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.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Harmless weirdness.

Well, my search history isn't pretty. Fatal doses, famous cases, rigor mortis . . . Did you know if you Google "what neurological condition will kill a child by the age of sixteen after years of total immobility" you have to type the whole thing? Google doesn't guess the end for you.

And more and more research is done at the desk every year as more great stuff goes online. The Post Office directories are my favourite research resources. They tell you who lived where and what they did for a living in Britain between 1770-odd and 1921, when they became phone books. They're a treasure trove of names, jobs and all sorts of lore. Where else would you find out that Miss Violet Porteous ran a glovemaking factory on Causewayside and advertised her patented kid-whitening cream for 2d a pot.

If you've got nothing else to do for the next five hours: here they are:

And when you combine them with the ordnance survey maps of the same year:

You've practically moved into Miss Porteous's house and started your apprenticeship. You're welcome.

But still, I don't think I'd like to write completely from strolling about hand-in-virtual-hand with the wee orange man on Googlemaps. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea only come from buying a plane ticket, hiring a car and getting out to listen and sniff. (If you write about Scotland and live in California, anyway.)

One thing I always do as part of research, that never struck me as weird until I told someone and saw their face is draw floorplans of every location in the story: houses, hotel rooms, shops. . . gotta have a floorplan. And it's not just my own books. I've drawn floorplans of Peter and Harriet Vane's London house, the castle in I Capture The Castle and the flat in Sherlock (after lots of pausing and rewinding).

I don't do it anymore. I don't need to. After you're finished with your five hours in the Post Office Directories, Google floorplans of fictional houses and kiss goodbye to the rest of the day. It was comforting to find out that I'm not alone in this: whether it's The Waltons or The Simpsons, The Golden Girls or the Gilmore Girls, the plans are out there.

Doesn't Carrie Bradshaw's flat have the most dead space you've ever seen?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Strange is the new normal by Cathy Ace


This is a tough one to answer because “strange” is such a subjective concept. I’ll be honest and admit many things I think of as being perfectly normal might be construed as “strange” by others. 

Take some of the research I've undertaken for my Cait Morgan Mysteries, for example: I thought nothing of engaging a lovely lady by the name of Patti for an hour or so on the lounge deck of a cruise ship so she could explain the details of exactly how her chum had been hypnotized to stop smoking…just so I could take my initial thought of “what a great way to kill someone” and contemplate the logistics of how that might work. (I used the idea in THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE, but you’ll have to read the book to see just how it played out…no spoilers here!) Indeed, I’ve had so many lengthy conversations with people about matters which, in my mind, lend themselves to murder that I don’t even blush anymore when I explain why I’m quizzing them. See? “Strange” is highly subjective.

The better part of a day I spent tasting tequila (for THE CORPSE WITH THE EMERALD THUMB, set on a tequila-producing hacienda near Puerto Vallarta) went well…up to a point. I don’t think anyone here needs to know exactly how it went off the rails. Quite an experience – but not “strange” given the amount I’d consumed! And who knew there was so much to learn about the supply chain for, and correct storage of, caviar and the challenges of running a restaurant that can only be reached by elevator? Thanks to Lyle at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris, Las Vegas for spending all that time with me in person and online – it was essential research for THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR (even drinking all that champagne was critical!).   

I find the emails that pass between me and my ever-so-helpful-and-friendly local coroner to be perfectly normal, and my husband no longer thinks it’s odd that I sometimes eat food I don’t really fancy, but which I think Cait Morgan would try…just to find out what it smells and tastes like, and how it feels in my mouth. Trust me when I tell you snail caviar doesn’t have the flavor or texture of fish caviar and, apparently, there is a limit to how much white chocolate bread pudding a person can eat! (THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE and THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR, respectively.)

For my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries I capitalized upon my love of unusual museums and ended up finding out more about antique dentures than I had previously imagined anyone would ever care to know (see how that worked out in THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER). That said, learning about Winston Churchill’s false teeth didn’t strike me as “strange”, but fascinating. 

Maybe that’s how it is for a person who writes mysteries – my “normal” might be “strange” to others – but I have no real way of knowing. Which is probably for the best. 
Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Strange researches

by RM
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever done to research your book?
This is a fun question!

But when I read it, I buried my face in my hands and said, “Oh, no.” Because I’ve not done any big strange thing in the name of research.
Mine are the scattered, low-key kind of strangenesses that maybe add up to something worth speaking of.

