Where Research Leads Me

I write fiction – to date eleven novels in the Jeri Howard series, two in the California Zephyr series, and one standalone. I have two works-in-progress.

I make this stuff up. But when it comes to details, I like to sound as though I know what I’m talking about. So I research a variety of subjects, depending on the plot, setting and characters that feature in my books. Sometimes this involves a lot of reading but other times it involves getting out of my office. The research takes me down twisty paths and I find out things I didn’t know, information that makes its way into my writing.

As a longtime fan of Dick Francis, I always wanted to write a horseracing novel, but when I started A Killing at the Track, the ninth Jeri Howard novel, it quickly became clear how much I didn’t know about the Sport of Kings. Watching the Kentucky Derby on TV is one thing. So is watching live racing from the grandstand. Writing about the day-to-day life on the backside of a racetrack is another.

How to solve my research dilemma? A friend of a friend knew someone who trained racehorses. Which is how I found myself at Bay Meadows racetrack in the early hours one morning, for a day of following a trainer around the backside. I met jockeys, a vet, a jockey’s agent, and the Clerk of the Scales, who gave me a tour of the jockeys’ locker room. The last was unexpected, and it made its way into the book.

When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr, the first book in the California Zephyr series, I took a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route of the old California Zephyr, not the Amtrak version. That gave me the experience of traveling on a Pullman car. I also rode Amtrak’s Zephyr several times back and forth to Colorado, during the winter, seeing the frozen and isolated landscape of the Colorado Rockies, and getting a sense for what my characters would see out the window of the train, because that’s where much of the action takes place.

I visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, where I drove a locomotive under the watchful and patient tutelage of one of the museum volunteers. My main character in the Zephyr books is a train employee called a Zephyrette. I was fortunate to interview two women who had worked as Zephyrettes and the information they gave me was invaluable in writing the books.

Right now I’m working on the twelfth installment of Jeri Howard’s adventures, a book titled Water Signs. Jeri’s back on her familiar Oakland, California turf and the research involves looking at the city’s waterfront and the development that’s going on now. Who knows where it will lead me? Maybe out on the estuary, in a boat!


Natural Inspiration

I was never an outdoorsy person until a few years ago, when an interest in birding and a desire to go for walks in new places got me out and moving around. But I’ve always loved the beauty of my natural surroundings.

After all, I grew up in Colorado. The Rocky Mountains were visible most of the time, and my father’s idea of a great Sunday drive was up one of those canyons scoring the Front Range, especially in the fall when the aspen were turning gold.

For the past 35 years I’ve lived in California, most of that time in Alameda, where San Francisco Bay is a few blocks from home. From here, it’s just a short drive over to the coast, where the continent ends and the Pacific Ocean stretches out to the horizon. I never tire of looking at the ocean, with its never-ending play of swells rising offshore, rushing onto rocks or beaches.

But I’m a writer. I write crime novels. The sight of waves crashing on cliffs just naturally makes me think about dead bodies. How could I not? The ocean is such a good place to dispose of many secrets, including bodies.

The beautiful Sonoma coast

The beautiful Sonoma coast

After all, the title of the fourth Jeri Howard book came from a warning sign on the Mendocino coast reading, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.”

Since a writer uses everything to hand, it’s only natural that the natural world winds up in my books.

Looking back at my novels, I see plenty of examples. Readers get a tour of the Rockies along the route of the California Zephyr in Death Rides the Zephyr, riding along with Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Private eye Jeri Howard visits Monterey and Carmel in Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean. Mendocino is the setting for the climactic chapters of A Credible Threat. Other-worldly Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra, found its way into Bit Player. So did the landscape of western Sonoma County, which is where most of the upcoming Cold Trail is set.

It’s more than just setting, though. Plots and twists come to mind as I view land and water. Pollution in a pristine bay. Scraps and squabbles over precious water resources. Environmental damage caused by people who value profit over resources.

All of these are fertile soil for the mystery writer.

Stitching It Together

Sometimes I write in a linear fashion. Sometimes I don’t. Then I have to stitch everything together.

Since I returned from Bouchercon, I’ve been hard at work on Death Deals a Hand, the latest installment in the adventures of Zephyrette Jill McLeod, who rides the rails on the California Zephyr, the sleek silver streamliner train which was also called the Silver Lady.

