Showing posts with label research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label research. Show all posts

16 April 2018

Two (Or Three, Or Four) Trains Running

by Steve Liskow

Back when I started reading grown-up mysteries like Ed McBain and Rex Stout, their books weren't much longer than the Hardy Boys books I'd recently left behind. If I pick up one of those books now, they feel very linear. We go from point A to point B, C, D and so on and eventually we can predict the next bead on the string. Maybe that's why some of the heroes of mystery who started in pulp could churn them out so quickly. Even if they offered surprises along the way, they built the stories on one logical progression.

Today's stories, especially bestsellers and blockbuster thrillers, are much longer, and new writers often complain to me that they can't come up with enough events to go on that long.

Use subplots.

Subplots spread the workload among characters and help with pacing by changing the point of view. They can help you hide information, too. One character discovers something, but he can't tell someone else right away. This builds tension because the reader knows something the Good Guy doesn't.
 
Subplots work best if they connect to the main theme of your novel. That helps you create a unified story instead of a bunch of different strands the don't have much to do with each other. Random stuff risks ending up like Boccaccio's Decameron, a hundred stories you can put in any order and they won't affect anything else.

In The Whammer Jammers, I focused on subplots because all my research on roller derby (My daughter
was Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire) showed me there was more to the sport than chicks on wheels. When I started my interviews, I had no plot idea, but talking with a squadron of intelligent, funny, and very together women inspired several characters who demanded stage time.

The main plot follows Tracy "Trash" Hendrix, suspended from the Hartford Police Department after shooting a suspect. He's hired to do security for a roller derby team. He didn't even know the sport still existed (I didn't either), but he admires the women's supporting each other to do more and better. That came from my research, where several women told me they were more self-confident and assertive at work because of the encouragement and affirmations they gained from hanging with strong friends.
My subplots all involve female empowerment. Annie Rogers, AKA "Annabelle Lector," is trying to break up with an abusive boyfriend, and two other skaters, divorce lawyer "Roxie Heartless" and social worker "Tina G. Wasteland," help her file a restraining order to break the cycle of abuse. Danny Keogh, a local contractor, sponsors the team and helps organize a fund-raiser for a local women's shelter. He's also romancing a skater who works at a bank. Bad guys plan to stage a riot at the derby event to distract police while they rob that same bank. Even though the separate threads involve different characters, they have a common denominator and resolve together at the end of the book.



Who Wrote the Book of Death? uses connected subplots, too. Zach Barnes agrees to protect Beth Shepard from death threats. He soon learns that Beth is the stand-in for a man who writes bodice-ripper romances under the pseudonym "Taliesyn Holroyd," and she appears at events because people expect a romance writer to be female. Both Beth and Barnes are recovering from trauma: Beth was raped in college and never reported it, and Barnes was a police officer whose pregnant wife died in his arms after a traffic accident.
He started drinking and lost his badge. Beth and the male writer bring up identity issues, and the stalker targeting Beth seems to use disguises, too. Barnes and Beth become lovers, as do Svetlana (Barnes's associate) and Jim Leslie, the real writer.

Simple, huh?

Seriously, plotting takes me a long time because I try to work subplots with supporting characters into the mix, but it deepens those characters. Now I carry certain issues along with each series. Zach and Beth have appeared in five books so far, and now they own a house together. Trash Hendrix and his partner Jimmy Byrne ("Trash & Byrne") now appear in two roller derby novels and are supporting characters in several Barnes books. They also appear in the fourth Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Woody and his companion Megan Traine are divorced 40-somethings who play music and are trying to find variations on their previous Bad Love Blues.

Some concerns recur as subplots in several of my stories. I don't know if that's because of my own personal peccadilloes or whether I hardwired them into the characters. Probably some of both.

How do you use subplots?

04 December 2017

Old Dogs and New Sticks

by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, a woman who has acted in five or six plays with my wife (I directed one of them) invited me to her home because she had "something to show me." She mentioned "corruption," "graft," bootlegging" and murder, too. Your typical date, right? Naturally, I accepted.

A week later, I followed my GPS down a series of twisting back roads through woods and dales to her house, where I found her dining room table sagging under legal pads, file folders, photographs, and her laptop, which looked exhausted.

