Ah, Research!

Picture me at the controls of a 115-ton, 1500 horsepower diesel locomotive.

The Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California has a Run-A-Locomotive program. I’m over 18. I have a credit card. So I rang them up and reserved my hour on Western Pacific #917-D.

Western Pacific 917-D, photo by Mike Muklin, Feather River Rail Society

This particular locomotive is the kind of engine that would have pulled the historic streamliner, the California Zephyr, the train that plays a starring role in my work-in-progress, Death Rides The Zephyr.

Though the book takes place primarily in the passenger cars, I want to see what it feels like to be in the cab of that locomotive, my hands on the controls. I want to make the train go.

On this upcoming research trip to Portola, I plan to go up the Feather River Canyon. This was the route of the California Zephyr, also known as the CZ or the Silver Lady, because of the train’s sleek stainless steel cars.

I’ve been up the canyon before, in 2010, on a special excursion train with a consist (that’s train talk for the roster of cars) of vintage coaches and sleepers. That was a special treat, because since the demise of the old CZ, the only consistent rail traffic on that route has been freight.

Two years ago I was in the early, thinking-about-it, mulling-over-plot-and-characters stage of the book. Now that I’m well into the novel, I wanted to take another look at the scenery along the way, better to describe what my passengers see when they look out those Vista-Domes.

The canyon is home to what the Plumas County Visitors Bureau calls the Seven Wonders of the Railroad World, including the Keddie Wye, the Williams Loop, and the Clio Trestle. You can read all about them here.

Ah, the things we do for research.

A Killing at the Track, the ninth Jeri Howard book, was a horse-racing book. Blame it on all those Dick Francis novels. As I began writing the book it became clear how little I knew about track operations and the day-to-day routine on the backside, with its barns, the part of the track that patrons don’t see. Books wouldn’t do the job. I needed see, smell, touch, talk to people.

Through a friend of a friend, I found a woman who trained thoroughbreds. That got me to the backside of the two Bay Area tracks, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows. One morning I got up very early and on the road so I could meet the trainer at the track at 5 AM.

Those track visits, the trainer’s insider knowledge and contacts, provided me with great material for the book. I got introductions to the chief investigator for the California Horse Racing Board and to a jockey’s agent, as well as a tour of the jockey’s room.

It made for a much better book. I’m still proud of the review I got from California Thoroughbred, the one that said I’d really done my homework well.

I know I have to do my homework for the train book. There are lots railfans out there. If I get something wrong, I’ll hear about it.

People are very generous with their time and knowledge. I joined a group for railfans, called Train Orders, and posted questions about the old California Zephyr. I got lots of information, including details from a man who’d helped restore an old dome observation car, like the one on my train. He told where I could hide things on that car. Of course, I’ve got to use that in the book.

And I’ve just got to drive a locomotive.