In this book, she’s on a westbound run of the train, traveling from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area in April 1953. As was the case in her earlier outing, Death Rides the Zephyr, the passengers include an assortment of people with clashing personalities and secrets to hide.

There will be a murder, of course. I’ve already written those chapters. But right now I’ve just gotten the train to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and the murder takes place somewhere in Utah.

The book starts before the train’s arrival in Denver. After writing those initial chapters that take the train into the Mile High City, I jumped ahead and wrote the scenes where the murder is discovered, then I wrote scenes to stitch the plot together.

Then I went off to Bouchercon in Long Beach and spent one night in a stateroom on the Queen Mary. After having afternoon tea on board, wandering around the ship, I took the self-guided audio tour, climbing from deck to deck and looking at the ship’s equipment and relics of the Queen Mary’s past.

And the photos, of course, that decorate many of the decks, showing famous passengers who crossed the Atlantic on the ship. And the not-so-famous, like the thousands of servicemen who made the crossing when the liner served as a troop ship during World War II.

What does the Queen Mary have to do with the California Zephyr? Well, I use all the material that comes to me, no matter the source.

I decided that several of my train passengers have traveled aboard the Queen Mary, one an Englishwoman and the other an American veteran.

So I’ve written those scenes and now I’m stitching them together with the scenes I’ve already written, figuring out where they belong in the plot.

Perhaps it’s like making a quilt. But I’m making up the pattern as I go along.

Reflecting Different Times

My recently published novel, Death Rides the Zephyr, takes place in December 1952. I’m working on the next in the California Zephyr series, Death Deals a Hand. The action in that book happens in the spring of 1953.

These are historical mysteries. As a writer and a historian, I want to properly reflect the times and the lives of my characters. So I do plenty of research on the popular culture of the early 1950s. I search the Internet to find out what movies my characters were seeing., and find out what singers they were listening to on the radio. And the fashions? Young women wore poodle skirts, and just like my protagonist, Zephyrette Jill McLeod, they had their hair cut in a short, curly style called a poodle cut.

This is the hairstyle called the poodle cut.

This is the hairstyle called the poodle cut.

Jill likes Agatha Christie, so when her sister gives her a book as an early Christmas present in Death Rides the Zephyr, Jill is excited about reading the latest Miss Marple, Murder with Mirrors, which was published in the fall of 1952. In Death Deals a Hand, Jill’s nighttime reading is a recent Hercule Poirot case, Funerals are Fatal.

The reflection of times past is much more than popular culture. There are politics and social issues, too. These are more somber than poodle skirts.

In the first book, Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been elected president of the United States. The Korean War has ended, but Joseph McCarthy’s political “Witch Hunt” was in full swing. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been tried, found guilty of espionage, and sentenced to death.

Along with the Red Scare and the Rosenberg case, racism was woven into the fabric of the early 1950s. Porters, waiters and cooks were members of the onboard crew of the California Zephyr, and in this era they were overwhelmingly African-American. These men weren’t referred to by that term, which is relatively recent. Sixty years ago the term was Negro, or colored – or worse.

California Zephyr policy stipulated that members of the onboard crew addressed each other on a “Mister and Miss basis,” as I wrote in Death Rides the Zephyr. In many case, the passengers weren’t that polite.

Being a porter was considered an excellent, well-paying job, according to Larry Tye, author of Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class. His title certainly describes the gist of his book, which I read and which I recommend. Tye details the racism that porters faced.

An excellent book on Pullman porters

An excellent book on Pullman porters

It was common for people to address the porters as “boy” or “George.” The latter appellation came from George Pullman, who founded the company that owned the sleeper cars used on the CZ and other trains. Depending on the region of the country, the N-word was also used in addressing porter. Passengers on southern routes could be verbally abusive as well as physically abusive, according to Tye.

In the CZ series, I’m writing books that can be described as traditional mysteries, or cozies, rather than noir suspense thrillers. How do I convey the tenor of those times? If I’m writing a novel that is historically accurate, I can’t ignore the racism the porters faced. But it’s not the central issue of the book, either. How much is enough? How much is too much? That’s one of the times when this writer has to trust her instincts.

So Death Rides the Zephyr has several scenes where porters on the train are targets of racism. In some instances it’s the thoughtless, commonly-used term “boy,” and in two particular scenes, it’s more serious.

I hope I found the middle ground that works for my book, reflecting those different times.

