Thursday, May 22, 2008

You don't know what you don't know

Like many writers, I have a love/hate relationship with research. I love to do it, but I can get lost in it. Especially internet research. As a kid, I read anything in front of me. The milk carton, the tag on the pillow, street signs (But how do the deer know where to cross?). Anything with words. The cereal box was the best, with its trivia questions and fun facts.

Along comes this thing known as the internet. A giant, infinite cereal box. With all kinds of fun facts. It's hard to stop reading.

This past weekend I got in the other kind of research. The walking and talking kind. I went down to Asilomar State Park, in Pacific Grove, California where I am setting my third book in the quilting series. Surf, sand, historically important architecture. What a hardship.

I was determined to talk to a California State Park Ranger. I'm shy about approaching people. I think they don't want to talk to me, or I'll ask a really dumb question and prove how ignorant I am. In this case, I was a wee bit embarrassed to tell them I'm planning to use their beautiful facility as a setting for a murder or two.

The rangers put me at ease right away, and told me all kinds of things I didn't know I didn't know.

What I knew: Asilomar had been built by architect Julia Morgan at the behest of Phoebe Hearst and the YWCA.
What I didn't know: The YWCA duped college women to work as maids and janitors.

What I knew: Deer have fawns in the springtime.
What I didn't know: A doe will attack you if you're walking your dog anywhere near her fawn.

What I knew: The Pacific Ocean is deep.
What I didn't know: The Monterey Canyon is ten thousand feet deep and a body that goes in might never be seen again.

What I knew: A famous Rocky Mountain singer went down in his airplane off the shoreline.
What I didn't know: He fell through the propeller so little pieces of him washed up on shore and were eaten by birds and gulls.

I learned plenty of not-so sinister facts, too, but these are the fun facts that spoke to the mystery writer in me.

What have you found out in your research that you didn't know you didn't know?


Kathryn Lilley said...

Ohmygod, the propeller thing and being-eaten-by-gulls detail is morbid, Terri! And fascinating!! I was doing character background research on someone who keeps their pet stuffed like it's still "alive" after it dies, and turned up a company that will freeze dry your pet and preserve it in "life-like" poses. It's called Perpetual Pet--click on the photo gallery to see Fifis who will live forever.

Nina Wright said...

You make an excellent point, Terri, that we profit by conquering our reticence. The reality is that most people love to talk about what they know, and many are especially flattered to be sought out by an author.

I find that the *bonus* information --i.e., the trivia--I glean when asking my list of questions is usually the most valuable of all; it triggers new engines in my fiction!

Terri Thayer said...

I save all my morbid stuff for you guys! It's hard to work into normal lunch conversation.

beckylevine said...

Okay, so...ooh, ick!

I'm sorry, but I don't believe you are shy. You're the one I always latch onto and follow around at writerly functions, because you're so NOT shy.

Research: I didn't know how small skateboard parks really are.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Every book brings a new "I didn't know that" feeling. Those that stand out:

How prevalent prostitution is among middle-class “everyday” folk.

That in the 70’s metal lunchboxes were banned in Florida because children were using them as weapons. The ban went nationwide in the ‘80’s.

Clairvoyant means being able to see a ghost or spirit, and clairaudient means being able to hear them; and a person who has one talent, doesn’t necessarily have the other.

Can't wait to see what I learn next!

G.M. Malliet said...

[Terri - None of us will be able to forget the seagull story. Never.]

I learned that what most people would call a gargoyle might actually be a grotesque. A gargoyle spouts (gargles) water and a grotesque does not.

A grotesque appears at the top of the cover of Death of a Cozy Writer, clutching a red pencil. I love him and I've named him Cedric.

He's supposed to appear at the top of my second book, also, but last I heard, the publisher was negotiating with the artist for rights to Cedric.

Nina Wright said...

Terri--As I was preparing my post, I reread yours. Love the comparison of internet to an infinite cereal box!

And I enjoyed everyone's comments. Kathryn's link to Perpetual Pets was a jaw-dropper. That has got to be one of the creepiest businesses I've seen online.