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!


Uncovering the Past

Lea Wait, here.Stopping to Home

Historical research is done by librarians, historians, genealogists, doctoral candidates, homeowners wondering about the history of their homes, and grade school students reluctantly fulfilling classroom assignments.

I’ve done all of the above, at various points in my life. But now I do historical research primarily because I write historical novels set in 19th century Wiscasset.!cid_5DD80D18-4277-43A2-92BE-A87ACD38DB1B@maine_rr

I’ve always loved the idea of “place” influencing the people who lived in it, so my goal is to show, in a series of stand-alone books, how people in a small Maine village lived during different time periods.

Why Wiscasset? Because Wiscasset “had it all,” in terms of history. Abenaki lands, early European settlers, citizens taking part in every war Maine has been involved in, a deep-water harbor surrounded by farmlands and lumbering. Mills. Fires. Inns. Wiscasset was on the Boston Post line. The railroad came to Wiscasset.

Stopping to Home (set in 1806) and Seaward Born (1805-1807) show Wiscasset when it was the largest port east of Boston. Wintering Well (1819-1820) is set against a background of new statehood. Finest Kind (1838) shows the result of the Panic of 1837. And Uncertain Glory (1861) takes place during the first two weeks of the Civil War.

My major characters are fictional, but the minor characters are the real people who lived in Wiscasset.

How do I find out about them?Wintering Well

I search the Wiscasset Library archives files on “doctors” and “lawyers” and “houses,” and read through newspapers, files on Wiscasset families, and letters. I don’t just collect names; I collect lives. The Lincoln County Courthouse has records of who was in jail when and for what offense. They also have customs records of ships arriving, homes built and changing hands, and legal cases in Lincoln County. Wiscasset’s graveyards help with dates, and raise new questions. (Why would a man be buried next to only his first wife, when he was married three times?)

In Uncertain Glory my protagonist is an actual teenager who published Wiscasset’s newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century. His diary is at the Maine Historical Society archives in Portland. The newspapers he published are in the Wiscasset Library. Files on his family helped me place him in town, and write historical notes about what happened after the book was finished.

Seaward Born            Other research? I read extensively in political, military, religious, and philosophical analyses of what was happening in the United States during the year(s) I’m writing about. I choose year-and-place appropriate names for fictional characters. I search dictionaries published in New England during the year(s) I’m writing about, to ensure I use words authentically. I study maps. I collect old medical books, books of old recipes, lists of kitchen utensils, weapons, tools, and laws. I read studies of the ways in which women, children, minorities, and the handicapped were treated, through both laws and practices.

All these pieces of research become fodder for the background of my books; sometimes even the basis for specific scenes. But the most important research I do is on my protagonists and their family; how they fit into the community, how they would react to events around them, and what decisions they would make.

Because I write stories. Historically accurate stories, I hope. Stories set in a real town. But, most important, stories of what happens when my major character’s life is changed, and he or she must decide what he or she will do next to survive. That’s the heart of all my books.


Maine author Lea Wait has written five books set in 19th century Wiscasset in addition to two contemporary mystery series, the Shadows Antique Print series and the Mainely Needlepoint series. For more information about Lea and her books, see www.leawait.com, and friend her on Facebook and Goodreads.  



Writers … Don’t They Just Write?

Lea Wait, answering that question. And I know the picture you have. No doubt I’m sitting on a chaise longue on my porch, overlooking the river, scribbling brilliant thoughts and phrases into a notebook or perhaps typing them into a laptop. I pause, perhaps for a sip of wine, and then continue. My muse is with me.

Ah — no. Unfortunately.  (I like that picture, too.)

My first book  (STOPPING TO HOME, an historical for young people set in 1806 Maine) was published in 2001. By January 2015 I’ll have 13 books in print … an average of about one new one a year. Not a lot, compared with many authors. But enough to have a feeling about how the job of writing (and publishing) goes.!cid_5DD80D18-4277-43A2-92BE-A87ACD38DB1B@maine_rr

Even a writer who hasn’t yet been published knows the first 25% of the job:  planning the book. Plotting, setting the stage (time and place,) creating characters, and doing enough research to establish a stage for the story. Although research is clearly necessary for an historical, even a book set today requires a great deal of thought and research. Will the location be fictional? real? What about the characters’ occupations? How will they contribute to the plot? Can they be written about credibly? If the book is a mystery … what are the laws of the state or country in which the book is set? What can lawyers, law enforcement officials, forensics experts, do? What can’t they do? If there’s a death: who will die? how? Who is the killer? The author may not know everything about the plot before beginning to write, but if there’s a murder, he or she should know who dies, who dunnit … and have 4-6 other characters who also have motive, opportunity and means.

