After a too-long hiatus from my blog, I am delighted to be joined today by Sherry Knowlton, author of DEAD OF SPRING (2017). I asked Sherry to talk about how she researches her novels, and below she shares some terrific insights into how she balances authenticity and readability.
(Basically, how to keep your reader entertained while being accurate at the same time!)
In popular culture, authors are often portrayed as brooding figures who seethe with creativity. After long, pensive walks along a cliff (or dock, or meadow), the authors return to their garrets and type pages and pages of inspired prose.
For me, it doesn’t work quite that way. You’re more likely to find me writing in my sunroom in winter or in the gazebo on a nice summer’s day. And, I like to take walks, but I work out most of my plots in the car while I’m driving to yoga. Yes, there’s certainly a large element of creativity and inspiration involved in writing my Alexa Williams suspense series. But, much of my process involves a more mundane – although often fascinating-- task: research, research, research.
Some genres of fiction might not require much, if any, in-depth research. (Certain fantasy novels spring to mind.) But, I write contemporary suspense, and each of my novels also include a historical story that parallels and intersects with the main plot. So, I want the background details in both stories to be as accurate as possible to enhance the novel’s “believability” and credibility. Plus, I don’t want my readers to drift away from the suspense, distracted by a historical anomaly or incorrect fact. (Wait a minute. Would that Depression-era character really have said, “Awesome, dude”?)
I rely on some of my own experiences and knowledge of a topic or place as I write. But, often, I need to do further research to refresh my memories or obtain more specific information. My research follows two broad paths: learning from written, video and audio sources; and, interviewing experts.
My new book, Dead of Spring, deals with fracking and politics. The historical story takes place during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. The setting for the contemporary story is Southcentral Pennsylvania, but my protagonist, Alexa, also travels to Tuscany and Umbria. I live in Southcentral PA. I worked in Pennsylvania state government. I’ve been following the politics of fracking for years. I lived through the Three Mile Island crisis. And, I’ve spent time in Italy. Still, that experience was not enough. I needed to review a lot of source material to fully capture these topics in my book. These sources ranged from technical articles and regulations on fracking to news clips and newspaper articles from the Three Mile Island event to Italian justice procedures.
I might be able to get away with just delving into books and relying on the Google for my information. But, experts always add so much depth to my understanding of a topic. The acknowledgement sections in my novel are quite long because talking to experts has become a key pillar of my research process. And, I’ve been lucky to find subject matter experts on a wide variety of topics who have been very gracious with their time and expertise.
For Dead of Spring, I relied on a State Police trooper and several other law enforcement officers, a judge, a historian responsible for the preservation of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, staff from Pennsylvania’s Lt. Governor’s office, a regulator in the state’s Department of Environmental Programs, gun experts, and more. One of the most helpful experts I interviewed was a landowner in northern Pennsylvania who leased his land to a hydraulic fracturing company in the early days of the state’s fracking boom. He took me on a tour of both his lands and other fracking sites at different stages of development. He also walked me through his personal experience by showing me his photographs of the transformation of his property. A beautiful woodland that step by step by step turned into an acre of gravel and machinery. Pristine drinking water that now requires constant filtering just for showers and bathing. Battles with the energy company about compensation for various problems. His fracking tutorial was eye-opening.
Of course, research is only one aspect of the writing process...
Recently, I was honored by the City of Highland Park with the Mayor's Award for the Arts.
What a thrill!
The candle on the cake was receiving the award on my birthday, the day that all of Chicago seemed to be celebrating the Cubs win.
And of course I owe to all my dear alpha reader, who nominated me for the award!
I'm so thrilled that my very first short story--The Trial of Madame Pelletier-- was selected for inclusion in Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical (Wildside Press, 2017).
Like my Lucy Campion novels set in 17th century England, this short story stemmed from research I did in graduate school a zillion years ago. (And yeah, that's pretty fun for me to get to use another chunk of this doctoral research in a new way!)
