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!


The Mystery Writer’s Hat

Many years ago I attended Navy Officer Candidate School, which was at that time in Newport, RI. After being commissioned, I stayed on in Newport to take a class, as did my roommate Joan.

It was fun exploring Newport, with its Colonial-era waterfront and the big opulent mansions of the robber barons, the places they called “cottages,” like The Breakers, Marble House, and Rosecliff.

I was from Colorado and Joan from Texas. One night we got the urge for Mexican food. We found a restaurant in Newport that purported to serve Mexican food. We didn’t recognize it as such. So we learned early on to stick to the indigenous cuisine.

Newport-style clam chowder served on the wharf tasted great. We could get a bucket of clams for not much money at a place called Salas on Thames Street. For a few bucks more, just down the street at the Boat House, we could get a lobster dinner. Then there were the big sandwiches the locals called grinders. For dessert, we’d go on “cream runs” to the Newport Creamery.

One Saturday afternoon Joan and I were strolling through some shops on Bellevue Avenue, near the section of Newport with all those fancy houses. Joan knew I wanted to write mysteries. When she spotted the hat, she plucked it off the display and plopped it down on my head.

“There,” she said. “Now you look like a mystery writer.”

Indeed, I did.

I bought the hat. I still have it.

A Trio of Mystery Writer’s Hats

The mystery writer’s hat is a gray wood fedora with a pleated black band, and a soft brim to tilt down over my face.

I wore it for my book jacket photos, and a photo shoot for an article that appeared in a magazine. Sometimes at book signings, people will ask me where my mystery writer’s hat is.

I haven’t worn it in a long time. But I took it out of the closet so I could take a picture of it, along with some of the other mystery writer’s hats I have.

Mystery writers wears lots of hats – the sit-at-the-computer-and-write hat, which may be invisible but frequently has me running my hands through my hair. Maybe there’s some sort of inspiration in that particular act. There’s the booksigning-and-convention hat, which is where I’ve worn my fedora in the past. Then there’s the research hat.

In the picture, the hat on the right is one I had made while I was writing the ninth Jeri Howard book, A Killing At The Track. It’s a horseracing book, so I’d immersed myself in the Sport of Kings. Since one of my characters was a woman who trained racehorses, I located a woman trainer and followed her around the track, soaking up material and local color, such as that Thoroughbred who was about to bite me because I dared to pet his companion animal, a goat.

I decided I wanted a cap like the ones the jockeys wore. When I mentioned this to the trainer, she said, “You mean a jockey’s helmet cover?”

“Yes, that’s it!” I said.

She steered me to a woman at Golden Gate Fields who made helmet covers, and I had this one made, in red and yellow, the colors on the book cover. I even wore it at signings.

The current research hat is the one on the left. It’s a train engineer’s cap. I’m working on the train book – Death Rides The Zephyr. I’m immersing myself in this history of that particular train, poring over timetables, menus, diagrams of railroad cars, old photographs.

And I’ve been riding historic trains, imagining what it would have been like to take a cross-country trip on a sleek stainless steel superliner, eating off railroad china in the dining car, gazing at the beautiful scenery from the Vista-Dome.

Nothing like a good engineer’s cap to get me in the mood to write a train mystery.

And just maybe, when I start doing signings for the forthcoming book, What You Wish For, I’ll start wearing that mystery writer’s hat again.

I got what I wished for, and worked for. I’m a mystery writer.