"Check this out." She showed me a Hartford Courant front page from 1921 (below) featuring FIVE different stories, all continued later in the paper, about Andrew J. Richardson and his son Andrew F. Richardson, who were arrested for bootlegging, auto theft, possible murder and a variety of other charges. some of the headlines were priceless. My personal favorite (bottom of upper right cluster) is "Mom Sobs While Sons Nabbed." They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Reading farther, I learned that Richardson pere and fils were detectives on the New Britain, Connecticut police force. In fact, Dad was the Chief of Detectives. Oops. And it gets even better. I looked up at my friend, Nancy Richardson Cardone.

"That's my great-grandfather," she said. "You think there's a book in here?"

"How much material do you have?" I congratulated myself for not drooling.

She held up a flash drive. "About 200 files."

She gave me a copy of that flash drive and we discussed options. Eventually, I convinced her that the best bet is to find a traditional publisher because she has pictures and other documents from the side of the family her relatives never discussed when she was growing up. She went to Ancestry.com and it turns out she is a brilliant researcher. If Robert Mueller needs someone to flesh out his investigation team, I know where he should look.

I've looked through the files. A lot of them have family value--birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and an autopsy report (yes, really!)--but most of them provide little or no narrative. Nancy knew a few great anecdotes, but they may not even be relevant. I told her that if we can find enough material to produce a coherent story, it's probably going to take three to five years. Since it looks like I would do the writing, I told her I've never tried nonfiction and this could take away two of my few strengths: dialogue and interviewing people. After all, the events took place nearly a century ago, so none of the major players will sit down to chat.

Another downside is that I've never put together a nonfiction proposal. I've started researching that, too, and it looks like a cross between a marketing plan and my Master's thesis. Fortunately, I can write within rigid constraints. As an English teacher, I could sling jargon with the worst of them and still be somewhat coherent (yes, I know that's a sin). I've also written grant proposals, the literary equivalent of jumping through progressively smaller flaming hoops while pounding nails into your forehead. I never want to write another one.

The project has some bright spots, too. I taught in New Britain, scene of the crime, for over thirty years and have former students in city government and on the police force. Maybe someone will remember what a brilliant, funny, and generous guy I was and open a few doors. The gang operated out of several sites, but one was a farm in Newington (where I now live), between New Britain and Hartford. Without even knowing it, I drove past that farm on my way to New Britain High School for years. If we need more pictures, that farm is still there.

New Britain was one of the most prosperous towns in the Northeast a century ago (ever heard of Stanley Hardware or Fafnir Bearing?) and has an industrial museum that I highly recommend if you're ever in the area. They have fascinating exhibits and even more fascinating people who can tell you all about them.

Last week, I tracked down a former colleague who used to do genealogy for clients back before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. He suggested several other possible sources of information.

I know, I could use whatever we find as the basis for a novel, but I'd still have to research the story anyway, and there's more competition (Dennis Lehane's The Given Day comes to mind instantly). If the information is there, nonfiction seems like a better choice even if it does feel like learning to play guitar again...left-handed.

What do you think? Does this sound like a good story? Would you read it? And how old do you have to be before you can learn new tricks?

04 September 2017

Location, Location, Location

by Jan Grape

Most if not all writers have heard teachers, agents, editors and mentors tell us to write what we know. That it is very important. It's also important to research the subject, the occupation and the location of your characters and where you are writing about.

It's not always possible to visit the town or the state you desperately want your characters to inhabit. You can read books about your location, read travel guides, talk to friends or relatives. Yet we all know if possible, we should try to visit the area or town. You do understand your travel expense will be tax deductible, right?

Sometimes a town can surprise you. Take Nashville, TN for instance. Home of Country Music. Grand Old Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. The Columbia River runs all through the town. It's also the home of the Tennessee Titans, The Nashville Predators are their winning hockey team. It's the Home of President Andrew Jackson, Vanderbilt University and Medical Center. Yes, Nashville is all that and even more.

My daughter, Karla has lived there for twenty-three years and I've visited several times, seeing all the things I mentioned above. This summer's visit, I saw things in Nashville that I had never seen before and wouldn't write about in a story unless I had visited there with a daughter who loves exploring the town where she currently lives.

One of the first things we did was go to a Jazz Club. A Jazz Club in the heartland of Country Music? Yes. It's new and since Nashville is a music loving town it likely will become a hip place to go. The night we were there a young man was playing a piano. He was quite good and after he took a break he added a friend who played saxophone along with him. A full jazz band came in a little later but we had already had dinner and a couple of drinks and were ready to head home.