I won't say too much about my story other than it features the trial of a presumed poisoner in a small town in France, in 1840. The trial was a cause celebre--a trial of the century--which played out as much in the court of public opinion and in sensationalized newspaper accounts, as it did in the assize court in Limousin.
I remember being struck too, not just be the trial itself, but how the woman at the heart of it--the Lady Poisoner--was being tried both as a criminal and as a female. While my story differs dramatically from the trial that inspired it, I did want to convey that same sense of a woman being tried on many levels.
Moreover, ever since I read Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, I have wanted to try my hand at a courtroom drama. So this was such a fun piece for me to write overall. I'm really excited to read the other stories in the volume!!!
The selected stories are:
"A One-Pipe Problem" by John Betancourt
"The Trial of Madame Pelletier" by Susanna Calkins
"Eating Crow" by Carla Coupe
"The Lady's Maid Vanishes" by Susan Daly
"Judge Lu's Ming Dynasty Case Files-The Unseen Opponent" by P.A. De Voe
"Honest John Finds a Way" by Michael Dell
"Spirited Death" by Carole Nelson Douglas
"The Corpse Candle" by Martin Edwards
"Mistress Threadneedle's Quest" by Kathy Lynn Emerson
"The Black Hand" by Peter Hayes
"Crim Con" by Nancy Herriman
"Hand of an Angry God" by KB Inglee
"The Barter" by Su Kopil
"Tredegar Murders" by Vivian Lawry
"The Tragic Death of Mrs. Edna Fogg" by Edith Maxwell
"A Butler is Born" by Catriona McPherson
"Home Front Homicide" by Liz Milliron
"He Done Her Wrong" by Kathryn O'Sullivan
"Summons for a Dead Girl" by K.B. Owen
"Mr. Nakamura's Garden" by Valerie O Patterson
"The Velvet Slippers" by Keenan Powell
"The Blackness Before Me" by Mindy Quigley
"Death on the Dueling Grounds" by Verena Rose
"You Always Hurt the One You Love" by Shawn Reilly Simmons
"Night and Fog" by Marcia Talley
"The Measured Chest" by Mark Thielman
"The Killing Game" by Victoria Thompson
"The Cottage" by Charles Todd
"The Seven" by Elaine Viets
"Strong Enough" by Georgia Wilson
Well, we've finally reached the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London (Well, sort of. We're on a different calendar now, but I guess it doesn't really matter really). The dome of St. Paul's is all lit up...
....and London--or at least a replica-- is about to start burning!
The Great Fire has served as the main inspiration behind my Lucy Campion mysteries. When I was working as a PIRATE aboard the Golden Hinde in London, I was always so fascinated by the incredible changes wrought by both the plague and the Great Fire. I was even more intrigued by the so-called "Miracle of the Great Fire" too.
My first book, A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE, ends with London in flames. My second book, FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS, picks up two weeks afterwards, when Londoners are wearily starting the massive clean-up of the City, and the Fire Courts are established. The aftermath of the inferno continues in THE MASQUE OF A MURDERER and A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET.
For those who survived the plague and Fire, London was a very different world--frightening on the one hand, but rife with opportunity for commoners and criminals alike....
On my recent vacation, I finally got a chance to delve into a novel I've always wanted to read: THE MOONSTONE (1868) by Wilkie Collins, often considered the first modern detective novel. It also caused me to reflect a bit on my writing, and how important it is to consider the heart of each scene.
The story is told through multiple narrators, including Gabriel Betteredge, the septegenarian steward of the household, charged with detailing the loss of the diamond--the mystery at the center of the novel.
As a writer, I was immediately amused by the way that Betteredge set to writing his account. First, he consults his trusty ROBINSON CRUSOE, opening it at random as others might seek insights from a religious text:
"In the first part of ROBINSON CRUSOE, at page one hundred and twenty-nine, you will find it thus written: 'Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it.'"
A prophecy? he wonders. How could he set to writing such a momentous task? Could he see it through? Questions surely every author has pondered when staring at that first blank page before the story has begun.