Little things, like:

A)          Trying to get what it’s like to be that kind of person (i.e., a bigot), so I can write about them in a well-rounded way.
B)           Enjoying my miserable moments, because it brings me closer to my characters -- at least the miserable ones.
C)           Google Earthing places, looking for ditches to hide bodies and things.
D)          Google Earthing other places, sometimes for hours, just to get the lay of the land.
E)           Driving around neighbourhoods looking for (i.e.) Cal’s house, so I can see him walking out to his car in the morning, and which route he takes to get to work, etc.
F)           Taking an ex-RCMP officer out for lunch and prying into his life. Maybe not so strange for some people, but for me it was big.
G)          Tailing a man and woman in a supermarket just to listen to their thick Scottish accents.
H)          For Book II (Undertow, just submitted!!) I did need to see if it was possible to stuff a baby bootie into an empty bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. In the end I didn’t have a baby bootie, so drank the gin (awful stuff*) and pushed a small sock inside, and found it IS possible. So nobody can accuse me of being unrealistic.

Not so strange on their own, but cumulatively I think this all qualifies as at least eccentric behaviour.
BOOK III should take me to more interesting places, though -- it involves a lycanthrope!

* Note: Some people love gin, and Bombay I hear is a good one. I can’t seem to acquire the taste though...yet.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Fromage, Anyone?

What's the strangest thing you have done while researching a book?

-from Susan

I can’t say I’ve done much that would raise eyebrows or cause an observer to call a cop. I spent fifteen minutes taking pictures of the garbage dump and some rocks in a small town in France where part of my story was going to be set, I thought at the time. The old couple walking their dog doubtless thought it – and I – were strange.

One beautiful morning in June I bought cheese from the seller in Noyers-sur-Serein whose truck looked unassuming until he pulled open one side panel and displayed what must be 100 or more different cheeses, all from Burgundy, each on a little pedestal and fronted by a handwritten sign written in that unique French script. When I say I bought cheese, understand it was for research. Further understand my French is not nuanced or even always correct. So, before my friend could save me by explaining I was hoping to get names of the individual cheeses, I had purchased a dozen paper-wrapped packets and the seller was beaming. The little notebook I carry shows that my notes got sloppier and sloppier as I tried to keep up with his enthusiastic and fulsome descriptions of each cheese I pointed to. The cheeses were wonderful, by the way. Just don’t ask me to name them all.

The Dani O’Rourke series is so close to what I know that I never had to do anything strange for research. I lived the experiences for real when I was working in the non-profit world. For Dani, I just had to embellish (and disguise) odder moments from my former life. One aspect of this has been therapeutic. In the recasting of life in the trenches at universities, my memories of the stresses, petty feuds, and simmering frustrations have turned into funny stories.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Time and Place: The Agatha Award Finalists for Best First Novel

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"What prompted you to use the setting and time period for your latest book or series?"—seemed the perfect opportunity to showcase this year's Agatha Award finalists for Best First Novel, whose settings cover a wide range, in terms both of geography and of subject matter.

I'm proud to be a included in this group of fine writers and thrilled that we've all become such good friends in our chats online—chats which have led to a series of blog hops like this, with at least one more stop ahead, at Chicks on the Case on Monday, April 25. And then we'll all be together at Malice Domestic, of course—next week, yikes!

Our Malice panel is on Saturday morning, April 30, at 10 a.m., with Margaret Maron moderating. Plenty of questions to be answered there, but in the meantime, let's hear what everyone has to say on the question at hand here!

ELLEN BYRON, author of Plantation Shudders: When I was a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, my parents would look for any excuse to visit. We’d rent a car and go for day trips all over southern Louisiana, exploring as much of Cajun Country and Plantation Country as we could. I became fascinated by the history of the land and the people, and began incorporating both into plays that I wrote. I have such a passion for this part of the country that when I thought about writing a mystery series, setting it in Cajun Country was a no-brainer. The characters and village I’ve created—Pelican, Louisiana, town motto, “Yes, We Peli-CAN!”—feel so real to me that sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m writing fiction! My emotional connection to New Orleans and southern Louisiana is extraordinarily powerful. I cry tears of joy when I arrive and tears of sadness when I leave.