A week or so later, we met a couple of friends at an Irish Pub. There was a five or six person band playing Irish or Celtic music on the other side of the room. Irish Music in the home town of the Grand Old Opry? Yes. Why not? It's not unusual to find an Irish Pub in a large city. Or probably even a mid-sized one, but I personally had never been to one. The Guinness Steak and Pie was fantastic.

Another night we went to a Holiday Inn in downtown Nashville to their famous Commodore Room. So named because it's across from Vanderbilt University who's nickname is the Commodores .We were hoping to be there for a singer/songwriter night. Up and coming performers come and play their original music for tips. A group of four performers were there and we got to hear them each play and sing a couple of songs.

When they left the stage, we were expecting second group of singer/songwriters but instead a Jazz Band took the stage. Jazz again? Yes, indeed. Maybe jazz is going to be an up and coming thing in Nashville. Who knew?

We did have a treat as this band had a jazz singer. A gentleman singer who's name I'm sorry to say that I have forgotten, but he was awesome. He opened with "My Funny Valentine," slow and sweet. Then mid-way he began a series of jazz riffs with his voice that would have thrilled Ella Fitz Gerald.

Since our big goal was a singer/songwriter night we left after Karla called and found out a friend was hosting such an event in a club in Hendersonville (a bedroom town to Nashville) so we headed there. Of course, we heard some good original music. Many of these folks may only play in small venues but they often pick up fans and followers and make their own CDs to sell and often make a decent living.

One of the last days in Nashville we drove downtown on a Sunday afternoon and drove down Music Row. Most record labels have offices there. Also some booking agents have offices. Then we drove down Lower Broad (Broadway) where many clubs are located. Some of the clubs are owned by a famous country star like, Blake Shelton. Or a famous star like the late, George Jones.

And I saw one of the funniest vehicles I've ever seen.
It's known as a party-tavern. It's about the size of a horse drawn wagon but it is powered by ten or twelve or eighteen people pedaling away. The people sit on bicycle seats and pedal. And the company renting them has a driver to steer this vehicle, while the people who have brought their own alcohol, sight-see and party. If you ride on these party taverns they are NOT allowed to serve alcohol as then the company and the pedalors could be charged with a DUI. These party taverns may be in many cities but I live in a small town and had not seen them before.

Nashville is now known as the Bachlorette Party Capitol of the World. The ladies in the bachlorette groups usually wear t-shirts saying they are Maid of Honor or Bridesmaids and of course the bride has a T-shirt that says BRIDE. And usually she wears a short veil.

We also visited Centennial Park on another Sunday afternoon and Karla pointed out a Pavilion where on Saturday nights there can be Big Bands playing music from the 30s and 40s and dance instructors to teach Jitterbug and Charleston, etc. People bring chairs or a blanket and maybe a cooler and dance or just enjoy the music.

Also there's a Musician's Corner where Singer/songwriters will come on a Saturday afternoon in late summer and early fall to perform. Again people bring their chairs or blankets. A picnic basket and a cooler of drinks to listen to some good music.

Nashville is still known as the biggest and first Music City and you can certainly enjoy live music to your heart's content. If you are going to write about Tennessee I suggest you visit Nashville. Or where ever you're writing about, it certainly will give you the best flavor possible if you can visit and remember, location, location, location.

Hope you're enjoying a good family day and cook-out on this last holiday week-end of the summer.

22 July 2017

Why Being a Writer is the Best Excuse Ever

by Melodie Campbell (bad girl, back to her silly self)

There are all sorts of reasons for being a writer.  (Money isn’t one of them, in case you were wondering.  Unless, of course, you are a masochist.  Then again, many writers are.  We’d have to be, to put up with this biz.  But I digress.)



Many of us write because we can’t help it.  All sorts of demented characters have taken over our loopy minds.  If we don’t let them out to live their own lives on paper, all sorts of bad things will happen.  For instance, they may induce us writers to perform their fantasies in reality, on behalf of their little selves.  This might be fun if you are writing erotica.  Not so great, if you’re a crime writer, like me.


That aside, there are many reasons that being a writer can be great fun.  You get to kill people on paper.  (Okay, I’m just now realizing how twisted that sounds.) 


Moving on, being a writer gives you all sorts of excuses for bizarre and socially-inept behavior.  In social situations, friends can look over at you, shake their heads, and say confidentially to others, “It’s okay, really.  She’s a writer.”  Sort of how being an Australian explains things.


