11 March 2013
Research and Location
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.