Monday, May 23, 2011
Fact in Fiction: Research Ain't What it Used to Be by LAUREN CARR
Lauren Carr fell in love with mysteries when her mother read Perry Mason to her at bedtime. The first installment in the Joshua Thornton mysteries, A Small Case of Murder was a finalist for the Independent Publisher Book Award. A Reunion to Die For was released in hardback in June 2007. Both of these books are in re-release.
Last year, the first installment of her new series, It’s Murder, My Son was released. It has received only rave reviews from both reviewers and readers. The Mac Faraday Mysteries take place in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, where Lauren and her family vacation. The second installment is entitled Old Loves Die Hard.
She lives with her husband, son, and two dogs on a mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV.
(Lauren tells me that the beautiful canine balancing out her headshot is Ziggy. And the one who is keeping her company while she writes in her office is Beagle Bailey.)
Last year, when It’s Murder, My Son was released, I received a phone call from a reader. In the first installment of the Mac Faraday Mysteries, bankrupt homicide detective Mac inherits an undreamed of fortune and an estate on Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. The reader hunted me down to discuss a scene in which Mac and Archie are served a bottle of champagne at his five-star inn.
The former wine steward told me that I had written the scene wrong. When I explained that I had modeled that scene from numerous personal occasions at many fine restaurants, he replied, “Well, those weren’t five-star restaurants.”
Maybe a hundred years ago, before the information age of the Internet put all of the facts right at the readers’ fingertips, writers could get away with fudging on the facts. Not so today. Readers are much more savvy.
Back in the 1940’s, movies showed police interrogations with them locking suspects in bare room with nothing but naked light bulbs glaring in the suspects’ face to force a confession, and private eyes investigating murders on a regular basis. Most of the population, having never met P.I.’s or encountering the police trusted what they saw on the silver screen to be the truth.
Then came cable television and networks like the TruCrime channel, Discovery, and A&E with shows like Cold Case, Forensics Files, 48-Hours, or American Justice to give readers a glimpse into how criminal investigation and the justice system really works.
As a result, much of the mystique behind all of these genres has dissolved away. The facts are now common knowledge. A fourth grader knows that a homicide detective is not allowed to smoke a cigarette over a dead body and then toss the butt to the ground and grind it into the dirt with his heel because he will be contaminating the crime scene.
Research. The word creates flashbacks from my first research paper in college. The topic was on the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Before the Internet, I had been sentenced to spend hours in the library reading the driest material you could ever imagine. I almost dropped out of college because I thought I was going to die of boredom. If this was what writing was about I didn’t want to do it.
When I first started writing fiction, I considered research a fence around my imagination of where I was prohibited to go, but I have discovered that the opposite is true.
Research for fiction is actually more fun! In the last year, I took a gun class in the name of research. I’ve been on ride-alongs with real police officers. This September, I’m going to the Writer’s Police Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, to train with the pros! All this in the name of research.
Consider research an opportunity. If you jump into writing a book based purely on your imagination with nothing else, then you have a limited number of ways to go with the plot. But if you do your research, talk to people within that profession, gather stories, then you will find other avenues that can lead your story in interesting and unexpected directions.
Remember the saying, “Fact is stranger than fiction.”
For example, in the gun class I took last summer, a classmate brought in her Smith and Wesson revolver. It was pink. Not painted pink. It was made of pink metal. Before that class, I never knew they made pink hand guns. I held it. Fired it.
Now, Archie Monday carries a pink Smith and Wesson in her purse. That piece of reality added an interesting little detail that helps to bring the character of Archie to life for the reader that I never would have thought of if I hadn’t taken that class.
The murders in Old Loves Die Hard are committed in Mac Faraday’s private penthouse suite on the top floor of the Spencer Inn. As I had planned the scene, the hot water is on, but after running all night it is cold. However, the bath room is not flooded because of the overflow in the tub.
As I was writing that scene, the question crossed my mind: Do hotels run out of hot water?
This is a five-star hotel. If they run out of hot water, guests will complain, the hotel management will investigate, and the murders will be discovered sooner than I wanted for my storyline. (They may not know how to serve champagne, but they aren’t going to let their guests complain about having no hot water without investigating the matter.)
With a half hour of research on the Internet, I discovered that most suites in many top hotels and resorts have their own hot water heaters. So, if the hot water ran out in that suite, only the murder victims would have been affected and they weren’t going to be complaining.
I did not expect to discover that, in recent years, a lot of hotels, in going green, and as a safeguard, have put timers in their units. If the water runs too long, either because it has been left on or a leak in the plumbing, then it will automatically shut off in order to save water and prevent flooding and water damage not just to the suite but the floors below it.
With the use of this research, I was able to have the body of Mac Faraday’s ex-wife found in the tub, the faucet is turned on, but the water is not running because it had been shut off by the timer.
Look at research as a way to build content for your novel instead of thinking of it as a boundary or chore you have to do.
While the word "research" may bring back those images of a boring night spent in the library feeling like your eyes are going to bleed if you have to read one more dry word, research for your fiction can actually be a fun process, especially when you’re holding a pink handgun imagining yourself as a character in one of your books brought to life.
Lauren has her books priced at a fantastic $3.99 on Amazon for Kindle. Check 'em out and make sure she has her facts straight.
CR: While the Savage Sleeps by Andrew E. Kaufman
It's all better with friends.