Tuesday, January 3, 2012

All That Research!

I love research. In fact, it’s my favorite part of writing. When I was young and foolish, I spent two years at a microfilm machine to research a centennial history. Needless to say, I’ve since done my research online, in person or on the phone. The benefit was having a stack of typewritten notes leftover that I used for my first historical novels, with enough notes remaining to write several more.

When I began writing mysteries, I had my own police procedural information at hand because my husband is a former highway patrolman. And I was a police reporter. However, because I had written about so many disturbing and heartbreaking events, I decided my series would feature mature women amateur sleuths and a lovesick sheriff. Humor is an integral part of my work and I include it in all my books, both fiction and nonfiction, with a little romance sprinkled in.
I brought my two feisty women sleuths along when we moved from my native California to my husband’s hometown in Wyoming. So Dana and Sarah also sell their homes in the San Joaquin Valley— where a serial killer has murdered their friends alphabetically in A Village Shattered—and buy a motorhome. They’re traveling in Colorado in Diary of Murder when Dana Logan gets word that her sister Georgi has taken her own life. Dana knows that would never happen so they drive through a Rocky Mountain blizzard to reach Wyoming.
The research for that scene happened several years earlier when I had to drive our motorhome through an unexpected snowstorm. I couldn’t let the terrifying experience go to waste so I began my second mystery novel with it. Then, in Murder on the Interstate, I used my experience driving the RV along a Northern Arizona highway in a rainstorm while listening to truckers on my CB radio. It's there that Dana and Sarah discover a Mercedes convertible with a murdered woman inside, “Big Ruby” McCurdy, a woman trucker, comes to their rescue. 
The humorous CB chatter that follows is authentic because I had listened to it for weeks. I interviewed a woman trucker who hauled produce, so I knew that drivers have to pay for their loads if the lettuce wilts before it gets to market.

Later, when Dana and Sarah conduct research to find the killer, I sent them to the newspaper morgue and library, and have them interview witnesses, along with Dana’s journalist daughter. My own news reporting came in handy but I also used online sources such as the Wikipedia for information on sulfuric acid spills. I then interviewed a chemical engineer to write about homegrown terrorism. Map Quest refreshed my memory of the Arizona terrain as well as an Indian Reservation south of Scottsdale, where the chemical spills occur.
  If I had any doubts about the accuracy of the Wikipedia, I was reassured by bestselling author Lucia St. Clair Robson, a former librarian, who told me that the Wiki is as accurate, if not more, that the Encyclopedia Britannica. I use the online source extensively, but also check the facts in other ways as well.

The only research problem I have is spending too much time reading instead of writing. There are so many fascinating subjects that I have a difficult time putting the research aside to begin spooning it into my novels.


  1. Research can be dangerous in more ways than one. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in it that one thing leads to another and I'm reading about all sorts of things.

  2. Research is fun! Spending too much time reading instead of writing can be a problem, but doesn't it also give material for more writing?

  3. I have the same problem, Kelly. There are so many fascinating subjects out there that I have a very hard time confining my research to my WIP.

  4. It sure does, Angela. I have an entire four-drawer file cabinet stuffed with research that I won't live long enough to write about.

  5. Living it sounds like the most fun way to research, and I've done that, too, but we also have to research in traditional ways. Your "living it" research sounds like it's been a lot of fun.

  6. Sometimes fun, Marja, but I've had some very scary moments as well while driving the motorhome in the mountains during a torrential rain and a Rocky Mountain blizzard. That kind of research I can do without. :)