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!

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.