Research: Friend or Foe?

When I started writing fiction, I’d assumed little-to-no research was necessary. After all, we fiction writers make things up. Research belongs in scholarly, non-fiction pieces. Not so.

In my upcoming, GAMBLING WITH MURDER, #5 in my SoCal Mystery series, I researched everything from the setting to lockpicking. I learned more than I thought I knew about the setting, and now I know how to pick a lock! 

In real life, I don’t live from far the setting.

But I view the locale as a resident, not as a sharp-eyed, super sniffing, noise sensitive, tactilely inclined writer who needs to bring the setting to life for readers. To do that, I paid a visit just to carefully examine details that I’d likely ignore as a casual observer. By details, I mean:

– the sounds;
– the smells;
– the scenery; and
– the surroundings.

The location I selected had been locked up for some time, which meant I couldn’t actually walk the grounds. But I could linger around the perimeter, jotting notes and snapping photos. This is what I noticed with an author’s eyes and mind:

– The many winding brick pathways, filled with shadows and hiding places.

– The abundant and lush plant life, the surrounding structures, and so many different scents! A buffer between the main building and the road contained a small wooded area that I’d never noticed. That area played a part in an incident that occurs in my book, which led me to study neighboring structures. Would people nearby see enough to help find the culprit? 

– The constant roar of the highway, the hum of small planes and the gently splashing waves of a golden sandy beach that disappeared during high tide.

Even when I can’t visit a setting in-person, I have the luxury of viewing almost everything on the Internet, thanks to Google Maps and a multitude of photos.

I researched seniors and gambling, both of which figure big in the book. I spent hours, maybe days researching different topics, just to ensure I viewed the big picture. This means I gathered excess information. You never know what may play a starring role in the story. Research that takes hours may take up a few lines in the book…or play no role at all. But one thing’s for certain: a way to breathe life into a book is through research. To make fiction seem real.

I’m always amazed at how much knowledge I absorb through research. Writing books is, hopefully, making me a little smarter. :) Or a possible future Jeopardy! contestant.


Which Light Bulb Burns the Brightest?

Today’s post has nothing to do with light bulbs, but has everything to do with ideas.

After I finish each novel in my Southern California mystery series, I toss around ideas in my head for the next book. Or at least for a solid opening chapter.

For Book Five, my First Attempt at a draft featured heroine Corrie Locke lounging around the movie studio legal office with sidekick and former security guard turned legal assistant, Veera, spying out the window of their office. Their former boss is spotted entering their building. What does he want?

I kicked around that chapter a bit, then shelved it to try again. Enter Attempt #2. A totally different draft. That first chapter opened with Michael, Corrie’s sweet computer nerd, college dean and best friend turned love interest, driving her to an secret location for a surprise. Corrie’s not keen on surprises. How will she know which weapon to pack? Turns out the destination is perfect for a romantic picnic…

…except it’s not because there’s some unexpected action that prevents anything resembling a picnic. I put that scene aside and pondered yet another book.

On to Attempt #3: this opening chapter featured Corrie accompanying her loving, caring, slightly meddlesome, but very fashionable, mother to dinner at the home of a former client of Mom’s. The client asked to meet Corrie after learning of her case-cracking skills. Turns out the client is holding a séance to find her missing son and asks Corrie to team up with the psychic to locate him. Only problem is, Corrie’s convinced the psychic is a fake… or is he?

Which one of the three Attempts did I go with?

That’s right: Attempt #1…except I created a whole different Chapter One. A critical reader kindly suggested the first chapter contain more action. I happily obliged, putting Corrie in a sketchy warehouse with some highly suspicious objects, one of which comes in handy as the story unfolds and Corrie snags her first official P.I. job.

Attempts #2 and #3 may be used for Books Six and Seven. The moral of this post? All light bulbs can shine brightly, if given the chance.  

Labor Day for Writers

A little Labor Day observance note for writers:

Before publication, a writer may not have considered how the finished novel will impact their life. I know I didn’t. Besides dreams of grandeur and of readers (hopefully a good number of them) loving your book, one doesn’t contemplate the ripples a published book can cast in what were still waters. The labor involved in completing a novel? I’d compare it to driving a tank across a large body of quicksand. To make it to the other side, one must be vigilant, focused and work for it.

“Before the reward, there must be labor. You plant before you harvest. You sow in tears before you reap joy.”
— Ralph Ransom

On the upside, writing opens up a whole new world.

So why write? Becoming a published author definitely impacts one’s life…in wonderful ways:

– We don’t become published by accident: We work and re-work words, sentences and fill plot-holes until nearly nothing else can be done with a story. Pre-publication, I didn’t realize just how much time and effort it takes to reach “The End”. It can be mentally, even physically, draining. But the finished product in your hands? Oh what a feeling! I ask myself: how in the world did I write a whole book? It’s no small miracle. To make it meaningful, as Mother Teresa once said:
“The miracle is not that we do the work, but that we are happy to do it.”
That happiness may not be noticed right away, but it will come.

– A whole new group of people trickle into your life: book sellers, librarians, readers, wannabe writers, and strangers who want you to know how much they enjoyed your book! Wow wee! All of these turn into cherished participants in your dream gig. At least, they did for me.

– You’ll learn new skills: Can’t speak in public? You’ll discover that you can. That’s what happens when you pursue your passion in life. Marketing? What’s that? You’ll be highly motivated to learn because there’s a payoff! You’re sharing your loving creation with the world.

Soon what was considered work turns into a labor…of love. That’s the goal.

“Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice, and, above all, don’t let anyone limit your dreams.”

— Donovan Bailey