Research. It’s what writers do before and during and sometimes after we write the books. Let’s see what Janet Dawson and D. Z. Church have to say about research.
You can tell a lot about what I’m working on by looking at my browser history. And my research bookshelf.
Like many writers, these days I do a lot of research online. There is something about being able to Google a subject, clicking away on links, until I find the information I need. Or the image. I love the digital Sanborn maps. These incredibly detailed maps were created to help insurance companies assess their liabilities in urbanized areas. They are great for documenting changes in what city planners call the built environment. They can show you what business was on a particular corner in 1920 and whether it was still there in 1953.
Sometimes you just have to go to the library. In my Jeri Howard novel, Bit Player, Camp Roberts, a military base in central California, played a pivotal role in the book, and during World War II, the base had its own newspaper. The Bancroft Library at the University of California had copies of that newspaper. When looking through those pages, I discovered Bing Crosby had performed at the base during the time frame I was writing about. These details make a book much richer, so of course that one went into the book.
Internet and books aside, my research may also involve road trips and interviews. The fourth Jeri Howard novel, Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, takes place in Monterey and San Luis Obispo, and I made several visits to those cities, and locations in between. I interviewed a Fish and Wildlife agent and others and climbed around on a fishing boat.
For a trip of another sort, researching my California Zephyr novels, I took a special excursion train featuring vintage rail cars, traveling up the Feather River canyon to Railroad Days in Portola, California. I stayed on a Pullman car, a ten-six, with ten roomettes and six bedrooms. While at the railroad museum in Portola, I climbed around on old rail cars. On another trip to Portola, I drove a locomotive for an hour. I hadn’t intended to put a locomotive scene in Death Rides the Zephyr, but after the experience of climbing around in that noisy cab, smelling of diesel, and making the train go under the watchful eye of a docent, I had to put the noise and the smell and the grease-covered equipment into the book. And hey, I drove a locomotive! A big one!
Then there are the books. I love the ease of using the Internet, but I also have loads of books on a variety of subjects. Sometimes I’ve been collecting them for years, such as books about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, a subject I’ve been planning to write about for decades. Other I’ve purchased recently because they fill a particular need and I can’t find the information on the Internet.
What’s on my research shelf right now?
Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam, by Robert Rogers. When I was in the Navy in the 1970s, I was stationed on this island, a U.S. Territory since 1898 and the Spanish-American War. It has a fascinating history and since it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the scars of that war are never far away. I’ve always wanted to write a novel about my time there and I have a plot and character in mind to go with the setting.
Next on the shelf, Lincoln County and its Wars, by Nora True Henn. I met Nora way back in the 1990s when I visited Lincoln, NM. At the time she told me she was writing this book. She died in 2011 but fortunately for those of us who were waiting for the book, it was published in 2017. It’s a worthy addition to my shelf.
I see several books about the Buffalo soldiers, the African American troops of the post-Civil War frontier Army, and Child of the Fighting Tenth, the memoir of a girl named Birdie Cooper, whose father was a cavalry officer commanding Buffalo soldiers. Next to that, Robert Utley’s Frontier Regulars, which is about the U. S. Army 1866-1891, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Soap Suds Row, about 19th century Army laundresses.
Then there’s Reporter’s Note Book by Duffy Jennings, a book by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter about “the shocking Seventies.” Yes, I have a novel in mind that takes place during that era.
Rounding out the shelf, Audubon’s Field Guide to California and a book about California’s mountain wildflowers. Those were for the book I’ve just finished, The Sacrificial Daughter, which takes place in a fictional location in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains. Always a good idea to know what flowers my protagonist will see, as well as the trees and critters she might encounter.
Research, ah, research! A whole bag of research!
I think all writers have short-term and long-term research needs. The short term needs are driven by the book you are currently writing. Some things you just need to know and now! The long-term is all the slogging research for an upcoming book, as in the bag in the picture. Sometimes for books that never get written.
My bookshelf is cluttered with my Navy manuals, books about the air war in Vietnam, the jets used, and the classic treatises on Vietnam. The books support and fuel my own experiences as I write the Cooper Quartet. Still, I stumbled on a powerful website put up by the last contingent of Marines to leave the American Embassy, Fall of Saigon Marine Association, and OMG! It was like Nirvana. Old maps, photos, descriptions of the chaos. The next book in the Quartet, Pay Back, owes much of its intensity to the frightening personal accounts of that final day posted by those Marines. Historical fiction requires the writer to place the book’s characters into the mix, reading the memories of those who survived the Fall was a gift. And those guys, they were, too.
The Cooper Quartet was planned so that there is a dramatic arc to each book and to the series. Which meant researching four different periods, both in Vietnam and the U.S., over which our understanding of the war and ourselves shifted. I have books about the music of the time, about clothing, events, you name it. Still, I spent time researching answering machines. It is scary how easy it is to introduce an anachronism into historical fiction. If you read the series, you’ll note in Head First that Laury Cooper dreams of a machine that will answer phone calls, and by Pay Back, an answering machine is storing messages.
My thrillers, Perfidia, Saving Calypso, and the coming Booth Island, are place driven. I lived in Barbados way back when. Which is why Perfidia is set back then, too. I wanted to write about the island I knew. The images I had stored in my brain, the world before Sam Lord’s Castle burned to the ground. I always knew I wanted the story to take place on a sugar plantation, starring a feisty female dropped into the middle of a bunch of scoundrels. After that, well—the Monterey, CA, Library informed me that if I checked out one more book on refining cocaine or sugar or building a centrifuge, they would report me to the authorities. Luckily, the book in hand was the last one needed. No slammer for me, of course, now you can search for almost anything on the internet. But be warned, if you do, you’ll get ads, lots of ads, sometimes for things you’d rather not have others know you looked up.
Saving Calypso takes place just up the road from my Sierra cabin. The land, flora, and fauna are all around me, so that was easy. But the financial stuff, lots of research online about wills and initial public offerings. I researched what constituted manslaughter charges in Suffolk County, NY, and their policing. Horses, I knew, thanks to my sisters and Gandydancer, a Morgan, and Willow, an Appaloosa. Curlys I learned about from researching mustangs. And rocks. I love geology anyway, so it was just fun to have a character who lived and breathed rocks. The chemicals needed for Calypso’s patent—too much fun identifying them, locating them, and bringing them into the plot.
Booth Island—sigh! My husband’s family bought an island in Ontario, Canada, in the early 1900s. The very first time I visited I knew that someday the island would be a character in a thriller. I’ve been there many times since, and listened to the neighbors’ stories, wild tales told for fun, visited the towns, and enjoyed Ontario’s beauty. The only research needed was on real estate laws, U.S. Prohibition in Canada, and why Canadian Bourbon is Rye Whiskey. Hmmm. Oh, and in Ontario, it isn’t the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) but the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
Research. I love it, I love it, I love it. I learn so much along the way. I hope the care I take shows in the tales I tell.