Buffy heroes talking about demons and monsters.
In one episode, Castle, a famous writer, tells a thief he wants the details of a break-in in order to get the details right in his book. He really wanted the information the thief had in order to catch a murderer, and pretending it was for a book got the thief to open up.
He wasn't pretending, he just didn't mention he also wanted the thief to tell him because of the murder investigation. Everything Castle does is for his books!
Also inverted when a method actress hired to play the Beckett Captain Ersatz Nikki Heat not only dresses and acts like Beckett (to the annoyance of the latter and the joy of Castle seeing ''two''Becketts), but also tries to sleep with Castle in order to properly play the romance between Nikki and Rook (Castle's Author Avatar). She even goes so far as to ask Beckett for help in seducing him.
To be honest, he was never really in the first place...
Which falls squarely under this trope. It was a convenient excuse.
Odyssey 5. The protagonists consult a cantankerous sci-fi writer (an obvious Harlan Ellison-expy) on the events of the series, claiming it's for a sci-fi novel. In a Crowning Moment of Funny, he criticizes the numerous scientific errors in statements clearly based on internet fan criticism of the pilot episode.
Done well in Home and Away: Belle is kidnapped by Dom, an unstable stalker who thinks she's in love with him. After her boyfriend Drew rescues her, he ends up running Dom over while trying to escape. Weeks later, Dom is in hospital from an infection he received because he didn't get treatment for his injury. Drew panics at the possibility that Dom could press charges, and has his friend Lucas, a writer, consult Morag, a former judge, for legal advice. Lucas gives her the scenario, under the guise of writing a book — "Wolf Creek meets Puberty Blues", — and relays the information to Drew. There is no indication that Morag knows the truth.
Referenced in Peep Show, when Jeremy is attending an interview for a cleaning job and tries to secure the position by claiming to find cleaning out plug-holes "interesting" (he desperately wants the job so he can stalk his ex-girlfriend). The interviewer seems baffled as to why anyone would seem so enthusiastic about cleaning, and asks if Jeremy is researching for a novel or something. Not wanting to seem over-qualified, Jeremy replies: "What's a novel?"
Used by the villains in the episode "Dirty Bomb" of NUMB3RS. They contacted a professor at Cal Sci for information about a particular radioactive isotope, claiming it was for a movie.
Face and Triple A used this tactic to obtain some ridiculous props (such as a small airplane) and funding from the Mexican Film Bureau in an episode of The A-Team.
Saturday Night Live has this gem from fictional presidential candidate Tim Calhoun: "I have touched many pages in my life... because I am a voracious reader... of child pornography... studies. Illustrated studies."
Jessica Fletcher will sometimes use this trope, or let people think she's using it, to get closer to murder investigations in Murder, She Wrote.
On Mr And Mrs Murder Charlie and Nicola pass off their interest in the dose at which ketamine becomes fatal as being for a book.
On MythQuest, Alex and Cleo use "it's for a school project" excuse anytime they need information about a myth from someone who isn't in on their secret.
On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon allows someone to use her personal computer, adding "Okay, but if you look at my internet history, Iím researching a movie about two male centaurs kissing."
That was actually parodied in a late 2011 issue of Knights Of The Dinner Table when the main group is running a Call Of Cthulhu game with themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Lampshaded when the Homeland Security agent in charge of that night's shift recognizes the IP address as coming from gamer-heavy Muncie, Indiana and calls off the team.
Used by Dahlia Hawthorne in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations. When asked what a literature student was doing in the basement of a courthouse she responds that she was doing a research in a paper she was writing. Actually she was there being questioned by an attorney on suspicion of a murder, and she used the opportunity to poison him.
In Scratches, the protagonist tries to get information about the mystery he is investigating by calling the retired police officer responsible for the case and pretending to be a reporter writing about famous murder cases.
In Fahrenheit, Lucas claims to be a reporter writing a story about Mayan antiques and their relation to ritual sacrifice to get information out of a visiting expert. It's seen through almost instantly, though.
Marble Hornets season 2: When a passerby at the hotel Jay woke up in asks why he has a camera strapped to his body, he explains that he's shooting a documentary...about hotels. Turns out later she didn't really believe him.
Behind The Veil has an interesting version combined with a cover up; to hide the fact that a wererat was seen bursting through several university walls and the side of a trailer (not to mention running over any student in the way), the Technocracy ended up creating an elaborate cover up to pass it off as a marketing stunt gone wrong for an upcoming film. Then again the story was boosted with magic specifically to kill the idea that it was an actual wererat.
In one episode of Family Guy, Stewie (using mind control) tries to use Chris to buy a "hand-operated buzzsaw capable of cutting through a human sternum". The store clerk gives him a funny look and Stewie makes Chris say, "It's for a...school project! I need it for...blast, what the devil do these kids study...Latin class!"
In Monsters Inc, Sully and Mike are hiding a human child from their fellow employees. When the employees overhear a heated discussion between Sully and Mike about the kid, they explain that they're writing a "company play". Oddly, they end up actually writing that play, and the play is performed at a company function during the movie's closing credits.
A typical handwave for aspiring graffiti artists at a hardware store is "It's for a school art project"/"We're renovating".
Some people have noted that you can get away with anything on the LiveJournal community little_details by prefacing your query with: "I'm writing a story where..."
The same goes for the Plot Realism Forum on Nanowrimo's website. Here someone asked how many bottles a blended five year old would fill. Wayback Machine archive. There was some disagreement on just how much a 5-year old would weigh and whether the child should be cooked first, but most said somewhere between 20 and 40 liters. The closest thing to an expert (someone who tried it with a duck) thought that a fifty-pound child would take ten quarts.