Time and Place

Some books I write in a linear fashion. Others come together in what seems to be a patchwork of scenes and ideas. Some places I can make up. Others are real, and must be accurate. Sometimes I can reorder events. Other times I must adhere to a timetable.

A case in point: my recent historical mystery, Death Rides the Zephyr. For the most part, I wrote the book in order, as the events occurred. The novel takes place in December 1952, immediately before and during an eastbound run of the old streamliner, the California Zephyr, as that train travels from Oakland, California to Denver, Colorado, a period of less than two days.

The time structure was very important, as the train moved from place to place according to the railroad timetables I had tacked up around my computer. The order of events in the book was influenced by when the train stopped at various stations along the way, how long the train was there, the train crew schedules, the amount of time it took for the train to travel from Oroville to Portola, California, for example, or from Glenwood Springs to Bond, Colorado, both stops deep in the Rocky Mountains.

A California Zephyr Timetable

A California Zephyr Timetable

And if that wasn’t enough, I found myself looking at charts to see if I could figure out what time the sun rose and set in late December. Why? Because I wanted certain things to take place after dark – and in a certain location.

With the place, as well as the timetable, I wanted to be accurate – about the train and the place it stopped.  Railfans, the people love trains, know when something is wrong, and I wanted to get it right. The feedback I’ve received from railfans, and people who rode the old California Zephyr, indicates that I did get it right. All that time poring over car diagrams and climbing around on the existing rolling stock paid off.

The book I’m working on now has a working title of Cold Trail. It’s a Jeri Howard novel and much of the book takes place in Sonoma County, which is north of San Francisco. I’ve been writing scenes that need to be in the book, just getting them into the computer as they occur to me. But until now I haven’t been sure where some of those scenes fit. I am now going through the book’s timeline, revising the order of things, moving some scenes up and others back.

I’ve also been doing location research. I have visited Sonoma County many times, but now I need to look at places with different eyes.

Several scenes occur at a fictional marina in an actual place, called Lakeville, southeast of Petaluma, on the banks of the Petaluma River. As I wrote those scenes, I envisioned trees and vegetation. Google maps didn’t tell the whole story, though, even in satellite view.

I drove up to Lakeville earlier in the week. The town itself is much smaller than I thought. There is a real marina there, but it’s configured much differently than what I had in mind. At that point, the Petaluma River is very wide, not far from the mouth where it runs into San Pablo Bay. There aren’t many trees on either side of the river. Instead, on the approach to Lakeville, I saw hay fields. On the side of the river opposite Lakeville, there is high marsh, vast open expanse of pickleweed.

The Petaluma River at Lakeville

The Petaluma River at Lakeville

Now I’m revising those scenes. Even though the book is fiction, I want my readers to think that marina could be there, on the Lakeville Highway just east of the river.

Getting It Right

In August I traveled to Portola, California, site of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, to do a signing at the museum during the town’s annual celebration, called Railroad Days. It was a great launch for Death Rides the Zephyr, my historical mystery set onboard the train called the California Zephyr. The streamliner’s route went through the Feather River Canyon, so Portola was a daily stop for the train. The protagonist of Death Rides the Zephyr is a Zephyrette, the hostess who was the only female member of the onboard crew.


My friend Julia and I stayed at the Pullman House, an inn that was, according to the manager, a bordello during the railroad heyday, when Commercial Street in Portola had nearly a dozen saloons catering to the railroad workers. The inn’s rooms are decorated with railroad memorabilia, including a Pullman step I coveted. I could look for one on eBay, I suppose. But where would I put it?

My booksigning at the museum was great fun, with a steady stream of visitors in town for Railroad Days and an opportunity to ride a train or climb on some rolling stock. I talked with people about the history of the train called the California Zephyr.

Directly across from my table in the museum was the Silver Hostel, one of few remaining dome lounge cars that traveled on the CZ. It contained a coffee shop, bar and lounge in the front part of the car, and in the rear, crew quarters, including a dormitory for the dining car staff and roomettes for the dining car steward and the Zephyrette. The museum is in the process of restoring the Silver Hostel. Most of the car is torn up, but the Zephyrette’s room at the rear of the car is still fairly intact.

During the signing, one of the museum volunteers came up to talk with me. He was buying a book, which I signed for him, but he’d already read the advance reading copy that my publisher, Perseverance Press, sent to the museum.

You got it right, he told me. Both the railroad stuff and the history.

As a writer, I love to hear that, and I told him so.

