Research for a Setting

In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.

For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.

In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.

Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.

The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”

The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.

This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”

I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.

My Desk is a Mess by Karen Shughart

This is the stage when I’m writing a mystery that if you visited my office, you’d gasp in horror. I’m usually very organized, but at this stage, my desk is a mess.

On the right are the first two books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy series, Murder in the Museum and Murder in the Cemetery. I use them as a reference for book three, Murder at Freedom Hill, because there are recurring characters: a newborn baby in the last book can’t be in elementary school two years later.

A thesaurus, usually on a shelf, claims space on my left. I’m forever scrambling to find synonyms for words I tend to overuse. It’s a weighty tome but a necessary tool, although the good news is that I recently had an aha! moment when I realized that with a couple of keystrokes and the click of the mouse, hello Google, goodbye Roget’s.  How easy is that?

That thesaurus, by the way, was published in 1962. My Webster’s dictionary in 1982. If you think that dates me, it does, think about how many words there are now that none of us who were alive 50 years ago could have imagined: truthiness; snowflake (not the one that falls from the sky); bestie; twerk. Not that I’d ever include those words in my books, none of my main characters is young enough to use them. Wait a minute, did I say 50 years? Has it really taken me that long to follow my bliss?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But I digress.  Piles of paper surround me: bills I’ve received from vendors who still, after all these years, won’t send them electronically but that I, a modern woman, have  paid online; recipes I printed from The New York Times when I could have simply opened my phone or computer when preparing them; print-outs of outdated passwords; a receipt for our dog’s latest checkup; a flyer from the local carwash announcing its wash and wax specials.

I don’t like wasting paper. “Waste not, want not” –phrase origin 1576 or 1772 — depending on your source, is my motto. I write notes to myself on the blank sides to advance the story line, a timeline I never follow, names of new characters to remember, thoughts and ideas that come to me at 3 a.m., questions I have about historical details that are always part of the backstory and the reason for the murder.

There’s a system here, a method to my madness, and it works for me. Once I make sure my historical facts are mostly correct, change the timeline yet again, check for inconsistencies, discard ideas I had at 3 a.m. — what was I thinking — I cross the items off the list, rip the paper into shreds, and toss it into the recycling bin. Then the cycle begins again. Until I reach the point when the manuscript is sent off to my publisher, my desk will remain a mess.

The Angst That Doesn’t Go On The Page by Paty Jager

Many literary prose are filled with angst and trepidation. I wonder if literary writers feel the same angst and trepidation that genre writers do?

This is a confession of sorts. Before I started writing mystery, I just researched either history, settings, occupations or whatever I needed to make the story real and conjured up characters that I liked and hoped readers liked. Those were my romance books.

Then I wrote an action adventure trilogy. I researched and read and studied. I came up with a high IQ character and hoped I could pull her off. I set books in areas I had never been, but I found people who had or lived there. I dug deep to make sure I had all the knowledge I felt I needed to write those books. When the first one released, I knew it was going to flop. How could I write about an anthropologist with a genius level IQ and make people believe her?

But I did! Readers loved Isabella Mumphrey. The first book won an award!

After all the angst and worry, I decided to try my hand at the genre I really wanted to write– mystery. And what did I do? I made my character half Native American. Mainly because I feel it is a culture that gets shoved under the rug and partly because I love research and learning new things. I thought why not learn about the culture along with my character.

But I worried I couldn’t pull her off. That someone would tell me I didn’t have the right to write such a character or I wasn’t portraying her correctly. However at book 14 in my Shandra Higheagle Mystery series, I have people who love the information on the culture that I include in the books. This makes me happy that I am informing my readers about a culture they may not know about in an entertaining way.

Then I start writing another book and I worry this one won’t be as good as the last. Or I feel it’s lagging, not enough twists, or not enough culture… There is always something I feel I didn’t flush out enough.

This goes on daily as I write. My books go through critique partners, beta readers, a line editor, a sensitivity reader, a proof reader and my final arc readers before it gets to the public. And I still worry that something was missed.

