Friday, October 2, 2015

Midnight at the Internet Cafe

What is the research tool you turn to most often? How important is visiting the site of your story to your research?

by Paul D. Marks

These days my go-to research tool is the internet, what else? It’s close at hand. It’s easy. It has “everything” on it. And it’s right all the time. Well, most of the time. I mean much of the time. Yeah.

In the olden days, BI—Before Internet—one had to go to the library or the bookstore. But if you’re a night owl like me you’d be hard pressed to find a library or bookstore open at 3am, my prime time. Not impossible, but also maybe not close by. And much as I love browsing both of those places, I’d rather do it in the middle of the night, but I guess they want to sleep and I curse them for it.

Hollywood Sign Collage D1aThen, of course, there’s first hand research, going to the location/s in your story or to primary source people. For example, if you’re writing about the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles and you live in Los Angeles you can drive up there, annoy the people who live in the neighborhood, duck potshots from them, get close to the sign and, after running the gauntlet of angry residents, find out it’s fenced off so you can’t get there anyway, at least not right there. But you used to be able to go there. I hiked up there with a friend one time when we were doing research on a screenplay. It was fun and exciting and before the neighbors were perpetually upset—and before it was fenced off. But today it’s hard to get to, at least to get right up close to it, because it is fenced off. So what do you do? You turn to the internet or books. Or people who’ve been there or you watch through binocs or you beg everyone you know to find someone who knows someone who can get you inside the fence. And when that fails you hit the books again or the internet.

Kiss Me Deadly Angels Flight w caption d1I recently sold a story to Ellery Queen that takes place on and around Bunker Hill, no not that Bunker Hill in Massachusetts. The one in downtown L.A. L.A.’s Bunker Hill of today and the Bunker Hill of 30-40 years ago are two vastly different places. When it began in the late 1800s, Bunker Hill was a neighborhood of fancy Victorian homes for the wealthy near downtown. Over time the swells moved west and Bunker Hill became run down and the elaborate houses were turned into rooming houses. In the late 60s, redevelopment began. The people were kicked out. Some of the houses were torn down and others were packed up and moved to other locations. So, though my story takes place today it deals with elements of the long-lost and lamented Bunker Hill of yesterday. How did I research that? Well, the usual, the internet, books, etc. Watching old movies shot there—many film noirs were shot on and around Bunker Hill. But I had also spent time there as a young man, exploring the houses, getting into some, riding the original Angels Flight funicular railway. Going through the Grand Central Market that John Fante talks about in Ask the Dust, before it was remodeled. And I still have the top of a newell stairway post I liberated from one of those old Victorian houses—a memento both to L.A.’s and my own past. I’m also old enough to remember L.A. as Raymond Chandler describes it and before it started to change and “grow up”. And I remember it pretty well—first-hand research you might say.

My novel White Heat takes place mostly in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots of 1992. I lived through that and used both personal experience and recollections of others, both civilians and cops that I know who were there to add flavor to the story. But parts of the story also take place in Calexico, California and Sparks and Reno, Nevada. I have recollections of both places, but it’s been a long time since I was there, so again I turned to the internet to be my researcher’s best friend.

But what if you’re writing something that’s set where you’ve never been. I’ve never been to the Amazon, though it’s one of my dreams. Pre-internet, I was working on a screenplay set there, so I researched it in books, etc. But I also drew on personal experiences of being in other riverine environs, transposing some of those experiences and adventures to the Amazon.

Gas_Station_1942 d1What if it’s a time you’ve never lived in or experienced firsthand? I have a character named Bobby Saxon who’s been in three published stories. I wrote a novel with Bobby that should be done soon. Those stories all take place during World War II on the L.A. homefront. Well, that’s before my time. But I know L.A. pretty well and I know a lot of its history. So I had a good foundation to start with. But I also turned to primary resources: my mom and her friends. My family goes back here a long way and my mom was an L.A. native, so she and her friends could tell me first-hand things about L.A. during the war. I supplemented that with—what else? —the internet and books. But also with maps. I wanted to know how people got from point A to point B in a time before freeways. So I bought several period street maps on eBay, as well as looking things up on the net. And, aside from the good research the maps gave me for the story, I just love looking at them and seeing how things change over time. I also got some of the flavor of the era from old movies and music of the time, both of which I love.

When I was working on a script set in New Orleans...I had to go research it in person. Had to. Wouldn’t you? I wanted it to be real and how could I make it real without actually tasting the food at Commander’s Palace? Winking smile

But what about writing about professions or places that I have no first-hand contact with, well, it’s research and again you go to primary sources when you can. Example: I’m not a doctor so I ask doctors how certain symptoms might be treated, what meds would be used, etc. As for places I haven’t been, well, sometimes I try to go, but if I can’t it’s back to the internet drawing board.

So if I had to pick one winner, it would be the internet. The world is at your fingertips.

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Bouchercon2015_logoLargewAnthony -- Smaller-Sharpened JPGIt’s still not too late to read all the 2015 Anthony Award nominated short stories:

The five Anthony nominees in the Short Story category are Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, John Shepphird, our own Art Taylor...and me, Paul D. Marks. I’m honored to be among these people and their terrific stories.

I want to thank everyone who voted for us in the first round. And if you’re eligible to vote, people attending Bouchercon can vote at the convention until 1pm Saturday.

I hope you’ll take the time to read all five of the stories and vote. All are available free here – just click the link and scroll down to the short story links:

But even if you’re not eligible to vote, I hope you’ll take the time to read the stories. I think you’ll enjoy them and maybe get turned onto some new writers.

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And now for the usual shameless BSP:

Coast to Coastx_1500 (1)NEW from Down & Out Books – Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea – an anthology of short mystery stories, chocked full of major award-winning authors, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks (Me!)

Released on 10/1 (that’s yesterday for those without a calendar, so hot off the presses)

“Envelope-pushers! A truly WOW collection by the best mystery writers out there – full of surprises only they can pull off.”
—Thomas B. Sawyer, Bestselling author of Cross Purposes, Head-Writer of Murder, She Wrote

With a Killer Cast Including:

4 Time Edgar Winner William Link • Grand Master Bill Pronzini • Scribner Crime Novel Winner William G. Tapply • Shamus Winner Paul D. Marks • EQMM Readers Award Winner Robert S. Levinson • Al Blanchard Award Winner James T. Shannon • Derringer Award Winner Stephen D. Rogers • Sherlock Holmes Bowl Winner Andrew McAleer and other poisoned-pen professionals like Judy Copek • Sheila Lowe • G. B. Pool • Thomas Donahue

Available in paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon.  Click here to go to Amazon.

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Meredith Cole said...

I had already figured out that you were a night owl, Paul (since I always get emails from you early in the morning (for me on the east coast)! The Internet does make it so much easier to get info right when you need it...

Paul D. Marks said...

Especially in the middle of the night :)