The Research Monster – or – Down the Rabbit Hole

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Hello, my name is Janis Susan and I am a research geek.

I have always believed that historical accuracy in our fiction is of paramount importance – equal to that of a good story, in fact, and the further back in time we go the more important it becomes. Why? Because it is sad but true that a lot of readers get most of their knowledge of history through fiction and as writers we have the responsibility to make sure that the history in our books is as correct as we can make it. And by correct, I mean as it really was, warts, unpopular language and beliefs, politically incorrect (according to current standards) behavior and all. A lot of what happened in the past is unacceptable in today’s climate, but that doesn’t matter… it’s the past! As someone said, they do things differently there.

There are those who say that close adherence to history doesn’t matter, that only the story is important. I say that’s dishonest and lazy. It’s just as easy – as if writing anything were easy – to make a story historically accurate as it is to slap something together and call it historical. If an author is going to disregard history then he/she should at least be honest and call it alternative fiction.

I remember a mystery I read a couple of years ago that sent my blood pressure soaring. It wasn’t a bad story – the characters were fleshed out, the clues were there, the descriptions of physical objects and places were fairly good (if a little on the loose side, but hey – if they weren’t enough to set a history geek like me screaming, they were pretty much okay) and the mystery itself was involving and well-resolved. What sent me over the edge was that while the storyline was acceptable, the main characters dashed impossibly quickly back and forth over the Atlantic to Europe chasing clues. You see, the story was set in the mid-1920s, and transatlantic air passenger flights didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have zipped back and forth across the Atlantic – after all, Lindbergh didn’t make his history-making solo transatlantic flight until 1927.

The first sort-of-real transatlantic flight was indeed made in May, 1919, in a seaplane called the NC4. However, because it had no reliable navigation equipment, the plane would fly at night shooting their position from the stars. Then in the day, they would land on the water and sleep, and take off again when the stars came out. They were also followed by a Navy warship of some kind in case they crashed. As a side note, I have seen this plane in the Naval Aviation Museum (fascinating – do go if you can!) in Pensacola. It is huge! I mean, really really huge, so big you can’t get a picture of the entire thing in one shot. It is also so incredibly flimsy that I marvel any man would risk his life by flying in it.

Back to the discrepancies in this book – the first passenger transatlantic flights were Zeppelins, flying from Germany to New York, and they took four days. Commercial heavier-than-air transatlantic flight didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (again depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have gone back and forth across the Atlantic in mere hours like they were on some modern jet.

See what I mean? Looking up one little fact like the date commercial transatlantic flights began and off I go down the rabbit hole of research.

Another example – some time ago I was judging a Regency romance contest. One of the entries was okay – fairly decent writing, good-ish story… nothing to rave about, but okay. Until the hero reached into the pocket of his Bath-cloth coat and pulled out a fountain pen to sign something. Wow! Talk about hitting a wall! FYI – fountain pens were not invented until 1827, when a very primitive one using a goose-quill nib was patented in France, or if you prefer, the modern steel-nibbed version which was patented in 1884. (See – I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so reading about the history of fountain pens – never knew they could be so fascinating!) In either case, though, there is no way our Regency hero could have used one!

I gave the book the average scores it deserved on plot, writing, etc., but in the ‘anything else’ category I gave her a zero on period accuracy (I would have given her a minus score, but there was no way to do it) and explained why in a kindly tone. Wow! I got a letter back from her so hot that the flaming pixels almost burned through the screen, demanding to know why I had marked her down for ‘such a little thing.’ “After all,” she screeched, “it’s an old-fashioned pen – who will know the difference?” Ticked, I replied back “Anyone with a brain and the slightest knowledge of history.”

It is unfortunate that far too many readers learn about history from our books instead of academic sources and for that reason alone we need to be as accurate as possible. There are eras about which we have to extrapolate from scant knowledge – the Ice Age, for example, or third century sub-Saharan Africa – but in most historical ages (especially the popular ones like Ancient Egypt or Regency England or medieval Europe) there are lots of research materials to choose from and explore. It is part of our responsibility as writers to do so. Again, far too many readers get a great deal of their knowledge of history from fiction, and we can and should never forget that those who do not remember history – good, bad and indifferent – are condemned to repeat it.