The next 25% of the job (and the most arduous for me,) is actually keeping one’s rear in the chair and writing 250-350 pages. Or more. Yes, it’s a first draft. (Although many writers, including me, revise along the way to save time in the next step.) I loved writing my first two or three books … loved the thrill of writing sentences as well as I could, writing story that was more than just a story, and seeing those pages add up.

I’ll admit that now, having written not only those 13 books in print, but also 5 that haven’t been published, the first draft isn’t quite the thrill it once was. Yes, it’s still exciting to begin again with research and plotting. Yes, there are days when pages come more easily than others. But there are also days when I’m convinced (sometimes correctly) that everything I’ve written is rot. Before I was published, I might have given up, or started over. But with a deadline looming … now I keep going. Waiting for the moment when I can start on the third 25% of the job.

Editing. Re-writing. Going over the plot, the characters, the structure, the individual sentences. How they look on the page. What words (or pages) need to be deleted. Tightening the action and the dialogue. Perhaps adding in the sensory details I often forget. Checking transitions. Cliff-hangers. Taking the lump of clay that is the first draft and sculpting it into something worth reading. I edit pages on my computer screen. I print pages out and edit the hard copy. I read the entire manuscript out loud to check for flow and phrasing. I check about 30 over-used and weasel words and kill as many as I can. Truthfully, the crafting is in the editing, and this stage is my favorite. (Although research is a lot of fun, too.)

And then? I won’t even mention the additional editing that may happen after my agent or editor sees the manuscript.  Or the copy edits. Or the proofreading. All of those happen in !cid_487CF410-53E3-4F9A-B4E9-3E3180900689due course.

But the final 25% of the writing life is the part most published writers resent most. It’s marketing. Keeping a mailing list up-to-date. Sending out newsletters, postcards and email notes to announce a new book. Blogging. (Guess what I’m doing now?!) I’ll admit I don’t tweet or do Pinterest, as many authors do. But I am active on Facebook and post on Goodreads. I blog here and at http://www.mainecrimewriters.com. I do guest blogs. I write articles and press releases for various publications. And I speak at bookstores, libraries, schools, conference — basically, anywhere I can. I don’t mind this part of the job. I love talking with others who love books. And I love sharing my books with readers. But setting up appearances and getting to them eats up time. Time I’m not writing.  So marketing is a major drag on the wheel of production.

And, before I stop: I’m traditionally published and right now I’m lucky to be writing under contracts. If an author isn’t under contract, marketing means selling their book(s) to an agent … or, for those who choose self-publishing, focusing on distribution. Figuring out how to get name recognition for themselves and their books, and then getting books into stores, or e-books up on a variety of platforms.

So — what am I doing right now? My latest book, UNCERTAIN GLORY, an historical set in 1861, was published in April. This week alone I spent one day at a school and one at a Barnes & Noble two hours away (with a stop at a shop where I’ll be doing a talk later this summer) talking about UNCERTAIN GLORY and my other books.  I have other events scheduled for later this summer.

But right now I’m going into a 4 week hiatus to just write. To finish the first draft of THREADS OF EVIDENCE, which will be published in the summer of 2015. I’ll take some time off when my grandchildren visit this summer … and then I’ll spent August in heavy editing mode. The book is due September 1.

This summer I’ll also be starting promotion (addressing postcards, ordering bookmarks, setting up fall signings) for SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS, which will be out in early September. I have a book for young people I’d like to finish, if I can fit it in.

And in September I’ll start working on the next in the Mainely Needlework series, due in March of 2015, do appearances promoting MAINE CHRISTMAS .. and start letting people know about TWISTED THREADS, the first in my Mainely Needlework series, due out in January, 2015.

So … that chaise on the porch is waiting. And if I get my ten pages done today, maybe there will even by a glass of wine nearby. But for the moment … I’m in my study, surrounded by notes and outlines, grinding out a strong first draft.

See you in July!




Research on Location

Key Largo


by Taffy Cannon                                                  

You can do the necessary location research to set a story or novel in your own neighborhood or home town by taking a walk or a short drive.  Okay, maybe a couple of drives. But suppose you’d like to try a less familiar location. Perhaps  your story simply demands to be set elsewhere. It’s even possible that you haven’t planned anything at all, but just went on vacation—only to discover that you are somewhere that would be a great setting for a story.

The distinction between researching a place and experiencing it is important. You can read a hundred books and look at a thousand pictures and watch endless documentary footage, but none of that can put you inside a location. To truly experience a place requires that you immerse yourself in the sights and sounds and smells and—most important of all—the feel of it.

And once you’ve gotten that immersion, it’s entirely possible to write fiction set in one location when you are physically elsewhere. I’ve done it many times.

Once you’ve decided to experience a location, start by looking at everything with fresh eyes. Clear your mind entirely and cast your gaze about as if you were a motion picture camera.  Look for the unexpected: chartreuse mailboxes, orange daylilies growing by the roadside, street signs shaped like Hershey’s kisses.