Another thread had someone asking how much jello it would take to fill up the White House. It quickly devolved into a discussion of which flavor would be best.
There was also, famously, another discussion on how many koalas it would take to fill a Tokyo subway car. That one got revamped a couple of years running and was more for fun than for real. There was, however, quite a bit of serious discussion about whether the koalas were flattened, crated, alive, dead, and male or female, and if the subway car had seats in it or not. If female, an interesting tangent developed about whether or not they were pregnant, since pregnant koalas are more likely to need their personal space, and what might happen if one (or all) of said pregnant koalas gave birth on the train. The answer was something like 1500 koalas, based on the volume of the car and the average volume of a koala.
Also used by people posing as journalists in many media to get information. "I'm working on an article..."
David Hahn, the "radioactive boy scout", used this excuse to pick up large amounts information, which he used to create a nuclear reactor. Of course, he was doing it because he enjoyed his nuclear merit badge project so much.
One careless murderer left all his murder plans on a floppy disk, which was confiscated by investigators. Given how closely the details he'd written matched the actual murder, the "it's for a book!" defense fell flat.
According to legend, in the early 1950s Japanese police arrested two men who were in a restaurant discussing how to destroy Tokyo. They were the director and producer of what would become the original Gojira movie. The commentary track on the Gojira DVD says that the police showed up when some of the production team were up on top of a building in downtown Tokyo, discussing which of the other buildings in sight they wanted to "destroy". No one actually got arrested.
Crime author Ian Rankin once returned from an isolated cottage in the Scottish hills and requested to speak to a Police Officer about several 'plot points' for his story. Questions such as: police procedure in child abduction/murder cases, sentence lengths, etc. Unbeknownst to him a young girl had been kidnapped and murdered earlier that week — and here was a quite scruffy man 'researching' about a very similar topic. Unsurprisingly, he was questioned.
Author K.A.Applegate got very annoyed answers from the military because of questions she asked about the build of tanks, airplanes, and an aircraft carrier.
There was a Nick game show at one point that required kids to go to various public places and (with the aid of a hidden camera) get people to do various ridiculous actions (eat bugs, wear silly hats, etc.) The usual explanation was something like "We're doing a school project".
When Winona Ryder was busted for shoplifting, she claimed she was just doing research for a role. No one bought it for a second.
After being caught accessing child pornography, British comic Chris Langham claimed it was in preparation for a role. He was convicted and sentenced to ten months imprisonment (later reduced to six) at trial, and the appeal judge remarked that his explanation was "highly improbable".
Similarly, Pete Townshend of The Who claimed that he was doing research for a book after being caught accessing a site which provided links to child pornography (although he apparently didn't download any actual pornography). The main problem was that it was a pay site, and he'd used his credit card to access it. The officials basically said "It's not a question of whether he was doing this for a book or not, so much that he gave these people money."
A surprising number of men on Dateline: To Catch A Predator have claimed that their intention was not to have sex with the girl or boy, but to teach them about the dangers of talking to strangers online, or that they walked into a stranger's house in the middle of the night to research the housing market. Of course, their story is Swiss cheese once the host reveals he has a copy of the chat logs and that is definitely not what the suspect talked about.
In his book Shark Life, Peter Benchley notes he once asked his father which end of a shark would float were it cut in half.
On the commentary track for Saw, Leigh Whannell mentions how, early in the scriptwriting, he asked a doctor which drug was best to use if you wanted a person to be unable to move, but still be conscious and able to feel pain. —> "He was suspicious".
The customer in thisNot Always Right entry is probably on the level. It would be far weirder if she wasn't.
For all you Spec-Monkeys out there: never be afraid to call someone. A very nice lady from the Boston PD Public Relations Department spent a good hour with us on the phone explaining how evidence is stored and transferred in the Boston PD system...Then, we got some vague answers from bank-alarm companies about the protocols for bank alarms and how police deal with them...by cross-referencing the answers we got from the companies to fill in the blanks, we got a very good sense of how these things go down. At which point Boylan and I, who were the ones working on the script (the rest of the room had moved on to #310), realized we should totally go rob a bank.
Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files, once asked an aquarium worker what would happen if someone were to break the glass of one of the exhibits. He later reported that he caused this worker (and others) a great deal of distress with this question.
When writing books about warfare and nuclear subs and such, Clancy often asked for info. He was once stunned when he was sent piles of information and parts bordering on classified, expecting instead to be brushed off. He even mentions, in the afterword for The Sum of All Fears, being able to get manuals for the equipment used by the US government for manufacturing nuclear weapons, just by writing requests.
When The Hunt for Red October was published, he was asked who had given him classified information. The subsequent investigation revealed that a lot of the "classified technology" was primarily extrapolation from non-classified sources that was, for the government, uncomfortably close to accurate.
In the writer's commentary on The Sum Of All Fears, Clancy describes how he was allowed by the air force to see a Stealth bomber, but not to touch it, since "Maybe they were afraid I could tell how the stealth worked by feeling it?" note The real reason is more mundane: The skin is very fragile, where a wrong touch can damage the very expensive material and negatively impact the radar signature of the aircraft.
Interesting fact: If you knock on someone's front door, are/pretend to be an architecture student, and say that you just happened to be passing by and thought their house looked interesting and could you perhaps come inside and look around/take some pictures for a school project, then chances are the people who live there will actually let you inside their house even though you are a complete stranger.
A question that comes up frequently in real-life Masters of Library Science exams is the question of whether or not you assist a patron that's looking for information on something questionable (like forensics), or illegal (building bombs).