Tag: research


Save the Old Ladies

No, not those old ladies…as far as I know we’re fine. What I’m talking about are the lovely old houses of the past–especially the “grand old ladies” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Did someone say research?

 Did someone say research? This isn’t grad school….. which is what I have to keep telling myself as I delve into books and articles about a subject I’m considering for a new book.  Preparing for graduate degrees in history I read a lot. Let me repeat that: a lot. It quickly became clear that I needed to absorb the essence of the argument, and not necessarily every supporting detail. When in a real hurry I would read the first and last sentence of every paragraph, stopping for a more complete read only occasionally. Why did this work? Because I needed to understand the history of history. What were the arguments supporting or deflating theories of the Why about our past. How had opinion about cause and effect changed over time with changing attitudes and newly discovered primary resources? This was what I needed to understand. Researching to write fiction is entirely different, at least in a few important ways. Reading quickly is still an asset. However, now I’m searching for interesting tidbits, facts, stories, details, descriptions. It is a needle in a haystack. There are a few go-to places for descriptions of, for example, clothing. There are collections of photographs (and paintings) of places. But what did people eat? Who ate what? (Today, if I hear that someone loves fast food from Bojangles I assume they have lived or traveled extensively in the American South. If they love McDonald’s that tells me nothing about geography, it is truly worldwide.) Most ‘history’ books are still about great events, although this is changing. Still, even books about women, or workers, or peasants/farmers (depending on the era and location) bring information together to make generalizations: nursing becomes a socially acceptable profession for women, or nutrition improves among the working poor, etc. As a writer, I want more; more daily detail. Therefore, I turn to memoirs. An historian evaluates the memoir in the context of other known details (aka facts), for example, checking to see if the village really was overcome by the Allied forces and the residents forced to flee. As a writer, I might not be interested in this (maybe I’m writing about a fictional village or a different one). I want to know what the residents felt as they fled (maybe they weren’t ‘forced’ to flee but chose to? After all memory is hazy…..). What were the relationships, the wants, the needs, the threats? What did they regret leaving behind, what did they choose to take.  Until recently, memoirs available to the general public were mainly those of famous people or people made famous by circumstance (for example, the memoir of a world leader or that of Anne Frank.). Now there are many more memoirs available, often self-published and sold on line. Can each line be taken as fact by an historian? No. But as an aid to a writer, there are many memorable stories that create a collective fabric of life in other places and other times.  So, I’m eyeing my tall stack of books collected from the library, eyeing the memoirs first as a window into actual lives. Later, I’ll read the dry facts. In both cases I hope to avoid the rabbit hole of information overload! What tools do you use to research the past? 

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Researching a story… to death.

 Writers research. Even fiction writers. After all, readers want details and they expect them to ring true. Location, weather, clothing, food, transportation. These are the basics. Don’t have someone take a bus in my hometown of Madisonville, Kentucky. There aren’t any.  Detail should slip into the story like water through a crack. No blaring signs that say: look, I got the music and the moon boots right, it’s 1983! Instead, the subtleties of detail should ring true silently. With them, the reader feels a place without signposts. Mention endless fields of cotton, small bottles of Coke for a nickel in a chilled machine, blazing heat followed by shattering lightening and I think the Mississippi Delta in the 1970s. A few details and I’m there. Get a detail significantly wrong and I’m pulled away. After all, that’s where I spent my summers in those years. At my grandparents, frying eggs on the bricks of their patio, it was so hot. Impressed – and a little frightened- by the enormous circles of burned cotton where lightening struck the fields overnight. And not quite understanding why we had to play inside some days (later I’d learn it meant there was a prison escaped from Parchman penitentiary, which was the plantation over).  Currently, I’m in the planning stages of a book set partially in war time Austria. This is a different kind of research from that of a contemporary setting. I have a list of things that need answers: what do people wear, eat, listen to, read, care about…. How do they travel, what kind of money, means of communication…  The list began to be endless. After all, I’m really talking about everything. Ultimately I realized that the list is a reminder that details need to be checked, but I don’t need to actually know everything. Take food. Do I need to know what kind of food people ate everyday? Only if food is mentioned in a scene, which it likely will be. So I take what I do know and do a bit of research on cafe culture in Vienna in the 1930s. If I end up with a scene in a cafe I’ll double check the place and the food. Otherwise I might stay in the research phase until I’m frozen by information overload. Then the book – my book – never gets written. I was reminded of my graduate studies in history. The best way to sum up graduate school is too much to read. You quickly learn to skim, to summarize, to look for only the important details (different from every detail that supports an argument). If a book is peripheral to your core concentration you might read only the first and last sentence of every paragraph…. reading the entire paragraph only if the quick version indicates it is of particular interest. You begin graduate school taking pages of notes on every book you are assigned. You end graduate school with a few key sentences about the book.  I’m applying this to research for my current work. Right now, I have a few ideas, possibly evolved enough to call them plot points, but they may change. I need to read widely in order to sweep in information that might prove critical to the story. But I can’t worry about every detail. Not yet, anyway.  Later, when I’m deep in the writing and the details of place and dress and food and music matter I should have enough of a sense of the overall culture to pick the important elements. Try writing about Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century and not mention a cafe…. I think it would stand out as an omission to anyone familiar with the place and the era. When I’m writing that cafe scene, know where to look for a more precise assortment of details. Until then, I won’t worry about them.   

