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!

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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.

Those Pesky Middles

I am working on a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of my work-in-progress, Death Rides the Zephyr, aka the train book.

Some folks would say that’s topsy-turvy. Shouldn’t the synopsis, or outline, come before I start the book?

Well, it does. But that earlier synopsis is a rudimentary road map. When I start a new project, I usually – though not always – know where I will begin and where I want the book to end.

But what happens in the middle? And in which order? Not quite sure. Those pesky middles are terra incognita.

So at some point, when the book is well underway, I step back and examine what I’ve written this far and create a more detailed road map, trying to navigate a path through terra incognita.

My preferred tool is this more detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis. I focus on what has happened so far, in great detail, until I get to the point where I am now. I find that as I look at the earlier chapters, this exercise brings me to a clearer picture of what has to happen to get my protagonist and my plot to the end.

Death Rides the Zephyr takes place in December 1952, aboard a train, the old California Zephyr. The CZ, known as the Silver Lady, was a sleek streamliner with stainless steel cars, lots of amenities and a Zephyrette – a train hostess – who was the only woman crew member. The train was jointly operated by three railroads – the Western Pacific, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Burlington Northern.

In the Vista-Dome with the Zephyrette

In my novel, the train leaves Oakland on a December morning, heading east on a run to Chicago, through California’s Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin and into the Rocky Mountains. The novel ends as the train reaches Denver, but a lot happens in between, such as murder, mayhem, and a missing person.

This may be the most challenging run my Zephyrette protagonist has ever had.

The train is moving for most of the book, with stops at stations. For this reason, I’ve spent a great deal of time poring over passenger and employee timetables, because I must know where my characters are and even what they see when they look out the train windows. I’ve moved scenes around the pesky middle of this book so that the action in those scenes can take place at specific locations along the train’s route.

I also have diagrams of railroad cars tacked up around my computer. I’ve made changes to passengers’ accommodations, to better serve my plot.

My exercise is helping me deal with the pesky middle of this book. I have a much better idea of where I need to go back and drop in a clue or two.

I’m ready to move forward again, so all aboard!

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.