As to time period, I accidentally created the best of both worlds. My series is set in present-day, but revolves around two plantation homes that date back to the mid-1800s. My protagonist occasionally has dreams where her ancestors reach out to her, and who knows? Perhaps someday I’ll write an historical prequel series.

CINDY BROWN, author of Macdeath: You’ve probably heard writers say their characters just showed up one day in their heads: that was certainly the case with my protagonist Ivy Meadows. She was an actress when she arrived in my writer-brain, so the theater setting was natural. Also, I worked in theater for years and thought it’d be great fun to let Ivy explore different types of gigs. In Macdeath, she works in a Shakespearean theater; in The Sound of Murder, she’s onstage at a dinner theater; and in Oliver Twisted, she’s acting onboard a cruise ship. In this latest book (out June 21), I chose the cruise ship for a couple of reasons: I wanted Ivy to be away from her home in Phoenix and unable to get back if anything happened, and since I was using Dickens as a springboard, I wanted an environment that had two distinctly different socioeconomic classes (the vacationers and the ship’s crew). Plus cruise ships are just fun.

JULIANNE HOLMES, author of Just Killing Time: Setting the Clock Shop series in the Berkshires was my editor’s idea. But the town of Orchard was inspired by fate. I drove out to see a show at Double Edge Theatre while I was working on the proposal. The theater is located on a farm in Western MA, and I almost didn’t go, but decided that time alone in the car would be good for thinking. On my way home my GPS went a little wonky, and I took a route that I hadn’t taken on my way in. It is darker than the inside of a cow (a phrase my Maine friend Jo-Ann uses), so I trusted the GPS. After winding around a bit, I took a right at a fork and found myself in Orchard. Well, it was actually Willamsburg MA, but I decided with some rearranging it could be Orchard. A stone church, federal style house (that was now a bank), late 1800’s General Store, aluminum clad diner, one story grocery store—it was all there, but in the wrong places. I loved that the town had a main road, was very New England, but also had to be stumbled upon. I have gone back a few times for ideas, and I use the General Store as inspiration for the Cog & Sprocket—crowded, old, well worn, and wonderful. That said, I also explore the back alleys and dumpster locations—I need to figure out where to hide bodies and murder weapons. Fate was kind to me that day—I found the perfect setting for the series.

TESSA ARLEN, author of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman: I write historical mysteries. And my characters populate the early 1900s.  I believe that writers who live in history do not choose their time period. It is often the other way around. I have always love the early 20th century. There was so much in flux, so much change and if we are talking about England… well historically we have always been slow to embrace change but somehow being an island race have always addressed those monumental issues with our own blend of offhand insouciance, which makes for great style. How could I not write about that fascinating time in a country on the cusp of change?

So far as setting is concerned, I am English so it is easy for me to write about my country’s history and a part of England that was at that time exquisitely pastoral. Iyntwood—the house in my novels—is an old Elizabethan house in a particularly beautiful part of England - the England I grew up in when I was not with my out-of-the-country parents.  Funnily enough I did not love England as a child, I often found it cold, reserved to the point of disinterest, and horribly alien after the tropics I was born in. I hated it as a teenager.  It is only now that I remember my life in England with love and the sort of yearning that only ex-patriats acquire after years of living in another country. They say you can never go back, and when I visit my sister and her family in the beautiful Weald of Kent I understand just how much my country has changed and that it is not the world I knew as a young woman. BUT I would love to live in the England of the early 20th century before WW1. The world of Kenneth Grahame and the simple, straight forward world of Wind In the Willows, where the countryside was still an idyllically beautiful place to live in. So I did the next best thing: I created it in my books.

ART TAYLOR, author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories: My book takes the title characters from Taos, New Mexico to Victorville, California, then up the coast to Napa Valley, across to Las Vegas, up to Williston, North Dakota, and finally eastward to North Carolina, Louise’s home state. Several stops on their journey were informed by some of our own travels; in fact, it was a visit to New Mexico that helped give birth to these characters in the first place, and the sticker-shock scene when Del and Louise see how much a Napa wine tasting is...well, that’s my wife and me right there, counting our pennies, so to speak. But elsewhere, other factors influenced setting. I chose Victorville by just picking a city from the map—and only later realized how appropriate it was to the adventures I’d been percolating on: Somehow I managed to set up Del in the real estate business in a town which became an unfortunate poster child for what happens when the real estate bubble bursts. And while I’d planned on taking them to South Dakota (which I myself have visited), North Dakota ended up being more appropriate—both because of certain very specific laws there and because of an actual crime that unfolded near Williston and that looms over their time there.