Take lots of notes in whatever format is most comfortable and include even obscure details you are absolutely certain you will never use.  You can be terse here as long as you’ll be able to interpret your notes later.  Get down details: colors, smells, temperature, ambience. If something strikes you as odd, make a note of it right away, before you accustom yourself to the location and it begins to seem normal.

If you’re comfortable recording on your phone or laptop, that’s a great way to make fast notes on the fly. Making oral notes is a particularly useful technique while driving, though obviously inadvisable while you battle rush hour in a strange city. (And making notes any other way than by dictation while driving is illegal many places and plain crazy anywhere.)

Regardless of how you accumulate your notes, tran­scribe and expand your observations as soon as possible.  While you’re pulling this together, additional details will surface, little things you’d already forgotten about. Get as much of this down as you can while it’s fresh.

Take pictures. Take lots of pictures. Have enough memory to be extravagant with what you shoot and plan to pare it down later. This doesn’t mean you need fifty shots of that cat asleep by the bait bucket, but do go beyond the generic panorama of the wharf. Get close-ups of the odd hitching posts and a shot of the flock of birds hovering on the dock.  Don’t worry about composition if you can get the detail you want.  And don’t forget to ask somebody what kind of birds they are.

If you can videotape an area or event, you can get all of this detail and give a running commentary while you’re shooting.  Even better, have a companion do the videotaping while you do everything else.

Talk to the locals.

You can be circumspect if you don’t want to say you’re researching a writing project.  An expression of interest is usually enough to get most folks talking freely.  Chat up the motel desk clerk, the coffee shop waitress, the fellow leading the tour of the cannery.  You may or may not want to take notes while you do this.  I generally like to write things down on the sly unless it’s a situation like that cannery tour where it seems perfectly reasonable to be taking notes.

But if anybody asks what you’re doing or why you’re writing down what they said, just tell them you’re a writer researching a story.  Because you are.

Notice peculiarities in local names of people, places, and things.   Are all the streets named for Revolutionary War heroes?  Is every third person called Witherspoon?  Are the local names French, or Indian, or purely functional?

Listen for local jargon or expressions.  Do folks say “plum tuckered out” or “fuggedaboudit”?  Are women called “ma’am” or “lady” or “honey”?  Are groups referred to as “youse guys” or “y’all”?

How do people dress?  Do they wear three-piece suits, bib overalls, or cutoffs and t-shirts?  Are their pets Persian cats or rangy hounds?  Do they drive Porsches, rusted-out Chevies, SUVs or pickup trucks with gun racks and free-roving dogs in the back?  Where’s the local high school, what’s its team called and what are the school colors?

Don’t be afraid to do the tourist stuff when you’re in a faraway place.  A lot of folks worry that this will brand them as “not being from here.”  Well, guess what?  You’re not from there and everybody’s already noticed anyway.  Isn’t that how you happened to be there in the first place?  And why you’re staying at a motel instead of your own house?

Self-promotion is an art, and you can learn a lot about a place by the face it shows the world.  If a town is the Button Capital or home of the Surfing Championships or the place where Davey Crockett tied one on, it’s part of what makes that place special.

So take the guided tours, visit the hokey sites, and eat the local specialties.  If you can’t bring yourself to order tripe stuffed with pinto beans, at least ask the waitress all about it.

Collect paper, and get it all!   I’m talking about maps, brochures, throwaway guides, postcards, guidebooks.  If there’s a rack of brochures in the motel lobby or at the Visitor’s Center (and you will be dropping by the Visitor’s Center) take one of everything that might possibly be of later interest and a few more for good measure.  That’s why folks publish these things, after all.

Read the local newspaper if there still is one.  Listen to the local radio station.  Watch the local TV news.

Keep a particular eye out for small, locally published books about the area or its peculiari­ties.  These are usually full of valuable information and they’re almost impossible to find anywhere else.  Because they’re often privately published, they can be expensive. If they don’t fit the budget just now, at least write down the titles and  publisher addresses in case you decide you want them later.

As you’re accumulating all this paper and stuff, you may start to think that some of it is unnecessary and expendable.

Of course it is.  The problem is that you won’t realize just what part of it you don’t need until later.

The temptation to discard things will be strong as you labor to close the suitcase.  Resist it.  Mail a box home if you must.  I usually pack a couple of small empty carryon bags, figuring that I’ll fill them up by the time I get home.  And I always do.

However you manage the logistics, trust me on this one.  Don’t throw away anything until you get home and sort through it.  I guarantee that whatever you pitch will be exactly the item you’ll want later.

Finally, the most important thing you can do while researching on location is in many ways the simplest:   Keep an open mind.