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Starting your story. Is it magic?

TRACEE: As writers we have stories floating around in our heads all the time. Sometimes I feel like everything I see during the day spurs a little “and then what if?” moment where I spin the action, dialogue, character into something darker. I’m sure that some of those thoughts do make it into a story as an expression, or phrase or setting. Perhaps even as the seed for a character. However, it is a far cry from fleeting interest to formation of a plot that will become a project that occupies my mind for at least a year.  Those of us who write a series are looking for plot – we know the broader sense of our story (continuing characters, setting and some on-going themes). If you aren’t writing a series – or if you are, and think to break away – then all ideas are on the table. Action, mystery, romance, historical, literary, comic books. You name it, and it is possible.  How do you know that ‘this is it!’ This is the storyline that you will commit to. SUSAN: There are few better feelings than that shiver of excitement you feel when you know you’ve hit on something good. (Then I ask Paula and she tells me if I’m right.) A lot of times it just comes down to knowing I have enough to say about the plot to spin it out. If it’s interesting, but I don’t have that much to say, then I write it as a story. I wish it was scientific, but it’s more like falling in love. PAULA: When I know who the characters are–and what challenges they face. When I can “see” them in action in my mind…then I have the beginnings of a plot. CATE: I think my stories choose me like the wands in Harry Potter. An idea just takes hold and magic happens…;-) ROBIN: Ideas are constantly percolating. When characters becomes as real to me as my friends and family, or situations start to seem less like a “what if” and more like a memory, that’s when I know I’ll give the ideas life. I mean, heck, at that point, they’re writing themselves. All I have to do is pick up a pen or fire up my laptop. Like Cate said, it’s like magic. TRACEE: So… to the ‘magic happens’ among you. Is there still room to start an idea and then say, no, it didn’t work out? Or once you have it in mind, it’s a “GO!”??  I have several (but not tons) of ideas that became starts but then I decided no or the fates tempted me away. ROBIN: I leave room for experiments and surprises. Ideas that started life in one way have evolved into something else, like a subplot. If it’s not working, I don’t force it, though. Sometimes when I make cuts, whether they be characters or scenes, I save them in a separate “cuts” file. Only the characters/scenes that haunted me to begin with. The cuts that are pure crap get left behind as unallocated space on my hard drive, ready to be overwritten. In other words, deleted. 🙂 MICHELE: I know it when my fingers hit the keyboard and seem to have a life of their own. It’s like the story is in me and has to be told. The characters just won’t shut up until I’m done.  ALEXIA: Ooh, good question. I start with a subject that fascinates me, something I want to learn more about in real life, a something I’d be “into” even if I wasn’t writing a novel. Then I try to combine my characters and a murder (or three) with my chosen topic. If I can figure out how to combine, for instance, rose gardens and growing roses (hint, hint) with Gethsemane and the gang and a credible crime, that’s my story. Sometimes I’ll find a topic that grabs me but I can’t figure out how to work a dead body into it so it goes into the “maybe someday” pile. TRACEE: Now I’m going to be hesitant to follow Alexia into her rose garden or any flower garden for that matter. ALLISON: For me, I need something concrete intersecting with something theoretical. With this first book, I became obsessed with an enormous house that had been empty for years because of the housing bubble in Utah. The house plays almost no role in the story now, but it was the jumping off point for thinking about greed, secrets, and people who do very wrong things for what they believe are very right reasons. Like Alexia, I enjoy research. I’m an eternal student and love reading primary source material. My Mormon history is a great place to find strange and disconcerting ideas for murders.   I have started projects that seem to peter out around 20,000 words. Those are stories where I have the physical component–people and places–but haven’t found the right theme. I keep them; believing one morning I’ll wake up with just the right reason for murder.   TRACEE: Thanks everyone! I’ve decided that if I turn burglar or hacker I’d want to peek inside the dark reaches of computers and read the lost idea and chapters waiting patiently to be reinvigorated. Bet there’s some good stuff among the detritus! Wonder how other writers decide the time is right to start the story? 

