Monday, September 28, 2015

Getting It Right

The research tool I turn to most often? How important is it to visit the sites I write about?

 - from Susan

“Research” is a word that covers a lot of territory for me. How do you spell “purview”? (That’s how.)  Am I sure Chicago isn’t the capital of Illinois? (It isn’t, Springfield is.) Is it true that Burgundy’s edible snails are better than anywhere else? (That one did require on site research and the answer is mais oui!)

Art magazines, the New York Times, museums (I write about a fundraiser at an art museum), and my personal experiences are the major sources I consult. But I will admit that I have fallen deeply into the Internet research trap, prone as it can be to error. I feel best if I get what I need from Wikipedia, but not everything can be found there, alas, with its reassuring footnotes. If my online information is a little soft, I’ll try to cross check a source with other Internet sites, but I know they tend to pick up and spread false information at the speed of light, so that’s really not protection against mistakes. Rarely now do I scout out physical maps, go to the library for resource materials, or write entreatingly to an academic for help. I admit I am lazy and want and expect instant, easy answers. Note that I’m not recommending this, only telling the truth about myself.

Where I draw the line – and who wouldn’t, given the chance – is setting. Santa Fe for the first Dani book? Well, of course I had to check out the town and its restaurants and Christmas farolitos (those candles or electric lights in brown paper bags). 

Manhattan for the second in the series? As a native of the city, I definitely needed to remind myself of the joys of the Upper East Side and the 24/7 noise levels. I already knew and loved those places, which is why I wanted to write love letters to them in my books. But it was important to figure out where crimes might have happened, right?

I didn’t go to a small college town outside Boston to research the third in the series, MIXED UP WITH MURDER, which comes out in February 2016. I knew so many of these towns, so many small colleges, so much of that part of New England from growing up years that I felt I could conjure my fictional town from affectionate memory. The hardest bit of research was finding a name for my made-up college. It was difficult to find one not already bestowed on a college or prep school, one that sounded like it could have been started in the nineteenth century by descendants of Mayflower passengers, or people who wished they were. That required days of trying out names and seeing if they popped up online. Lynthorpe College does not exist, at least not in the United States. Apparently, there’s an institution by that name in England, however.

 (Note: The real college pictured here is Curry College - nice photo!)

So, it’s a mixed bag. Basically, I look wherever I think I can find a reliable answer to my question. And, if it requires knowledge of the cuisine, I start packing.


Meredith Cole said...

I'm with you on researching food in person... Can't google tastes, that's for sure! At least not yet...

RJ Harlick said...

And I'm with you on checking out the setting in person. You need to smell, hear, touch and see the place you are writing about in order to bring it alive in the reader's mind. Great post.

Susan C Shea said...

Meredith and Robin, And this has nothing whatsoever to do with loving the places we go to, right? Actually, I spent time stumbling around the poubelle (garbage dump) and disused quarry in the French town I used as the model for the one in my book. And I'm starting one now that includes a quick trip to the Cayman Islands and a discreet bank, neither one I've visited in person, so I will be working extra hard to bring that to realistic life.