Here are some things that can really work to your advantage (reword: you can work to your advantage.)


The Research:  writing a book gives one all sorts of excuses to do research.  This can be as innocent as merely looking up things on the internet (exactly what is the distinction between hot romance and porn? Checking Yutube…hey, every writer knows Show Not Tell is best.)


The Bar:  all writers meet in bars, right?  Certainly all agents and editors do.  Especially those from out of town who don’t have offices in the vicinity.  “I have to meet my editor at The Drake,” you call out to all concerned.  And then you gather up your laptop, notebooks and cell phone.  The hard part is, you must remember to bring all those things back from the bar after your ‘meeting’. 


The Deadline:  your major excuse for getting out of any dull social obligations, including ant-infested picnics and relative-infested gatherings.  “I’m on deadline!” you cry frantically, even if your deadline is nine months from now.  (Nine months…nice metaphor.  Probably, I came up with it while in The Zone.  See below.)


In case you are still not convinced that being a writer is the best excuse ever, let me introduce you to The Zone.  This is the place your writer-mind travels to when it really doesn’t want to be where your body is. You can zone out at any time, in any social situation. 

Enjoy this.  Milk this.  Smile and look distracted .  Your boss, inlaws or editor will nod knowingly, as if they are a party to a big secret.  They will look upon you sympathetically and say to each other, “Oh.  He’s planning his next book.” 


Which can be really useful if what you are really planning is how to do away with your boss, inlaws, or editor.




06 October 2015

Murder at a Nudist Colony? Ah, the Joys of Research.

by Barb Goffman

Questions I've asked over the last few years that never would have crossed my mind before I became a mystery writer and editor:
  • If you're found with a murder victim and the police take your clothes for examination, will they also take your underwear?
  • If a murder occurs at a nudist colony, and the suspect is a colony member, how does the pat down work during arrest?
  • Is it easy to break into a home by crawling through a doggy door?
  • How does a groundhog react when cornered?
  • What's the approval process for exhuming a body? How hard is it to dig up a casket? What does an exhumed body look like? And smell like?
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche?
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much?
Yes, I now know the answers to all these questions. I'll give the answers below. But first, a few observations:

It pays to have friends. How do I know the answer to the underwear question? I asked my friend
Robin Burcell
author Robin Burcell, a former police detective, who's always there in a pinch to take my odd questions. Robin's not the only expert who helps mystery authors. Dr. Doug Lyle, Luci "the Poison Lady" Zahray, and Lee Lofland, another former member of the law-enforcement community, have all shared knowledge with me (and many other authors) over the years. A big thank you to you all.

It pays to have friends who pay attention. How did I even come up with the nudist colony question? I learned from my friend Donna Andrews (thank you, Donna) that a Catholic church in our neighborhood used to be the home of a nudist colony, and in the 1940s, a murder occurred
there. That sparked a very interesting discussion about where a nudist might try to hide a weapon (not having pockets and whatnot), and it
Donna Andrews
resulted in my story "Murder a la Mode," which appeared in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping. It's set at a nude Thanksgiving, and was a lot of fun to write.

It also pays to have friends with a good sense of humor. My unpublished novel involves a phone-sex operator, and writing it required coming up with a lot of synonyms for certain body parts. How a writer toils for her art. And what she learns, sometimes, is that the wrong word can take a reader from eagerly turning pages to laughing out loud. And not at an intended time, either. So thank you to my friend Laura Weatherly, who several years ago burst out laughing when she read about a man on the phone talking about his johnson. "You have to find another word," she told me. Done.

It pays to have access to the Internet. No, this isn't for research for the phone-sex book. It was for the groundhog research. When I began writing my short story "The Shadow Knows," (which is a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards at this week's Bouchercon mystery convention), I knew I wanted to write a caper about a grumpy man who believes his town's groundhog is responsible for
Old groundhog who visited my yard.
every long winter, so he decides to get rid of him. But it wouldn't be a caper if things went smoothly. So I began researching things that could go wrong, and I learned many fun tidbits. Did you know that when groundhogs feel cornered, they might bite? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this the hard way. Thank you, Mister Mayor. Groundhogs will also squeal extremely loudly when upset, dig up drywall, and scratch with their long, sharp claws. All this detail went to good use in the story. Yes, research sure can be fun.

