On a blog tour for A FUNCTION OF MURDER last month, I researched research. (Yes Microsoft, I really do want both those words together, so off with that squiggly red line.)
If you’ve ever heard Janet Dawson speak, you know how much research she does for her books, especially her Zephyr opus! She seems to be having a lot of fun doing it, but she makes me so happy that I don’t have to worry about things like when zippers were invented. As a test, I looked it up and found out that a patent for the zipper was issued in 1893, and called a “clasp locker.” But that’s just one piece of information from one site. Janet and her ilk would collect at least 6 more references, compare and contrast, combine all the data, and then spend another month researching whether everyone used zippers or only the 1%. See what I mean? Not for me, but I’m glad someone does it.
But contemporary settings have their own problems with research. All of the books in my three series are set in modern times, the earliest only 16 years ago. My Miniature Mysteries and Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries are set now. I can carry my smartphone, with its Notes app and camera up and down the roads of a town, recording the names of streets, the location of public buildings, and the kinds of foliage, but there’s no guarantee that it will be the same tomorrow, and it’s even less likely that it will be the same when the book is released.
Even the directions to my house have changed in the last 10 years. For our first map we used an enormous eucalyptus as the landmark to indicate which driveway to turn into. But—who would have thought?—the sick tree was put out of its misery last summer and all that’s left is a large-diameter stump, apparently a big attraction as a picnic table for the nearby high schoolers. In this sense, writers of historical fiction don’t know how easy they have it. If they have a photo of a eucalyptus at the head of the street in 1880, they can count on it as they write it into their story, even use it as a plot element (who killed the eucalyptus?); no one can go back in time and remove it from 1880. Wait—did eucalyptuses even exist in 1880? (Here we go again. Where does it end?)
The dangers of “too much research” are present in both historical and contemporary novels.
If we write to explain our research, the story will die like that high school history class taught by the football coach (oops, that was my high school). If we write to discover, learning on the way ourselves, the story will live.
Instead of a story about zippers, we’ll have a story about people whose lives are different from the lives of those who didn’t have zippers.