Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Research is Fun

By Tracy Kiely

Before we start, I want to remind everyone that I write cozies. COZIES. For those who need a refresher on the definition let me be of assistance. Cozies are stories about well-mannered, well-dressed people having witty conversations… while they sip cocktails and stand over a body.
It sounds more callous than it is.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky to be able to attend several writer panels featuring some really great thriller writers. I discovered that research for thriller writers is waaaay cooler than research for cozy writers. Thriller writers get to learn about really cool stuff, like how bombs work, how spies communicate, how to quickly die your hair in a public bathroom, or which streets in Paris are the best for trying to lose a tail.  My research tends to be…umm… nothing at all like that. The raciest thing I every looked into was how to easily poison lemonade.  (For those of you who are curious, when Lilies of the Valley are placed in a vase of water, the water becomes sweet and toxic.  If this water were then added to an already sweeten drink – let’s say lemonade – it becomes both refreshing and deadly.)
Yeah. It doesn’t produce the same room gasp as learning how to forge a passport or disable a bomb. (Fun fact: apparently the timer mechanism on most bombs is NOT made from a giant red digital clock. Who knew?)
So, back to my books. My first series, featuring Elizabeth Parker, incorporates many of the themes and character traits in Jane Austen’s novels. Research for these books generally included me re-reading the books and re-watching the BBC’s adaptions.
Grueling work, but it’s for the craft.
I also read up on Austen, her life and the social mores of the times. Despite its somewhat sexist title, the book What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickenson Knew, was one of the more fascinating reads. It highlighted some aspects of Pride and Prejudice that I’d missed. For instance, I learned that the dances usually lasted around a half and hour, which accounts for why Lizzy was so upset at having to dance the first two with her odious cousin, Mr. Collins. I also learned that height was a sign of vitality/sexuality which explains why Lydia is described as being the tallest of all the Bennett girls despite being the youngest. I also learned that men’s shirts were very long. They would tie one side into a knot and jam it down their pants to enhance their, ah, silhouette.
I know, right?
My new series is a modern-day update of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. My characters, Nicole and Nigel Martini, live in a LA where Nigel runs a movie preservation company. For the second book in the series I wanted them to uncover the truth behind an old Hollywood scandal. So, I read up on some of the more famous ones.
Did you know George Reeves – TV’s Superman – died under very strange circumstances?  The official story is that he shot and killed himself during a drunken party at his house. But there are many inconsistencies in the stories of those who where there – most especially from his volatile girlfriend, Leonore Lemmon.  In addition, the evidence creates more questions than answers. Reeves purportedly shot himself in the head while lying down on his bed. However, there were no fingerprints found on the gun. There was no gunpowder on the wound. A spent shell was found under his body. Lastly, the gun was found at his feet, not by his head. Add to all of this the fact that the police weren’t called for almost an hour after his death and you have yourself quite an interesting mystery.
Now, did I use any of this for my story? No. But, it was fun reading and all in the name of research.  


Meredith Cole said...

You've given some very good reasons for why you should write books on subjects you enjoy researching, Tracy! I'm assuming you had to also sample quite a few martinis for this new series...

Susan C Shea said...

Wow, I wish my research, such as it is, was half as interesting as yours! Good piece, and I'll have to remember that lliles of the valley thing...

RJ Harlick said...

I like the lily of the valley thing too and all those fascinating tidbits, especially the one about Reeves. There has to be a book in there somewhere.