In the three-plus years it took to write Death Rides the Zephyr, I took pains to make sure I got it right. I read books, everything from the history of the California Zephyr to a book about Pullman porters and another book about the Korean War. I sifted through information available on the Internet, not only train information, but history, getting a sense for the fashion, music, books, movies, and headlines of December 1952, the time the book takes place. I leafed through files available in the libraries at the California and Colorado railroad museums, including the trip reports written by Zephyrettes at the end of each run.

I went up to Portola last year to drive a locomotive, just to see what it would be like. I took two special trips, traveling aboard a Pullman car, to see what it was like to travel in a roomette. I climbed around on railroad cars, like the Silver Plate, a dining car, and the Silver Solarium, a dome observation car. That’s the car on the book cover, folks.

I picked the brains of fellow railfans, including Glenn Stocki and Roger Morris (Roger created that wonderful cover). I interviewed two former Zephyrettes, Rodna Walls Taylor and Cathy Moran von Ibsch, about their experiences riding the rails.

Zephyrette Photo

A Zephyrette makes dining car reservations.

As I wrote the book, I had photographs, rail car diagrams and timetables tacked up around my workspace, and I consulted menus so I could write about what my Zephyrette and the passengers were having for dinner.

I want to get it right. I knew if I didn’t, I’d hear from every railfan in the country. I’m proud of the book I wrote and I hope readers enjoy it, and get a sense for what it was like to travel aboard the sleek streamliner people called the Silver Lady.

Got It Covered

Cover art is a very important tool in marketing a book. In my years as a published writer, I’ve had some covers that worked and others that didn’t. If a book is set in the Bay Area, New York publishers have a tendency to put the Golden Gate bridge on the cover, even when the books are Jeri Howard mysteries set primarily in Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay environs.

As a writer, I like it very much when the cover says something about what’s between the pages. However, I’ve been told by people in the publishing biz that what they aim for is a cover that’s visually striking.

I had some distinct ideas about the cover for Death Rides the Zephyr, the train book that comes out in September. The book takes place on the old California Zephyr, in December 1952, so it counts as a historical mystery. The advertising for the CZ, also known as the Silver Lady, had a distinctive look. You can see examples below.

CZ  adlookup2

CZ adcutaway

The book will definitely appeal to mystery fans. There’s also a whole world of railfans, people who live and breathe old trains, and this book is right up their track. A cover that had the look of a California Zephyr advertisement or brochure would certainly be recognized by any railfan, and I hope lead to sales.

The folks at Perseverance Press liked the idea of using old advertising images for the cover. Then we ran up against a problem, one of image quality. The images available on the internet were not high resolution, and that’s what we needed.

Where could we find high res images that would work for cover art? I checked various sources at railroad museums and came up empty.

Then another issue arose. Who owns the rights to those images?

You see, the California Zephyr was jointly operated by three railroads: Western Pacific, Denver & Rio Grande Western, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. Those railroads no longer exist. The WP and the D&RGW were purchased by Union Pacific. The CBQ merged with several other railroads and is now the Burlington Northern.

I’d heard from several sources that the UP was really sticky about copyright. But that was hearsay, so I went right to the railroad. The UP’s communications office referred me to the Union Pacific Historical Museum and a librarian there responded to my query. She did some research and discovered that while the UP had purchased the railroads, evidently they hadn’t purchased any of the advertising images. So she didn’t know where I could get high resolution advertising images.

At this point, Perseverance Press and I were running out of time. As I tried to find an appropriate California Zephyr advertising image, I’d been in touch with some of my fellow railfans. One of them is Roger Morris, a photographer and graphic artist in the Sacramento area. We met in 2010 while taking a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route followed by the old CZ.

A number of the Silver Lady’s old cars are still on the tracks, privately owned and used for such excursions. One of them is a dome observation car called the Silver Solarium, and it’s based here in the Bay Area.

Roger had an atmospheric photo he’d taken of the rounded end of the Silver Solarium, showing the small neon sign that reads “California Zephyr.” He took the photo in the train station in New Orleans. My book takes place in the winter, as the train winds its way through snowy canyons in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains.

No problem. Enter the wonders of Photoshop.

Roger played with the image, adding a snowy winter landscape, a starry sky, with a hint of light reflecting off the curved rails. He replicated the orange neon of the sign and the lights at the end of the train, and added some touches that suggest movement.


I think the end result definitely has it covered.