Friday, April 29, 2016

The Vandals Took the Handles…or in this case the Newel Post

What is the strangest thing you’ve done while researching a book?

by Paul D. Marks

The things we do for our art: I’ve braved riots, vandalized classic Victorian buildings, suffered through the rich and delish food of New Orleans. It’s a tough life.

Does pre-research count? Did I just invent a term?

I’m not sure I’ve done anything particularly unusual while specifically researching a book in advance, pretty much all the usual stuff that’s been talked about here earlier in the week. But I have lived life to some extent and many of the experiences I’ve had make their way into my stories or inform them one way or another.

Los Angeles - "Rodney King" Riots
Way back in the 90s, I lived through the “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. It was an ugly and scary time. Smoke rising, traffic snarled, looting, people in panic mode, etc. My novel White Heat takes place during those riots. PI Duke Rogers screws up an easy case and inadvertently causes someone’s death. To make amends he wants to find the killer. To do that he backtraces the victim, going to see her family in South Central LA the day the riots break out. He’s harassed by angry mobs, his car is torched and he’s stranded in the middle of South Central while everything erupts into chaos around him. And that’s just the beginning of his problems.

Of course that just touches on what the book is about. But one of the things that made me happiest was hearing people who were in the thick of it, cops, rioters, civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, say how real my descriptions of the riots were. How well I captured them. One person even told me she had to skip over those parts because they were too real and brought back too many memories. Not that I want to cause someone discomfort, but what better compliment could I have? So maybe living through the riots helped me write a story that rang true.

My short story Howling at the Moon (Ellery Queen 11/14) takes place in Southern California’s Death Valley, the lowest and hottest spot in the US. Though it’s been some years since I’ve trekked there, I have been there and drew on those experiences to hopefully give the story a sense of verisimilitude. I remember how hot it was – hotter than hell and if you squinted just right that’s where you thought you were.
Death Valley, California

I recently sold another story to Ellery Queen called Ghosts of Bunker Hill (no publication date yet). This one takes place in an area of downtown LA, not the famous Revolutionary War site in Mass. And today’s Bunker Hill is very different than what it used to be.

Bunker Hill was LA’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. But it got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people. Lots of film noirs were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly and many others). It’s also where John Fante lived when he wrote Ask the Dust and other books. But in the late 60s it was all torn down and redeveloped. They even flattened the hills. Ghosts of Bunker Hill is set in and around there in the present.

Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
I love the old Bunker Hill and was lucky enough to “explore” it under the radar before it was totally razed. A friend and I went down there and did some “self-guided tours” of many of the grand old Victorian houses before they were torn down or moved to other locations. I took a souvenir from one of those Victorian houses, the finial off a newel staircase post (if I have the terminology correct). It’s a prized possession and since I want to write more stories with the characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill, I see the finial as the “logo” for that series. What makes it really special to me is that it’s not just any old finial, but one I actually took from Bunker Hill. So it has both real and personal history.

Bunker Hill is also where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was, from which Michael Connelly takes the name of one of his novels and which I used as a short story title before his novel came out. And I got to ride the original Angels Flight as well, which I’ve used in multiple stories including the eponymous Angels Flight. It was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put there, but it closed not too long after it opened.

Back in the day, my friend Linda (though not the friend I explored Bunker Hill with) and I used to go around LA, just point the car and drive and explore. We would just get in the car and head out in any direction, exploring “old” Los Angeles. We’d go anywhere and everywhere. We explored much of So Cal and I treasure those memories and what I learned while we were having fun doing that. And, of course, I’ve used much of what we saw in my writing.

But something just occurred to me that wasn’t pre-research. I was working on a screenplay set in New Orleans and I had never been there. Now, I could have researched it in books in those days or asked people about it – I could have gone to New Orleans Square at Disneyland – but I felt I needed to have the real feel for the place. So I just had to go there and see it for myself. I don’t know if it made the screenplay any better or more real, but it sure made me and Amy happy to be there.

And now that Bouchercon is going to be there in the fall, I guess it’s time for more research.

So, in terms of research, I draw on all of these experiences, plus others, as well as traditional research methods, such as book learnin’, the internet and talking with people, to hopefully give my stories a feeling of really being in the place or with characters who come off as real.



Lisa Ciarfella said...

I'd like to see the finial.
Using it as a logo for your series is a cool idea!

Lisa Ciarfella said...

I'd like to see the finial.
Using it as a logo for your series is a cool idea!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Lisa! When the story comes out I'll put the finial out there. It really just looks like any other one, but I know it came off an old Victorian from Bunker Hill, so it's cool to me.

GBPool said...

I have used things I have done, things my Air Force dad did, and made up a lot of stuff that could have happened after being in fantastic places I visited in most of my books and short stories. Everybody's journey through life can make a book or two; we just wrote ours down. And you have the finial to prove it. I have the metal name plate off my dad's Beechcraft Bonanza.

Paul D. Marks said...

I know you’ve had some interesting experiences, Gayle. And I’ve seen them turn up in your books. I think all of our writing is obviously based on various experiences…unless all one’s ever done is watch TV. And that’s cool about the nameplate off your dad’s plane!