Life’s Great Mysteries

Anybody there?

One of the great mysteries of life is why, in spite of the fact that over 62% of the world’s population possess cell phones, fewer and fewer people each year actually answer them. Now that we have the ability to connect with each other, any time, any place, we don’t. We don’t even check our messages on a regular basis. Texting is the new way to communicate.


But we do use our phones for something else. Taking photographs. From selfies to landscape panoramas, the cell phone is today’s Great Documenter of Life. Never in all of history have so many images been created, stored, and shared. I’m included in this. My cell phone is one of my top four research tools. Okay, so I know cell phones aren’t low-tech. Those slim, elegant slicks of metal and glass are miracles of technology. But I’m including cell phones in my list of low-tech writers’ tools because I can actually use them. And that’s a miracle in itself.


A trip through Scotland’s Lowlands first sparked my interest in Scotland as a setting. A visit to Traquair House near Peebles became the model for Glenroth House, my Scots Baronial country house hotel on the fictional Isle of Glenroth in A Dream of Death.

I rounded the final curve and caught my breath. The ancient seat of the Glenroth MacDonalds still had the power to enchant. Scots Baronial. Four stories of local stone coasted with harling, the traditional lime-based rough cast, rendering it impervious to the wet Highland climate. The house sat in a wooded glen, so perfectly situated the structure might have emerged, full-blown like Venus, from the native bedrock.

A year later, back in the UK, I asked the owners of a stately home if there was an access to the roof from inside the house. They were delighted, not only to tell me yes but to let me actually climb up there. I documented the process with photos, and in A Legacy of Murder, second in the Kate Hamilton Mystery series, I used those photographs to write this:

We hit the first landing and rounded the banister. The second flight was narrower and steeper than the first, like climbing a ladder. The world tilted. Halfway up the fourth flight, the ceiling was so low we had to stoop…. She opened a wooden hatch to the roof, hiked herself up on one knee, and pushed her body through….”Wait.” I reached out for her. A wave of vertigo sent the world spinning…I broke out in a clammy sweat.

Those camera images proved invaluable. As I studied them for the scene I was writing, I was there again, facing that small hatch and the glistening lead roof beyond. I felt the fear I’d experienced that day as I pushed myself out onto the slick metal, bracing myself against the mop rolls for stability.

Crime writer Elizabeth George was the first to clue me into the advantages of documenting potential locations for a novel. In Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, she talked about her habit of choosing and photographing actual locations to create verisimilitude:

I don’t rely on my imagination alone because left to my own devices, I’m afraid I’d sink into either hopeless cliché or generic descriptions. Some people would argue that’s okay by them: Everyone knows what you mean when you use the word castle, after all. But I remember how real actual locations have become for me in novels that I’ve loved. And then to actually see these places…What fascination there was in looking upon L. M. Montgomery’s real Lake of Shining Waters! How amazing it was to climb Jane Austen’s Box Hill! To walk on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, to see Granny’s Steps, to experience the wild moors of Yorkshire and the atmosphere of Dartmoor…to see how an author has taken a spot that really exists and then made that spot equally vibrant for the reader…Reading doesn’t get better than that. Neither does writing.

This brings me to tomorrow’s post—the best research tool of all—but first: Do you dream up your settings or base them on actual places, like a specific city with its streets and monuments? Do you ever take liberties with reality? What sensory elements bring a setting to life, and how do you evoke them in your mind so you can put them on the page?

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