Now, back to the questions:
  • Will the police take your underwear? If the victim's blood has soaked through to them, they might indeed.
  • Can you break into a home by crawling through a doggy door? Yep, if you're petite. But beware: there's going to be a dog inside. And he might not be too happy with you.
  • What are the details about exhuming a body? Every state's process is different, but it's not that easy to get approval, and digging up a casket, then breaking the vault open, is hard work. And then there's the state the body might be in. I'll give you one word: mold. Yuck.
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche? Nope. In this context, it's all one word. (And you thought copy editing was boring.)
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much? This one, I'm leaving up to you to find out. Ask your friends. Make a party of it.
  • How does the pat down work during arrest of a nudist? This one ... well, you'll have to read "Murder a la Mode" to find out. It's too good to give away.
  • And, finally, how does a groundhog react when cornered? This question is answered above, but if you want to see the resulting story, which puts all the fun facts to good use, head over to my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html
But don't stop there. All the other nominated stories are available online, too, through these links: http://www.bouchercon.info/nominees.html (for the Anthony finalists) and http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/06/read-all-macavity-short-story.html (for the Macavity finalists). You should check them all out, especially if you're going to vote. They're all good reading--no question about it.

So, authors, what's the most interesting question you've researched while writing? And readers, what's the most interesting tidbit you've learned from fiction? Please share your fun facts. I really want to know.


20 April 2014

Library in the Clouds

by Leigh Lundin

During my Criminal Brief days, I began experiencing down time hours on end, even days at a time. It was early days for residential internet, but that didn’t mitigate the anguish, er, annoyance of being unable to access that giant library in the cloud.

Local cable and DSL companies were upgrading their lines and equipment. The closer crews made their way to my house, the worse the situation became. It turned out the rearmost corner of my property was designated some sort of hub. Cables from it fed my neighbors and me, so I often found men traipsing through my yard. As long as they kept me posted as to their comings and goings, I didn’t so much mind having a trencher, backhoe, and big hole in my yard as I did constant interruptions of service. I’d come to depend on the World Wide Web for my research of almost any topic.

Before the internet, I’d depended upon my father as my research center. He was a… well… I’d have to say a renaissance farmer. He farmed the land and livestock, but in the evenings, he read… everything. No topic escaped his interest: not the sciences, not the arts, not sports, not history and current events. If he didn’t know the particulars of a given subject, he knew where to look it up.

His library consumed a cramped room, expanded into a walk-in closet, found its way into barrister bookcases in the living room, then crept into the various bedrooms like a gothic creature. I can’t say he had more books than the local county seat library, but he certainly competed with it. Long after he died, I’d catch myself reaching for the telephone to ask, “Dad, what do you know about…?”

Starting early this year, I began experiencing spotty service. While outages weren’t frequent, the internet slowed to the pace of a snail’s pet tortoise.

Defining Slow

In South Africa five years ago (and Britain and Australia), one of the providers was so excruciatingly slow, some wags held a race sending files via homing pigeons versus their internet provider. The pigeons won.

But by now, there and here, that should be a thing of the past.

It’s awful when karma and déjà vu plot together. For many days, I had no internet at all and Road Runner was out all together. The various providers couldn’t figure out the Road Runner problem, which may have something to do with Wiley Coyote. I could easily live without RR, but not basic internet. And to be fair, that latter problem is my own because my house is torn apart for repairs.

To bridge the gap of a month or two without a regular ISP, I purchased a couple of wireless devices from NetZero and FreedomPop… and promptly managed to misplace one and today discovered the other isn’t working. Ah, technology. Now I have to galavant to the local wifi eatery, justifying my visit with a sandwich while cadging internet time.

I’ve come to realize how dependent I’ve become upon the internet. I didn’t replace my research and reference books lost in the hurricanes, volumes ranging from the small print edition of the OED to the CRC– the equivalent of an alchemist’s bible, purchased ‘back when’ by every math, science, and engineering student.

And of course, I still miss my dad, bigger-than-life, much more than a walking Alexandrian repository of knowledge. I often think how he would have loved the World Wide Web, no topic out of reach. Unless one doesn’t have internet at all. Like me.

Until my internet service returns, I miss all those subjects, just out of touch. But wait! There’s always Burger King.