You may think you know exactly how you want to use an area or location, and your ideas and plans may be spot on. They may also turn out to be totally ridiculous. If that’s the case, let a place suggest other possibilities to you.  They might be even better than what you originally had in mind.

Bon voyage!

[Author’s Note: This is also my own “bon voyage” to the Get It Write blog. I’ve greatly enjoyed working with Janet Dawson, who put together this wonderful collection of talent on behalf of Perseverance Press. Thanks also to Meredith Phillips and Sue Trowbridge behind the scenes. Please follow my intermittent personal blog at http://taffycannon.wordpress.com and visit http://www.taffycannon.com.%5D

The Research Iceberg

by Taffy Cannon

IThe old adage to write what you know is only useful if what you know happens to be interesting, or if your style is so origi­nal and provocative that you could make hedge clipper instructions scintillating.  And if you write fiction, you’re making it up anyway, aren’t you?

Well, yes.  But sooner or later, your fiction is going to lead you into areas that you don’t know much about.  Medieval carpentry, say, or dung beetles.  Research is required.

Most likely this will be a subject that you have a strong personal interest in, so you’ll plunge headlong into that research.  You’ll bury yourself in the library, spend hours online, talk to specialists in the field, hunt down obscure references, visit laboratories, conduct experi­ments.  Each step is likely to suggest more avenues to explore, and before long, you’ll discover that you know a staggering amount about the subject.

This can really be fun, so enjoy it.  One of the finest perks of writing is that when you find a subject that interests you, you can wallow in it for a while.

You may, in fact, have to put some restraints on yourself.

For example, when I wrote Tangled Roots, I did a lot of research.  This mystery was set in the world of flower growing, so I visited greenhouses and talked to growers.  I investigated tissue culture and rose before dawn to go to the Flower Auction, a fascinating daily event where florists gather at a warehouse to bid on carts of flowers pushed across the floor by young women wearing jeans.  I love gardening and growing flowers, so all of this was extremely pleasurable for me.

The book had a very minor subplot involving alstroemeria research, and one day I found myself thinking that I really needed to visit an alstroemeria grower.  An internal voice yelled, “Hey, wait a minute!”  The fact of the matter was that I didn’t need to visit an alstroemeria grower, that I already knew far more about alstroemerias than I needed to know or could possibly use in this book.  Furthermore,  I could continue enjoying this research for years to come.

It was time to stop doing the research and write the book.  And so I did.

So let’s assume now that you’ve completed your research, learned all kinds of intriguing things about meat preservation through the ages or the process that led various species of birds to extinction.  You’re brimming over with excitement about all that you now know about haiku or Mesopotamia or the secret lives of insects.

How do you decide what to use?

Your first impulse, of course, will be to include every fascinat­ing detail you’ve uncovered.  You must at all costs resist that impulse.  You want to tantalize your reader, not anesthetize him.  Remember the ceto­logy chapters in Moby Dick?

Integration is the key here.  You need to weave your research into your story, being flexible enough to let your story change to accommodate the research.

Wherever possible, work your little nuggets into the action.  Have your characters go about the business of cosme­tology without stopping to relate the history of hair dye.  Dialogue can be useful here, but not if a couple of folks sit around discussing subatomic physics.  Nobody is fooled, or interested, if you merely break the material into paragraphs and insert a few taglines.

It may be useful to let your character consult an expert, but do make that expert concise and entertain­ing.  If the material is exceptionally dry, making the expert eccentric will also help.  (Though if the material is really that dry, are you sure you want to use it?)   If your protagonist happens to be the expert, let information flow naturally from her lips, or gracefully through her first-person narrative.

Sometimes research leads you down blind alleys or off the side of a cliff.  If what you had in mind isn’t going to work, don’t panic.  Change your plans, or eliminate the idea, or back up to the last place where things fit and try moving in another direction.  If it turns out that you can’t use the research at all, hang on to your notes and maybe it will be perfect for another project.

The more complex the subject, the more likely you are to make mistakes when you simplify.  Run your final copy past an expert if you possibly can, to save yourself later embarrassment.  If you aren’t sure about something, recheck your sources.  And then, when you and your experts are satisfied, have somebody who knows nothing about the subject read the same material to see if it makes sense.

You’ll discover that you have to leave out a heartbreak­ing amount of material.  Tough.  The time and effort weren’t wasted if the subject interested you in the first place. You can put it on your website, with links to other info about undersea exploration.  Maybe you can use the information in other stories, articles or books.  Share it at lunch or par­ties.  Work it into author talks.  If nothing else, take private pride in being an expert on the construction of sod houses.

Regard your research as an iceberg, figuring that only about 10% of it will actually appear in your manuscript.  The other 90% lurks beneath the surface, giving the material you do use strength and credi­bility because you really know your subject.

So which 10% do you use?  That’s entirely up to you, the expert.

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.