Digging into a Character by Paty Jager

Wenaha
View from my ride-along

I’m currently working on a the first book of a new mystery series. This new series is making me grow as a writer which is what I hope each book does, but this series and character in particular is really making me stretch my brain which isn’t getting any younger.

I picked not only a male protagonist but I made him Native American ( one of my signatures of what I write) and I put him in a profession I know nothing about. Whew! Talk about working in a totally new environment!

Through the years writing romance before I got the nerve to try my hand at mystery, I wrote from both the male an female points of view and in my Shandra Higheagle series I write from a male point of view with Detective Ryan Greer. But this book is told completely from the male point of view- from Fish and Wildlife State Trooper Gabriel Hawke’s point of view.

Not only do I have to think like a male, I have to think a bit Native American and as a lawman would. Having been around my son-in-law who is a detective with the State Police, I’ve learned that even when they appear to be off duty and hanging around, they are still seeing things and picking up on things that the rest of us shrug off.

Trying to keep my character “on the alert” yet laid back and letting things happen as they should has been a tricky balance. Using his upbringing and his drive as counterpoints has also been tricky.  He has worked hard to get out of the reservation and to have the job he does-protecting his ancestors land. But at the same time because he is protecting his ancestors land he has a deep connection to his Native American roots. While he is full blood Native American he still feels as if his feet are in two worlds. He is upholding the Whiteman’s law as a lawman, but at the same time keeping vigilance over his Native roots.

This first book is taking me longer to write than I thought it would but I had to put it on hold while I did a ride-along with a Fish and Wildlife State Trooper in the Eagle Cap Wilderness where my character works.  The day I spent with the game warden was eye opening in the scope of duties they must preform. Because it is a large remote area, not only do they have to do their game duties but they also serve as a state trooper and while they are on the trail of a poacher or trespasser and there is a call that comes in about a shooting or domestic dispute they have to respond even if it is across the county from where they are at the moment.

20180326_111247
Elk refuge where we were looking for trespassers

The best part about the ride-along was getting the troopers perspective on his job and learning some of the little nuances that I can add to books to give the character the flavor of a real life person.

When the first Gabriel Hawke book is ready to go to my critique partners and beta readers it will be interesting to see if I managed to get the male character correct.

The first thing that pulls me into a book is the characters. What about you?

SH Mug Art

The Devil in the Details

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

What are the differences in symptoms between cyanide poisoning by inhalation or by ingestion? What is the best way to store evidence? What work happens on a lavender farm in early October? How are French wine labels governed by the state?

lavender
I like research that requires learning about wine and visiting lavender farms

The topics a mystery writer may find herself researching are never boring! We rely on resources including — but by no means limited to—manuals, interviews with experts, visits to unusual places, even Google searches. 

When a murder is committed in our books, even if it takes place off the page, we need to know exactly how it was done and what clues might be left behind. When a victim is found in a particular location, we need to know why he or she was there to begin with. When a suspect produces an alibi that doesn’t hold water, we need to know the detailed explanation of why not — even when we don’t share all those details with the reader.

The question of how many details to share is a big one. For a book to pass muster as a realistic story, a certain level of explanation and accuracy is necessary. But include too many details, and suddenly your reader finds herself reading a how-to manual instead of an engrossing story. 

IMG_3781
My kind of how-to manual!

Of course, different readers look for different types of details. How we as writers present our stories is a big part of what makes up a writer’s “voice.” Some writers are known for their intricate explanations, whether of crimes or locations or corpses. Readers who loves those writers thrive on those details — to them, it brings the story to life. Other readers look for a book that skims over the detail. They’re less worried about how accurate the description of police activity is and more interested in the emotional arc of the characters involved. And some readers want it all!

Some of these differences are determined by the subgenres within the mystery genre — some books are thrillers, others suspense or cozies. Each type has its own expectations. No one who picks up a cozy is looking for a graphic description of the corpse, but leave out the details of the chocolate cake recipe and you’re asking for trouble!

The writer must know her readers’ expectations and not disappoint. My books are traditional mysteries, which means they follow the line of providing succinct and accurate descriptions of crimes and how they are committed, but keep the focus on the plot and characters. When I’m looking for a fun read at bedtime, however, I usually grab a cozy mystery, something I can cuddle up with along with a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy. Hey, who said we could only read one subgenre?

