Monday, August 12, 2013

Don't Trash Research

Why, oh why, didn't I set my mystery series in California's wine region, or in Provence? Can you imagine the research I'd get to do then? 
Nope, I had to write about a rural, rodeo-and-ranches slice of Florida. As country as a turnip green, as the song lyrics say. 
The fictional town of Himmarshee, Fla., determines a lot about how the characters in  my Mace Bauer Mysteries behave, about who they are. In my upcoming Book 5, some of them are behaving badly. As usual. MAMA GETS TRASHED, after all, starts when the title character has a few too many sips of sweet pink wine. Tipsy, Mama calls it. Trashed, her daughter Mace would say.

Whatever, it leads to Mama unintentionally tossing her wedding ring from Husband No. 5 out with the garbage. Hence, the opening search scene in the city dump. 
Believe me, it ain't no lavender field in France. 
I know, because I actually hung around a dump --- and a maintenance lot filled with garbage trucks --- to give my story some verisimilitude. As a former newspaper reporter, I long ago had the importance of on-site research drilled into my head.
That’s not to say I've never questioned my commitment. Take the winter of 2007, for example. I was writing my second book, set on a cross-state horseback trek known as the Florida Cracker Trail Ride. On an afternoon many years earlier, I’d visited the ride to write a quick-hit newspaper feature story.
As with so many events I'd covered, that short article became the spark for a fictional tale. Even then, I was inspired. A ghostly mist hung over the pasture, shrouding cattle. Live oaks lifted gnarled limbs, dripping with Spanish moss. A stellar setting for a mystery.
The ride commemorates the cattle drives that once took place across vast Florida grasslands. It draws more than a hundred participants a year. In 2007, I saddled up to become one of them. I wanted to experience the ride the way my characters in MAMA RIDES SHOTGUN would experience it. As research.

  Of course, fictional characters don’t experience real-life aching muscles, or the humiliation of squatting outside to answer nature’s call and peeing all over their riding boots. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I rode when I was growing up, galloping through orange groves on what’s now asphalt west of my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. At age fifty-something, I had no doubt the saddle would feel a lot harder than it did when I was fifteen. Even so, I expected camping out would be my real challenge. Ronald Reagan was president the last time I’d slept on the ground.
The first night on the trail, the temperature plummeted. A howling wind collapsed my tent. It rained sideways, soaking me from winter cap to wool socks. The thermometer hit 28 degrees – a rarity in Florida. It took some time the next morning for me to identify the slushee-looking stuff on my damp toothbrush. The Northerners call it “ice.’’  
With the freeze going into a second night, someone offered me shelter in a horse trailer. I was grateful for that stinky, hay-strewn stall, even if I did spend the rest of the ride picking straw stalks from my private parts.
It was worth it for the rich detail I gained from being there. Think what you will about mega-selling author Dan Brown. He’s right when he says “Google is not a synonym for research.’’
On the trail ride, I used free time between Ben Gay applications to interview riders. How do you get a skittish horse into a trailer? What if a murderer wants to poison the chuck-wagon chili? (That kind of question, by the way, raised eyebrows … until I revealed I’m a mystery writer.)
My research was a bit different for Book 3, MAMA GETS HITCHED. I didn’t go to the extreme of divorcing my husband of 25 years just so I could plan a whole new wedding. But I did contribute countless brain cells to watching reality TV episodes of Bridezillas
Kind of makes the dump seem not so bad.
How about you? Onsite or online research? Do you think you can tell the difference in the finished book? 


Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Deb! I, too, believe in on-site research, and have done my share of horseback riding for my upcoming November release, which features trail riding and hippotherapy in Colorado Springs, CO. I also observed a hippotherapist at work and peppered her with questions.

And, I've done my fair share of whitewater rafting (and have even plunged into a few rapids--unplanned) for my RM Outdoor Adventures series. I find that by going to the actual locations and trying the activities you are writing about allows you to add a lot more authentic sensory details, like how it smells, tastes, feels, etc.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Oh Deb, please plan something delightful for the next round! :>)

Deborah Sharp said...

Was remiss in getting back to y'all: Beth: Hmmm, hippotherapy? I'm picturing counseling hippos who do not like water.
Kathleen ... delightful, it is!