He then proceeds to speak at length at how well ROBINSON CRUSOE can answer all life's great mysteries. After a time though, he finally realizes he has not yet started the story he was tasked to write:
"Still, this don't look much like starting the story of the Diamond--does it? I seem to be wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where. We will take a new sheet of paper, if you please, and begin over again, with my best respects to you."
So he begins his story again, this time how he came to serve in his lady's household, where the diamond was destined, and about how he came to marry his wife and have a daughter. Again he goes on at length, until he gets to the end of the passage:
"My daughter Penelope has just looked over my shoulder to see what I have done so far. She remarks that it is beautifully written, and every word of it true. But she points to one objection. She says what I have done so far isn't in the least what I was wanted to do. I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self."
Already off track, he then ponders further that idea that many authors probably think about:
"I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me? If they do, I can feel for them."
Then he starts the story one more time, this time with a little more desperation:
"In the meantime, here is another false start, and more waste of good writing paper. What's to be done now? Nothing that I know of, except for you to keep your temper, and for me to begin it all over again for the third time."
This may be surprising, but I think THE MOONSTONE offers an important lesson in finding the heart of a scene.
In some ways, what the narrator Betteredge is doing is the kind of throat-clearing we often see writers do, particularly those with less experience. (To be clear, I am focusing on the words and thoughts of the character, not the actual author Wilkie Collins, who I think is brilliantly setting up the characters and the narrative).
One of the things I've observed when critiquing the work of others--and this is certainly something I've struggled with myself--is how often writers (especially less experienced ones) do not start and end scenes in a particularly effective manner.
Many writers seem to just meander into a scene, as if they are strolling to an important event in town. Along the way to this event, they greet people, pop in and out of stores, talk on their cell phones, watch their dogs play, chase after kids, look at shapes in the clouds. Others meander away from an important event, without any plans on what they intend to do next. This may be fine in real life, but in writing, a scene should be more focused.
I try to encourage writers to ask themselves questions: What is the goal of this scene? Does it advance a plot or subplot? Is it intended to reveal or continue a conflict? Is it meant to force a story forward? Is it intended to show a response to a conflict or dilemma? Does it indicate a decision or resolution (or even a seeming stalemate)? For me, even though I am a 'seat of the pants' kind of writer--a pantser--I find that asking these kinds of questions help me think through my intentions even as I go.
This is not to say that scenes should follow some sort of template. One of the fascinating things about THE MOONSTONE is its unusual narrative structure (perhaps more common now, but certainly uncommon in its day). The scenes, though offered in a meandering way by the narrator, actually quite purposefully lay out the far-larger story of the diamond, dropping clues and intimations in a rather remarkable way.
Getting to the heart of the story, by getting at the heart of each scene--is crucial. Otherwise, we'll be flailing about like Betteredge, "wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where."
And when your meandering tale can not be saved, pick up your quill, lay out a new sheet of paper and now, "refreshed in hope," re-start your story again.
I invited debut novelist Radha Vatsal on my blog today, to share how she came to pick the 1910s as the backdrop for her Kitty Weeks historical mysteries.
Now that I've got a little summer reading time ahead of me, I'm definitely looking forward to diving into this new series....I think Kitty and Lucy, my printer's apprentice, would have enjoyed hanging out!!!
The first season of Downton Abbey ends in August 1914 with Lord Grantham announcing at a country party that World War I has begun. (Or rather, that England was at war with Germany—since no one knew just yet what kind of war it would become.) While we tend to associate World War I with Europe and think that America’s involvement in it was short-lived and only began when the US joined the fighting in 1917, life in the United States changed dramatically between 1914-1918, which is why it seemed a perfect era in which to set a mystery series.
I find that so many people know about the “Gilded Age,” the period from about the 1870s to the 1900s with its fabulous wealth and “Robber Baron” businessmen. Through novels like The Great Gatsby, we’re also very familiar with the 1920s Jazz Era. But the period in between, the 1910s, remain largely uncharted in popular fiction and film—and so much happened then. The US went from a second-tier nation to the economically most powerful and culturally dominant country in the world. Women went from second-class citizens to finally winning the right to vote. Much of what we associate with modern life—cars, movies, even national boundaries—took their current form during that period. It was a transformative moment in history, which is why I explore it through the eyes of the protagonist of A Front Page Affair, Capability “Kitty” Weeks, a young woman journalist based in New York City.