08 July 2013

Computer in a Box

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

Do you over research things? I do. Especially when I'm going to spend some money. I've been trying to decide on what computer to buy for over two months. Okay, I haven't spent everyday on it, but every few days and at least twice a week. Do you have any idea how many different laptops there are? Seems every company in the electronic businesss makes a laptop. Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Panasonic, Lovoto, Lenovo, Toshiba, Samsung, and of course Apple's MacBooks and their iMac. I'm sure I've left out a half dozen more. There are laptops and notebooks and Idea Books and something called Twist and Shout, I kid you not.

So my idea was to find a lightweight machine with a bit of fast power, a fair amount of HD memory and a price I could handle. I determined a reasonable amount that I could afford and my top figure was five hundred dollars. I knew when I added tax and product insurance protection and perhaps some tech support insurance, that $500 would quickly run up to seven, eight hundred. And I'd still have to get software programs. Most don't come with software installed anymore, except perhaps anti-virus.

Now there're things like i3, i5 and i7 Intel processors. There's 5 GB this and 740 GB that and touch and no-touch and other things with strings of letters and numbers for CDs and DVD and ways you can burn those and USB ports galore and gaming whatevers and HD webcams with dual tone microphones. Not to even mention Windows 8 which people say is so hard to use and a few computer which still use Windows 7.

Before long my head was spinning like that girl in The Exorcist. Surely you can understand why I couldn't research every day because it was absolutely confusing, One day this past week, I managed to chat with a Question and Answer person at Dell who after two hours helped me decide which of their laptop would be just exactly what I needed. I then tried to order it and had trouble getting shipping address set up. One of the main reasons I thought I'd go with Dell is I've had 3 Dell laptops and before that a Dell desktop. I've had excellent luck with all of them and the tech support has been wonderful. But after another hour online and I couldn't get a laptop ordered I got tired of the whole thing and gave up for that session.

Then a funny thing happened this morning after a late night conversation with my Nashville daughter, and she kept bragging about her Toshiba laptop, I got an e-mail from one of those big box stores, telling about a sale they were having. As luck would a very nice Toshiba laptop that fit all my criteria was on sale within my price range. Even better we have one of those stores in our town of Marble Falls which made their geek guys readily available. I drove over there about 5 pm and about an hour later I drove back home with a computer in a fairly small box.

I'm excited although I know the learning curve will take me twice as long since I'm computer challenged. Yet soon I will be ankle deep in Windows 8 alligators trying to understand exactly what to do.

To make this all more or less on topic of writing, I'll have you know that I've got the third in my Zoe Barrow policewoman series about half-way through its first draft and I came up with an idea for a short story this week and was just waiting for the new laptop to get involved with either project.

It's probably okay to research like crazy if you're planning to spend a chunk of money, but when you're researching for your book or story, don't get too carried away. If you fall in love with your research you'll have a hard time going cold turkey. And if you use too much of your research in your story you can get bogged down. Just do the necessary research and then use it sparingly.

Now off to open this new computer in a box.

11 March 2013

Research and Location

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

In a weird sense this is extra to Dix's blog on daydreaming. The topic of research has been on my mind for a couple of days and after reading about daydreaming and play acting I realized it more or less fit in the same category.

To learn where you characters are going to be located in your book. How much or how little do you research? For my first book, Austin City Blue, I visited the Austin Public Library's History Center. I read all the wonderful stories and newspaper clips that told of murder and mayhem in Austin in the beginning days of recorded records. I was mainly interested in the records of the police department. I used a little historical paragraph before each chapter. It wasn't a clue but I tried to make it relate to something that was going on in each chapter.

For instance, prior to Chapter Five I wrote:
             In May 1904, the police chief announced compliance with a city-ordinance requiring new uniforms for his force. The ordinance stated: "the dress of the patrolmen shall consist of a navy blue, indigo dyed sack coat with short rolling collar, to fasten at the neck and to reach half-way between the articulation of the hip joint and the knee, with four buttons on the front. The pantaloons have to have a white cord in the seam. The cap to be navy blue cloth with a light metal wreath in front." The chief instead ordered felt hats and requested helmets for foot police, making them look like "real city policemen." The police clerk refused to wear his uniform-- blue trousers, yellow coat, and green cap--saying it made him look like an organ-grinder's monkey.

The chapter briefly mentions wearing the dress blues and/or dressing plain clothes in homicide.

