AUTHORS BECOME EXPERTS ON THE MOST INTERESTING THINGS:
By Valerie Biel
We’ve all heard the jokes writers make about what trouble they’d be in if someone they know dies mysteriously and their computer search history was examined. I imagine that a group of writers focused on mystery, suspense, and thrillers like The Blackbirds would be particularly suspicious! But no matter the topic, writers are diligent researchers, often to the point of becoming an expert in areas that might surprise people.
With that in mind, I asked my fellow Blackbirds what unexpected areas they’ve become experts in due to their writing careers. The answers might surprise you because it’s not all blood spatter evidence or homicide detective procedures, but there are poisons . . .
Saralyn Richard tell us that when writing Murder in the One Percent, the first in the Detective Parrott Mystery series, she had to research poisons extensively to find one that fit the circumstances of a gathering of old friends (and some enemies) at a remote mansion in Brandywine Valley.
She purchased Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons, and perused every page with a highlighter, examining toxicity levels, effects and symptoms, reaction times, how administered, and, particularly, where found. There wasn’t a single poison that fit the parameters of her book. Saralyn says, “I then asked several doctors to be on the lookout, and one of them read an article about a rare, naturally-occurring poison, found in aquariums. Voila! This newly-discovered poison, palytoxin, became my murder weapon!”
While writers may spend a lot of time trying find ways to kill off their characters in unexpected ways, we also work hard to give a framework for our characters’ actions. Tracey Phillips became an expert on Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS) for her novel Best Kept Secrets.
I’ve learned from Tracey that PITS occurs when a person is involved in or witnesses a violent act, and its symptoms are similar to most traumatic stress disorders where there is loss of sleep, hypervigilance and irritability. What makes PITS unique is persistent avoidance of the situation of the stimulus and activities that triggered the syndrome. In fact, the brain protects the person by completely shutting off the memory. Like it never happened.
Tracey explains, “In my character Morgan Jewell’s case, her best friend Fay was killed just before they moved into college dorms together. Fay disappeared and two weeks later, Morgan and a search party found her brutally beaten to death. Morgan’s PITS became chronic three months after the event. Her memory did not return and she became obsessed with finding the answers. Other side effects of long term PITS include a limited range of feelings like inability to love deeply, difficulty falling and staying asleep and difficulty concentrating.”
Morgan obsesses about the event that killed her friend and is determined to find answers that elude her because of her syndrome. When she requests access to a murder that looks similar to Fay’s death, she’s certain she is on the right track!
Details matter to readers and show us the importance of good research in telling a story successfully! Joy Ribar had to dive into wine production for her Deep Lakes Cozy Mystery series, which is driven by her protagonist, Frankie Champagne, baker, vintner and part-time journalist.
Joy says, “Since Frankie operates a vineyard, I needed to get educated about grape cultivation in Wisconsin. Cold climate varieties are the only grapes that will grow successfully here. Thanks to Elmer Swenson, a Wisconsin farmer who began hybridizing French varieties in the 1930’s, we have several varieties that successfully produce wine. I learned it takes a minimum of three years before vines can be harvested for wine.”
But that wasn’t enough for Joy, she actually went on to make her own wine to learn the process. “Our friends banded together, purchased equipment like a carboy (giant glass vessel for fermentation), a hydrometer to measure specific gravity of the wine for alcohol content, and a floor corker. We made our own labels and have had three bottling parties to date. I so appreciate the time and talents of the real vintners who craft wines for a living.”
K-9’S AND THEIR HANDLERS
Sometimes our own experiences jump-start our further interest in a topic. In Margaret Mizushima’s case, research for her Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries was mostly hands-on and in-person, based on knowledge she had already acquired. Her series features a deputy from a rural county in the Colorado Rockies, her German shepherd partner, and a veterinarian who often becomes entangled in their murder investigations.
Margaret explains, “My research began decades ago, long before this series was even a twinkle in my eye, when my own veterinarian (aka my husband) and I trained two of our dogs in search and rescue. I learned how a dog’s nose works and the basics of scent tracking. We trained in a group, so I observed many doggy behaviors and skill levels.” When Margaret decided to create a K-9 handler for her mystery series, one of her husband’s clients who trained police and protection dogs let her shadow him and observe a group training session.
Since then she’s shadowed other trainers and handlers, listened to their stories, attended police dog trials to watch K-9 teams compete in various skills, and developed consultants who read my books before they go to print. Margaret says, “I’ve never worked in law enforcement, but thanks to my research, I’ve been told by those who have that I get the details right— which supports the adage, ‘Write what you know, and research what you don’t!’”
But what happens when you think you know something but aren’t one-hundred percent positive? Christine DeSmet cautions, “I always look for at least two credible sources to back up everything I write that is about a factual place.”
When writing Book 3 (Five-Alarm Fudge) of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series set in Door County, Wisconsin, Christine wanted to feature the history of the St. Mary of the Snows church, now the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur, Wisconsin. She says, “In a resource book I’d bought about the history of Door County I’d read that a priest long ago wanted to improve the property by putting in a paved parking lot, and the best space was in front of the church and next to the road. The only problem, according to the resource book’s author, was the graveyard sat in front of the church. So the priest had the headstones moved and he paved over the graves. I was shocked!”
Christine typed the story into the manuscript as a placeholder, then took a trip to Door County to talk to experts at the Belgian Heritage Center. (Door County has the biggest rural settlement of Belgians in this country). She tells us that upon her arrival she immediately saw the collection of gravestones under a nearby tree, which of course looked odd. The truth?
Nobody had paved over graves; in fact, the graveyard sits to the right and rear of the church and currently is kept as lawn. Christine explains, “The gravestones had been removed because they were sinking and toppling as the 1800s-era wood coffins underground deteriorated. No graves were paved over! I changed that paragraph in my mystery novel. Whew!”
MYTH OR HISTORY?
I also write about real places in my Circle of Nine series and am fortunate that my accountant says it’s okay to write off my research trips to Ireland as business expenses! While much research can be done via the internet, nothing helps your writing more than experiencing the exact setting you’re putting into your novels.
In my case, I’m fascinated (okay, obsessed) with the stone circles of Ireland and one in particular, Beltany in County Donegal. Now, not a lot is known about the people who built these circles about 5000 years ago because there’s no written history for that time. But I learned everything I could from the archaeological record and then turned to folklore and mythology; combined these served as the jumping off point for my series. One of the best parts about learning so much is that I have been invited to speak on this topic—an added bonus, indeed!
The insatiable curiosity of writers propels us and our stories forward! And makes us really great dinner party guests. But while it might not be possible to invite us to dinner (at least right now), pick up one of our books to keep you company and enjoy the richness of our research embedded in a good tale!
Valerie Biel Author of:
Circle of Nine – Beltany (Circle of Nine Series Book 1)
Circle of Nine – Novella Collection (Circle of Nine Series Book 2)
Circle of Nine – Sacred Treasures
Connect with Valerie Biel on her website and social media.