A Front Page Affair, the first in the Kitty Weeks mystery series, takes place during the summer of 1915, in the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania and an attack on financier, J.P. Morgan. As the series unfolds, Kitty will confront the many social and political changes taking place in America in the course of her investigations.
Radha Vatsal grew up in Mumbai, India, and came to the United States to attend boarding school when she was sixteen. She has stayed here ever since. Her fascination with the 1910s began when she studied women filmmakers and action-film heroines of silent cinema at Duke University, where she earned her Ph.D. from the English Department. A Front Page Affair is her first novel. You can email her directly at: radhavatsalauthor (at) gmail (dot) com. You can also connect with her on Tumblr, Facebook and Goodreads
Someone asked me recently what goes into promoting a book. I'm sure really savvy best-selling authors do really smart important stuff, but this is a run-down of what I've been doing since my fourth historical mystery, A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET (Minotaur, 2016), came out in mid-April. (I should add that this is all on top of a full-time job, teaching, and 2 kids, so there's that...).
But, basically I've been...
Writing a whole bunch of blog posts...
....like what being nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark means to me (Femme Fatales)
& What Would Mary Write? (Jungle Red Writers).
Partying at the Edgars Banquet....
(Some people would probably refer to this as 'networking,' but I call it making friends and having fun...)
Paneling at Malice Domestic...
And writing MORE pieces in which I...
...discuss how murder ballads inspired my novels...
("A True Account of a Most Monstrous Act, and Other Strange Happenings…" over at Criminal Element)
... and co-interview my college pal Duane Swierczynski (Edgar-nominated author of CANARY)
about our time writing for the La Salle Collegian and stalking, er, talking to Clive Barker...
[In a pretty rare event for me, I even reviewed Duane's book at Criminal Element!]
...And Scottish Whiskey...
Check out this cocktail
"A Death Along the River Peat"
Love it! Recipe included!!!
(Thanks Criminal Element!)
Completing a few interviews, in which I share:
And of course, speaking at a bunch of fun book talks at local book stores and other venues:
[Of course, posting these pictures makes me realize that I wear the same outfits to all my book signings!)
So clearly, another day I should write about how to balance all this craziness, but putting this post together was probably the most exhausting thing I've done!
And now, back to writing novels!!!
In a few hours I'll be flying to New York City to take part in the Edgars Symposium. My third novel, THE MASQUE OF A MURDERER is up for the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award.
Hopefully, my flight will be on time because I am looking forward to participating in this panel: "A Dram of Poison." Glen Erik Hamilton (2016 Best First Novel Nominee – Past Crimes, William Morrow) and Lori Roy (2016 Best Novel Nominee – Let Me Die in his Footsteps, Dutton). Moderated by Brendan Dubois (MWA National Board member)
On Thursday night, the winners will be announced...it is truly an honor to be nominated, alongside A Woman Unknown by Frances Brody (Minotaur Books – A Thomas Dunne Book), Night Night, Sleep Tight by Hallie Ephron, The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson (Llewellyn Worldwide – Midnight Ink), and Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books).
I'm delighted to be joined on my blog today by author Elena Hartwell. Elena writes a great series that features a private investigator, and I was curious how she does her research to make her books (and detective) authentic.
I have a very eclectic work history. I’ve been an auto mechanic and a university professor. I’ve stage-managed children’s theater and one illustrious summer I delivered phone books.
What I have never done, is work as a private investigator.
So what do I write? A mystery series about a private investigator.
Nothing ruins a story more than having a character do something that you know they would never do in the real world. The downside of being an author is a whole lot of your readers know more than you do about an aspect of the world you’re creating. The upside is a whole lot of people in the real world love to talk about their areas of expertise.