It isn’t until my ARC readers send me the links to their reviews that I know if my book was mediocre or they enjoyed it. I”m happy to say the newest release has been a joy to get reviews and emails about. The subject lines have been: I loved it! You did it again!

These are worth all the worrying, angst, and beating myself up over the characters and plot.

Here is Abstract Casualty

Book 14 in the Shandra Higheagle Mystery series

Hawaiian adventure, Deceit, Murder

Shandra Higheagle is asked to juror an art exhibition on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

After an altercation at the exhibition, the chairwoman of the event, Shandra’s friend, arrives home with torn clothes, scratches, and stating she tried to save an angry artist who fell over a cliff. Shandra and Ryan begin piecing together information to figure out if the friend did try to save the artist or helped him over the edge.

During the investigation, Shandra comes across a person who reminds her of an unhealthy time in her past. Knowing this man and the one from her past, she is determined to find his connection to the dead artist.  When her grandmother doesn’t come to her in dreams, Shandra wonders if her past is blinding her from the truth.

https://books2read.com/u/4XXLke

Wrapping Up a Murder by Paty Jager

I just finished the 14th Shandra Higheagle Mystery book. This book is set in Kauai, Hawaii. Yes, I had to write off the trip I took to Kauai last October. LOL Actually, it took me 40 years to get my husband to go to Hawaii with me and I happened to like the idea of setting a book there.

I enjoyed revisiting the places we went to add spice and authenticity to the book. My photos, some I took with the intention of using for the cover, and others so I could remember what I’d seen, helped me bring the island to life in the book.

While the writing, bringing in the island flavor, and discovering an actual event that brought my amateur sleuth potter to the island in a real way, it was the intricacy of the plot that kept me spellbound as I wrote the book.

Artwork from the exhibition in my book.

As usual, I started out with my suspect chart, all part of the art world on Kauai. But as I researched and discovered more about the island, the art world became more dark and convoluted. This on an island that boasts very low crime rates. But I couldn’t help myself. The island is warm, inviting, and overpopulated with tourists.

Because of the tourists, I have my characters catering to the masses. I’m not saying what I wrote about isn’t happening on the island, but it isn’t in the statistics that I read. However, I did read about the influx of drugs back about 5 years and taking creative license, I used that information to sway the direction of the story.

I take pride in so many readers saying they didn’t know who the murderer was until it was unveiled in most of my mysteries. And so, I go at each book with the intent to drop clues but keep the reader wondering until the end. I hope I’ve done that with this book as well. We’ll see when I get my critique partners’ notes on it.

Here is the cover for Abstract Casualty, set on Kauai, Hawaii.

A Bee in my Bonnet by Paty Jager

depositphoto

While figuring out the means of death in my latest Shandra Higheagle mystery, Toxic Trigger-point, I had to come up with something quiet, easy, and could be done while a woman was face down on a massage table.

I wanted the scene when the body is found to look as if the woman is on the table waiting for a massage, but then they realize she is dead.

The scene had to look serene-normal.

I came up with an allergy to bees. After reading up on it, I discovered people who are deathly allergic to bees can die within minutes of contact with bee venom. Further research, I discovered there are some facial creams that have bee venom in them. Enough to cause anaphylaxis shock and death.

To tell you any more about how it all happened would give the story away. ;)_

However, each time I tried to come up with a way for Shandra and Ryan to get a confirmation it was from a bee sting or venom from forensics, I was shot down by Judy Melinek, MD and forensic pathologist.

Each time I’d come up with something, like, how about finding the enzymes for bee venom in stomach contents, she’d shut me down. Bee venom can not be tested for because of it’s chemical break down. Hmmm….

She told me the discovery would have to come from the investigation. Discovering the woman’s allergy and working from there. So that’s what I did. With the help of information from the victim’s family and, of course, Shandra’s dreams, she and Ryan solve the murder.

This is what I enjoy about writing mysteries. While I might have a great idea in mind for a murder, I have to dig and research to discover the best, and sometimes the only way, to disclose or discover how the victim was killed.

Have you read any mystery books with an unusual way the victim was killed?

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