Towards the end of the book, I wanted a neighborhood in a specific area that looked a bit seedy but not totally undone. I got in my car and drove around and found exactly what I wanted. It was a neighborhood filled with double-wide and single-wide trailers but not really considered a trailer park. The manufactured homes in the front part of the neighborhood were well kept and tidy, with nice lawns, gazebos, flower gardens and white picket fences. As I drove back into the neighborhood there were unkept yards, a car upon blocks in a driveway. Peeling paint on the houses, children's toys scattered and looking abandon. It was exactly what I needed and I used it in the book.

For Dark Blue Death, I used information I had learned from some classes I took that were presented by the Austin Police Academy. It was called the Austin Citizen's Police Academy program and mainly used for teaching neighborhood watch programs all about the various police divisions. Fraud, Robbery Homicide, Firearms, Victims Service, SWAT, etc., and was a 10 week, 3 and a half hour class session. Each division sent a department head to talk to us and explain what their units did. It was very informative and I met several officers that I later could contact and pick their brains more.

I also drove around Austin and took photographs of a location or a building I wanted to specifically mention. I went inside buildings to the 3rd or 10th or 14 floor to see exactly what a person might see from the windows of that building. Of course, I didn't use all the information I learned. Sometimes my book location changed and I didn't need a particular view or interior decoration.

A writer doesn't always write about the town they live in or even a place they've ever been inside of and sometimes just have to use their imagination. Once I wrote a short story about President Grant's wife, Julia Dent Grant inside the White House. I did a Google search and found pictures of the WH along with some floor plans. I managed to have the story take place in two or three different rooms and felt I did make it sound like the WH in President Grant and Julia Dent Grant's tenure there.

To me it's always fun to research and locate where I'm writing about. Someone several years ago, and I think it was Mary Higgins Clark, told of buying local newspapers of the town you're writing about even if you lived there four or five years ago. You are more likely to get the essence of the town and the people there. And if you're writing in the past, look up newspapers from that era and you'll discover the prices from the ads, what people wore, what entertainment people attended and a myraid of intriguing things.

Like the old real estate sales slogan: Location, Location, Location. Your book or story will definitely sound more authentic if you Research, Research, Research.

05 March 2012

Hidden Gems or Buried Treasure

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

I often wonder how other writers research. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction somewhere along the line you surely must look up information about something in your work.

One of my good friends is Suzy Spencer who has written four true crime books. One of them, Wasted made the NY Times Best-Selling List. It was written several years ago but has enjoyed some recent revival due to new television coverage. On I Discovery channel they have a new program called Deadly Sins. Suzy's book was the second story line the program followed. This story features a rich lesbian, Regina, who was only looking for love. A beautiful young girl looking for money and ultimately drugs and a drug-dealer, Justin who killed Regina in a drug-fueled rage. The story takes place in Austin. The deadly sin of both stories featured is gluttony. Nothing to do with food in either case, rather the gluttony of sex, drugs and obsession with those.

The other book I read and thought was a most intriguing read is Breaking Point. The story of the Houston suburban housewife, Andrea Yates who killed her five children. This was such a sad and horrifying story that I can only imagine the mental breakdown this woman suffered. There is still much to learn about post-partum depression and the psychosis that it can lead to.

Suzy has been asked many times how does she research her stories. She says more or less what you might expect to hear...scouring courtroom records, interviewing cops and prosecutors, interviewing friends and families of the victim, friends and families of the killer, attending trials and yet somehow she takes the essence of these interviews and notes and gets into the minds of the people in her stories.

She finds the little gems of reality: the scents, the grittiness, the steamy side, the horror of it all. I think she's a master of putting you in the scene as you read.

As a writer, this is what we have to do to make our stories ring true. If you're writing fiction, you must make as much of your story true as possible. NOW that doesn't mean you have to go out and kill someone...especially one of your in laws...grin. But if you put enough truth in your work then your reader will follow you when you talk of murder and mayhem.

Sometimes the smallest fact will be your hidden treasure of your story. Like detailing a rusty streak on the motel wall or a broken piece of concrete along the entryway to a door. A tiny fact that your research uncovered that becomes a major clue or leads your reader to believe what you've written.
But remember all your research does not belong in your story. It's hard sometimes because you've discovered the most exciting things about Metropolis and it's history for the past 200 years but you don't want to write forty pages about it. Your reader doesn't care. All they care about is getting into your character's head and finding out who the perpetrator really might be.

So if you interview police officers or sales people or attorneys or doctors make sure you find the gem in what they say and that will indeed be your hidden treasure. And as a reader I'll be delighted to read your story.