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To Google Maps, with Love

I recently wrote a short story for an upcoming anthology inspired by the music of Lou Reed. My story, Pale Blue Eyes, based on his song, could not take place in New Jersey or New York, the states with which I am most familiar, having lived in both for years. Something about the rumble of Lou Reed’s gravelly tenor refused to let me throw the characters inspired by his songs in the fast-talking, faster moving Manhattan area and its environs.  So, I set it in Las Vegas. Part of it takes place on the infamous strip, which I’ve been to. But the far more significant part of the story takes place at Las Vegas’ Red Rock Canyon State Park, which I have never visited.  Thanks to Google, though, I could virtually visit. The Internet Giant’s map site let me walk through the Calico Tanks trail, showing me all the scenery I might see on a given day, every step of the way.  I could see the dusty trail, the striated red rock formations and the prickly scrub brush lining the narrow foot path.  I could view user uploaded images at different points in the day of the giant red rocks.  Thanks to associated links, I could even visit pages where visitors discussed everything about the park from the smell of the air, to the weather in the month that I had set my story, to the way the sun sets.  I think the site really changes the game for writers, most of whom can’t afford to travel solely to inform a new book or short story.   Have you ever written a story in a place that you have never been? What tools did you use to research it?         

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It's only for research purposes

 My second novel, Death in D Minor, officially premieres tomorrow, July 11. I’ve been busy revising the third book in the series, A Killing in C Sharp, so I haven’t had time to freak out about release day for my sophomore effort. I resisted the urge to repeat my debut novel swag buying frenzy. With Murder in G Major, I put my book cover on everything—hats, t-shirts, posters, calendars, tote bags, mugs, pens, stickers—you get the idea. For Death in D Minor, I limited myself to pens, postcards, bottle opener key rings, and combination flashlight/laser pointers. I’ve scheduled a book signing on July 13, my first official book signing not associated with a conference panel. Stop by if you’re anywhere near Lake Forest, IL. I’ve also been doing research for future novels. When you write about ghosts, research consists of streaming episodes of Ghost Adventures on Sling TV, listening to paranormal podcasts on Stitcher, and—my favorite—listening to M. R. James’s ghost stories on Audible. Montague Rhodes James, a respected medievalist scholar, college provost (King’s College, Cambridge and Eton), and museum director, wrote the most disturbing ghost story I’ve ever read—”Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” The. Most. Disturbing. Ever. I had issues with bed sheets for months after I first read it. (No spoilers in this blog. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean.) James possessed a gift for turning the disarmingly bucolic English country village into the scene of your darkest nightmare. Think Jane Austen tossed with Stephen King, seasoned with a dash of razor-edged satire on the English academic establishment. And a sprinkling of golf jokes. James pokes fun of golfers a lot. His biography attracted me to his ghost stories as much as his writing style. I’m looking at a photo of the man as I write this. He looks like you’d expect an antiquarian scholar/college administrator to look: conservative haircut, receding hair line, wire-rimmed glasses, appropriately stern look. The son of Anglican clergy and a naval officer’s daughter, he had what sounds like a well-adjusted childhood, an excellent education, and a satisfactory career. He never married, spent most of his adult life in an academic setting, and won an Order of Merit. No reports of family dysfunction, childhood traumas, scandals, nervous breakdowns, or any of the other drama so often associated with authors of dark fiction. The mind that translated the Apocrypha and, according to Wikipedia, wrote a Latin hagiography of Aethelbert II of East Anglia also penned dozens of tales featuring cursed objects, demonic creatures, and horrible deaths. The normalcy of the man who wrote such paranormal tales makes the stories seem all the creepier. Still waters run deep.  The best thing about James’s stories? He read them aloud as Christmas presents to friends and students. Christmas presents! No socks or puddings from Professor James. Oh no. How about a demonic painting found in an old book in a church library? Field glasses made from human bones? A killer ash tree?This aspect of his stories—their oral presentation—inspired me to take the advice given in the introduction to a volume of his collected works to experience the stories the way they were meant to be experienced and listen to someone read them. I started with You Tube where I found a surprising collection of audiobooks. Then I discovered Audible. With Audible, I could not only listen to James’s stories, I could listen to them read by Derek Jacobi and David Suchet. And never again look at the English countryside—or a sedate college don—the same. (Images public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

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The Danger Of Too Much Truth In Fiction

Thriller writers must be careful about being too honest about the extent of human depravity lest we be accused of unbelievability. In truth, human beings are capable of far more horrific behaviors than most of us thriller authors could ever write about. Today, for example, I read a story in the Washington Post about people who brutally murdered a former friend for allegedly attempting to steal their marijuana smoking device. The brothers presumed responsible made the victim consume kitty litter before posting photos of the brutal attack on snapchat, an online messaging platform. If I had a villain who I had not established was a psychopath or drug syndicate enforcer perpetrate a similar crime, I’d certainly be accused of taking too much license. How could readers believe that individuals, not under the influence of some psychosis-inducing PCP-type drug, would be so horrible to another human being, especially a person they had liked enough to invite into their home?  In my last book, The Widower’s Wife, a few readers took issue with a character sneaking back into America via a cruise ship. They said that coming into the U.S. without papers couldn’t possibly be that easy and that human smugglers wouldn’t have acted in the way that I portrayed. I had gotten much of my information for that part of the book from a New York Times expose in the 90s called “Loophole At The Pier” in which human smugglers did what I described. To satisfy these readers, I should have probably made sneaking in seem more treacherous than it actually was according to well-respected news sources. What do you think? Has truth ever been stranger than your fiction? 

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