To research for One Dead, Two to Go, I used a wide variety of methods. I read PI Magazine, a trade magazine for the industry. I read non-fiction books by private investigators, which gave insights into the real world of investigations. And I’ve asked private investigators about specific questions that came up during a draft.
My most useful resource has been a police detective with the Issaquah Police Department. Incident Commander Diego Zanella has been incredibly generous with his time. The best part of my experiences interviewing him is he doesn’t just answer my questions he also makes suggestions about things I haven’t even considered. His insights and ideas have been instrumental in the shape of books one and two, and I will be meeting with him about book three.
My process is to write the full draft of the book. Then I read through it and highlight every place where I have a specific question about how homicide investigations work in the real world. Then I sit down with him and go through my scenarios, jargon, legal issues, and how people behave — in his experience — in various situations. I love it when he says, “You’ve got that exactly right,” but I learn a lot more from, “Well … no … it doesn’t exactly work that way.”
Then I go back through and rewrite for accuracy. Usually these changes are minor, but sometimes it requires a major fix on my side. Changing a location for a scene or the outcome of an interaction or the behavior of a character. We try to keep my protagonist from out and out breaking the rules, but we happily let her bend some. It is, after all, fiction, and that means we get to have a little fun.
Usually a few more questions come up after I do the rewrite and I meet with him again.
Everyone I’ve ever interviewed in all my years as a writer has been generous with their time and knowledge. Prior to becoming a novelist, I worked as a playwright. I’ve written extensively about areas in which I have no personal experience: veterans, PTSD, combat, colony collapse disorder, dementia, and once a glass factory in the Midwest. For each of these projects I visited locations where my work was set to get the full flavor of the landscape. I spoke to experts in their fields, American veterans from Viet Nam and the Middle East, journalists covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read a lot of non-fiction in the topics I’m researching. I also have experts read early drafts for accuracy. For book two, Two Dead Are Better Than One, I’m researching some specific psychological conditions, and I’m very lucky to have two beta readers who worked as therapists for over fifty years combined.
Insights from people in the field are invaluable, not just for fact checking, but also to give you paths to travel down you didn’t even know could be on the map.
Research before and during your writing process, that’s my suggestion. Before, to get you started and during, to fact check as things arise. But at some point, you also have to trust you’ve done what you can and let it out into the world. You will probably make a mistake, everybody does, but a reader who loves your work will still enjoy your book. And it gives them something to talk to you about at your next book signing.
Elena Hartwell worked in theater as a playwright, director, producer, and educator before turning her attention to fiction. Her Eddie Shoes Mystery Series starts with One Dead, Two to Go. Followed by Two Dead Are Better Than One and Three Dead, You’re Out. Elena lives in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, their dog Polar, and cats Jackson and Luna. She loves to spend time with her hubby and their horses Chance and Jasper, the world’s greatest Arab and the best Palomino Paint on the planet. For more information, please visit www.elenahartwell.com
Research is such a Siren…
Okay, I’ve never lashed my body to a mast and filled my ears with beeswax before firing up the laptop (in the old days, it was easier to build dramatic tension if you were striding up the stairs toward the wooden doors guarding the entrance to your local library, like hometown cousins of Scylla and Charybdis), but I have thrown myself off a cliff into the adventure of discovery – sometimes just for the sake of learning!
I’m not talking about looking for relevant statistics for Professor Cudlip’s “Theory of Infinity” course, either. I’m talking about feeling the burn in your frontal lobes, counting your pulse up to 200-plus beats per minute, experiencing the joys of carpopedal spasms. There’s something forbidden, even illicit, about digging into history. You might know where you will start your explorations, but you have no idea where you will end up.
