Research Brings Mystery Writing Alive
One of my favorite things about writing is research. Not the kind of research you do on the computer or at a library–though I’m okay with that–but the kind of research that’s up close and personal, as in going places, talking to people, experiencing things.
As a freelance writer working on corporate and educational videos and magazine articles, I’ve had lots of opportunities to interview people and do first hand research on a wide variety of topics. But I never thought I would need to do that kind of research for a fiction novel. Like a lot of others, I assumed that with fiction the writer creates their own world out of thin air.
But it turns out that in order to create a world that is believable to the reader, the writer must have accurate knowledge and information on multiple aspects of the story, including settings, occupations of characters, transportation options, and props in scenes, among other details. This is even more important when writing a mystery, because mystery stories hinge on believability.
For On the Road to Death’s Door, my co-writer Mary Joy Johnson and I spent a week in Wisconsin’s Door County outlining our story and doing first person research on the setting. We stayed at Julie’s Park Café and Motel in the small community of Fish Creek. The motel is located on the main highway, right outside the entrance to Peninsula State Park, which we renamed Moose’s Leap State Park for the book. It provided the perfect accommodations for working writers and helped to anchor the setting. From there we visited other small communities along the Door Peninsula. We drove the back roads looking for just the right cabin for our murder to have taken place in, just the right restaurants, marinas, and the perfect lighthouse to use as backdrops for the action in our story. We rode the ferry out to one of the islands in the straits.
Of course, the main motiff of our book—which we’re working to turn into a series—is the RV our hero and heroine travel in. While we couldn’t afford to buy or even rent an RV (though we desperately wanted to), we could take advantage of a prime source for researching recreational vehicles. We went to our local yearly RV show. This exhibition featured a huge variety of motor homes and campers, all of which we could climb up into, sit down in, and explore to our hearts’ content. We also took time to travel to nearby RV parks, honing in on those campers who choose RVs for their vacation lifestyles.
The most important “prop” that we needed for our mystery, of course, was our heroine’s gun. We’d asked a former county policewoman to read the draft for us to help us with authenticity. One of the things she pointed out to us was that county sheriffs and deputies generally don’t travel through dense fog with their squad cars’ flashers whirling, as we had initially written into our story. As she explained it, the effect it created was “too much like a disco light ball.” But what was most valuable for us was when she brought her guns over so that we could handle them, heft them, and decide which would be most appropriate for our retired policewoman to carry.
When it came to the small details in our story, we made local mini-trips, talked with people, and even emailed people in the know. A retired coast guard skipper shared valuable information about how the fog horns work in the straits between the mainland and Washington Island; and the prolific mystery writer Fr. Andrew Greeley (The Senator and the Priest and many others) even took the time to answer a question we had about the workings of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
The fun of writing a book like On the Road to Death’s Door is encompassed in all the different things we learned about communities, about the lives of people, and about details that are so fascinating but about which we might never think to ask otherwise.
For our next book, On the Road to Where the Bells Toll¸ we have already been doing research in Boston. Maybe this time we’ll get to rent that RV and take the trip we’ve always wanted to do. Because there is nothing better than first hand, in person research!
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