So how much detail should a writer include? Not too much, but just enough. 

How much detail do you look for in the books you read?

And if you’re wondering, the first two questions above I had to answer for my book A Pale Reflection, coming out later this year. The second two are for the book in the series after that (yes, while one book is with the editor, I get to work on the next one).

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series at janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

Fictional Crime

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

The Adam Kaminski Mystery Series are fiction. I base the stories on some true events — historical events, for example, or crimes I read about in the newspapers, or interactions I’ve had in the past with diplomats and law enforcement officers. But in the main, the stories originate in my head. No one was hurt in the making of these books.

No Animals Harmed

This past weekend, I was thrilled to once again join the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Sisters in Crime for a lecture by a local expert in crime and murder. Of the true variety.

I’m not usually a fan of true crime stories. I love reading about fictional murders, with fictional victims and fictional sleuths. Hearing about grisly murders that really took place, about a sick, twisted individual who really did kill innocents, is disturbing. Fascinating, yes, but disturbing.

IMG_3757

Our speaker this month was Sam Cox, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Sam spoke to us about her involvement in the exhumation and identification of the remains of H. H. Holmes, commonly known as America’s first (known) serial killer.

Holmes is suspected of killing as many as 200 people. During the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, he ran a hotel just off-site that was later determined to have a lime pit and large incinerator in the basement — handy for getting rid of unwanted bodies.

Hearing Sam tell this story, I was hooked. Sam’s work was included in a recent series by the History Channel, American Ripper. Her team is featured in the final episode. I recommend it!

History Channel
I loved hearing her talk about the techniques they used to dig up his grave then identify the bones they found. She told us about what was actually proven in the case and what was still conjecture. She explained how the detectives at the time tracked him and the bodies he left in his wake as he ran.

As a writer, this lecture was invaluable as a source of ideas and information. We learned about investigative and exploratory techniques that law enforcement can use in identifying victims and killers. We got a glimpse behind the scenes.

As a reader, I’m intrigued by the personalities involved. The nonchalance of the serial killer, the determination of the detective who finally tracked him down.

That said, I don’t think I’ll become an avid reader of true crime stories. There’s something comforting about murder mysteries: the killer always gets caught, the hero always saves the day (well, not for the victims, but for those who survive).

I like the feeling that once you’re done, all is right with the world. And I try not to think too much about the true killers still lurking, out there, in the real world…

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

Learn more about Jane Gorman at JaneGorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

Understanding Your Characters

Part of what makes a great story is great characters. Any reader can tell you that. Writers talk about developing characters, fleshing them out, giving them back story, making them flawed and relatable. These are all vital steps in creating great a character.

But once the character is created, I find I have yet one more hurdle that I have to jump: I have to understand my characters.

A young couple in Galway contemplate the evening

But you created them, you might say with surprise. You wrote their background, you devised their likes and dislikes, fears and dreams. What’s left to understand?

Lots.

Characters run the show. They get away from you, the writer, taking their own story in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous. Yet it happens to all writers.

In my current work in progress, I realized after finishing the second draft that I had the wrong killer. A different character was standing in the wings looking guiltily around, trying not to make eye contact with me. Ah-hah, I thought. That’s the real killer!

Trying to pull a fast one on me, I might add.

In several of my books I have another problem of understanding with some of my characters: I write characters who are not native English speakers.

My mother and grandmother in Warsaw

As we all know, language affects not just the way we talk but even the way we think. Writing a foreign character (foreign to me, that is) means not only understanding their native tongue enough to be able to replicate their thoughts, but also understanding the way they frame their thoughts in the first place.

A Pole, an American and an Irishman walk into a bar…. They’re all thinking a little differently and it’s my job to understand those differences.

A woman examines a grave in Warsaw. What might she be thinking?

I’m not complaining. I love that job! I spend time improving my language skills. (By the way, for anyone interested in learning French, I recommend the lessons by Paul Noble. They’re very good!). Extra bonus, it helps when I travel the world and meet new people. So it’s a good problem to have. And one that I hope I have succeeded in overcoming.

But you tell me. If you’ve read any of my books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my foreign characters and how well I’ve captured their differences.

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series at janegorman.com.