Perhaps I’m a voyeur by nature…or an eavesdropper…or just a busybody, but the headlines of 2016 (ISIS, Republicans, North Korea, Wall Street), in my opinion, pale beside the questions lurking in the shadows of history (Did Oswald act alone? Did FDR know the Japanese plans to bomb Pearl Harbor? Did Stalin poison Lenin?) Or perhaps I’m a conspiracy theorist…
I know for sure that I am a schizophrenic. I must be…I write under two names. M. A. Richards is the author of a spy novel series featuring Nathan Monsarrat, a former deep cover operative with the CIA – the first novel, CHOICE OF ENEMIES, launched in January 2016 while the second offering, A THOUSAND ENEMIES, will be available in November 2016 (both published by Sunbury Press).
I also scribe historical fiction as A. M. ben Yitzhak. Currently, I’m conducting research on the Zealots, the group of breakaway radicals who fled Jerusalem during the Roman rule of the Second Temple Period to live a more pure life in the barren Judean wilderness…and fought the Empire to a standstill from 66 to 132 AD, when the last of the Zealots, led by Shimon bar Kochba, bled to death in the desert south of the Dead Sea.
To conduct historical research on a secretive group that lived two thousand years ago demands familiarity with the writings of the period…so, you need (1) access to the original materials (if you ever ask the Israel Museum to borrow the original – not digital - Dead Sea Scrolls for a few days, you’ll hear a really rich laugh) and (2) you need to read Latin, Accadian, Aramaic, and a few other “dead” languages. I suppose you could trust someone else’s translations, but then you are dependent on someone else…
There is another roadblock, which might be a blessing, the more I think about it: so few original texts were written two thousand years ago. I can rely on the aforementioned Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and other apocryphal writings (e.g., the minor prophets), but the scholarship of this period is severely limited and, unless you’re on a first name basis with the Witch of Endor, it would be tough to interview Judas of Gamala, Simon bar Giora, Menahem ben Judah or any of the other original kana’im and siqari’im – the founders of the Zealots.
A third difficulty refers back to the opening of this epic…research is such a Siren! It’s addictive! Impossible to stop! I can’t tell you how many times I shut down the stacks in local and university libraries. At least, the internet never sleeps, but unless you induct your spouse into the Eleusinian Mysteries, chances are good that the time you spend researching the daily habits of the Zealots will do nothing for your marriage and family life.
Faced with so many challenges, what’s a historical novelist to do (and I’m not talking about agents and editors shaking their heads and informing you that the market for Zealot fiction is incredibly, infinitesimally tiny)?
Travel! Read the State Department warnings…and ignore them. Listen to your family and friends…and ignore them. Read the newspapers and watch the twenty-four cable stations…and ignore them!
You wanna write about the Zealots? Go to their home. Stomp around their ancient stomping grounds. You probably will not discover a missing cache of Dead Sea Scrolls in the unexplored caves of Qumran, but you will absorb the zeitgeist of the period as you stumble over sandstone boulders, tread on red desert poppies, and quaff liter after liter of tepid water beneath the broiling desert sun.
You don’t have to go the fully Monty, either…you can sleep not in a tent beneath clear, star filled skies but in an air conditioned hostel that offers hot showers and a fantastic breakfast of yoghurt, cheese, olives, bread, fruit, and vegetables. After a few weeks of following in the footsteps of the Zealots, you will have collected enough ambiance to fill the pages of a historical novel and a wonderful appreciation for the amenities of the twenty-first century.
When you’re back home, having made amends with your spouse, family, and employer, when you’re sitting in front of your laptop with English translations of Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls piled on your desk, when you launch your fingers against the monolithic blank digital page…you will always have your best ally by your side: your imagination.
After all – it’s not history. It’s historical fiction.
M. A. Richards is the author of the Nathan Monsarrat
international espionage novels. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Studies from Connecticut College and his Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
During a career as a Cultural Attaché in the Department of State that spanned more than two decades, he served in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Lagos, Moscow, Seoul, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. He also served at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu as the Special Advisor to the Commander. He speaks Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Russian. M. A. divides his time between Palm Beach and Tel Aviv, where he indulges his passions for motorcycles, photography, and archaeology.
Visit www.MARichardsBooks.com to learn more about M. A. Richards and CHOICE OF ENEMIES.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.