Research Can Kill Ya by Heather Haven

Every writer knows one of the major components of writing a book is the research. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you don’t throw the reader out of the story with misinformation or untruths. I love doing a little research as I go along. I don’t have to do much as a rule and when I do, it’s usually within sections. But in my latest book, The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, the 8th book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I wound up not knowing one single thing about the subject. Make that subjects.

You know how it is. You get a bee in your bonnet about a story and you’re gung-ho to do it. I wanted to base one of the characters in my latest Alvarez adventure on my best friend’s daughter. This young woman is the closest thing to an Indiana Jones I’ve ever met. She traipses around the jungle fighting off jaguars, leeches, and malaria all in an effort to help preserve the history of ancient Mayan civilizations. And she’s quite a looker. If you were shooting the movie of her life, you’d cast her in the role of herself. In addition, the plight of what is happening in Guatemala with the loggers, poachers, and the disappearance of habitat for thousands of endangered species just cried out to be told, albeit as a cozy mystery with a controlled happy ending.

But here was my lack of control. I didn’t know anything about ancient Mayan Civilizations. Or the Guatemalan jungle. Or the world of archaeology. So my research took the tenor of my college days. You know, where you blow off a particular class all semester then suddenly learn on Friday there’s going to be a final midterm on Monday, and you have yet to crack a book. I only did that once, but the 48 hours of sleepless nights cramming facts and figures into my noggin that I knew I was going to forget once the test was over is still etched upon my soul. And here I was decades later, doing the same thing. Cram, cram, cram. Write, write, write. Forget, forget, forget. Yup, college days.

In the beginning I found I was barely doing any writing, I was merely researching. But I had to. If I didn’t, I would stop mid-sentence and ask myself basic things such as, “How does it rain in the jungle with a tree canopy overhead? (The water slides down trees, leaves, and branches to the floor of the jungle and becomes mud. Wear waterproof boots.) Do they really have foot-long caterpillars? (Yes, and they biteth like an adder and stingeth like a serpent.) What is the pre-classic period of the Maya? (1800-900 B.C. Please don’t ask me about the other periods, because I can barely retain this one.) At an archaeological site, what is a Project or Dig Director? (The head honcho in charge of everything from accounting to mixing limestone.) And so on and so forth.

And it isn’t over yet. I still don’t know a thing about the world of black market orchids, because I haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. But I’m only in month seven. Give me a chance.

10 thoughts on “Research Can Kill Ya by Heather Haven

    1. Sara, that is one of the most important parts of writing a book. I learn so much! This was overwhelming for a while. But I loved every minute of it!


    1. Thanks, Marilyn for those wise words, but it’s already too late for that. These days anything other than Covid taking over my life is a good thing!


  1. Heather, this is exactly what I worry about when I’m starting something new–will I get the details right, where will I find all those obscure pieces of a day that are obvious to someone on the ground but never show up in books, will the story feel authentic. And then after I learn about a world I forget it as soon as the book is written. Writing about India is easy for me because I lived there, but I still have to learn about subgroups, places I didn’t visit, and changes over the years (and there have been many). But when I read stories set in exotic places I love the detail and fall into the story–however you do it, the result of fabulous.

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    1. Susan, I am used to doing a certain amount of research but never fully comprehending going into a totally alien world the way I have on this book. It is truly daunting. But I am committed. Or should be committed.


  2. I know how you feel! When I started my book Secrets of a Mayan Moon with my anthropologist character, I knew nothing about her job. And she was going into the Guatemalan jungle to a dig site. I have a full shelf of books that helped me along with youtube videos of the area, talking to people who had visited there, and connecting with a Guatemalan blogger. The research is killer but doing the work pays off with great books. Good luck!

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