As for time itself: I began writing this during the thick of the Great Recession there in the late 2000s, and that economic turmoil added to the tensions that the characters were facing. I just stuck with it, even as the actual writing for the full book took me well beyond those years and into relatively more prosperous times. 

What prompted you to use the setting and time period for your latest book or series?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Here and Now

by Alan

What prompted you to use the setting and time period for your latest book or series?

Fact one: I’m lazy efficient.

Fact two: I’m not a research guy.

Combining facts one and two yields the following axiom:

When given the choice, I’ll take the easiest option and, more specifically, the one requiring the minimum amount of research.

Therefore, my books take place in the current day, and the settings I choose are places I’ve lived or visited.

DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD takes place in Reston, VA (where I live).

The LAST LAFF mysteries take place in Northern VA (where I live).

FIRST TIME KILLER and RIDE-ALONG also take place in Northern VA (see a pattern here?)

woods2THE TASTE takes place in the woods of West Virginia, where I’ve vacationed. (And really, when you’ve been in one forest, you’ve been in them all. Lots of trees and nature and stuff.)

RUNNING FROM THE PAST takes place in Sandbridge, VA, and near Charlottesville, VA, both places I’ve spent some time.



In my opinion, writing a book is hard enough. No need to make it harder!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Meg treads where I have trod.

By R.J. Harlick

What prompted you to use the setting and time period for your latest book or series?

I suppose one could say picking the time period for my series was a no brainer.  While I do like reading books set in earlier times, I’m afraid I am a tad lazy. I was not a particularly good student of history. I’d get my battles all mixed up and my kings. Queens were easy. There was only one, not including the current one and she wasn’t old enough to be included in my history studies. Nor do I have enough insight into the ins and outs of any time period other than the one I am living in.

So in the interest of keeping research to a minimum, I have Meg living in current times. That way I get to draw on my own experiences and whatever events are going on at the time of writing without having to spend much more time than the odd google search.  

I will say though, that I greatly admire writers that know a time period so intimately that they can make it effortlessly come alive in the minds of their readers. Writers like Patrick O’Brian, Dorothy Dunnett or Colleen McCullough to name a few.

Of more importance to me was the setting. I have done a fair bit of travelling and have lived in a variety of countries, so have enough knowledge to write about a number of different places, some more exotic than others. But I decided at the outset, before I’d barely sat down to write my very first words that I wanted to bring my own country alive in my readers’ minds and in particular Canada’s great outdoors.

 I love nature. I love tramping through the woods be it a multi-day hike or an hour’s walk with the dogs. I don’t let the snows of winter slow me down. I strap on my cross-country skis and take to the trails. And in summer, I hop into a canoe and paddle. I love slicing through a mirror flat lake. Going down a rapid-filled river on the other hand is another matter, but you may already know that from Meg’s experiences.

And so I gave Meg Three Deer Point, the kind of cottage I’ve dreamed about, perched on a granite peninsula overlooking a quintessential Canadian shield lake, much like the one near my Quebec log cabin. She spends some of her time, as I do, getting solace from the nature around her.

Occasionally Meg travels, and when she does it is to other Canadian wildernesses, to places I have always wanted to visit, like Baffin Island in Canada’s far north or Haida Gwaii, a group of islands at the western edge of Canada. In the next book she will be travelling to Canada’s sub-arctic, to the Northwest Territories, a land of rock, boreal forests and tundra. A few years ago, I spent twelve days paddling a river through this wild and remote territory.  Though Meg won’t be in a canoe, she will get to know this timeless land the way I did.

I almost forgot to mention some exciting events taking place over the next couple of weeks.

The shortlists for the Arthur Ellis Awards will be announced this Thursday, April 21, across Canada.  Check the Crime Writers of Canada site to find a location near you. I, along with a number of Ottawa authors, will be anxiously awaiting the announcements with readings from our latest books at Chapters Rideau starting at 7:00 pm.

On Saturday April 23 I will be spending the day with Vicki Delany at the Navan Fine Art Fair from 10 am to 4:00 pm at the Navan Curling Club. The day's featured authors, we will be selling and signing our books.

Then next week I will be climbing into a car with 3 other Canadian writers and heading south to one of my favourite conferences, Malice Domestic, to one of my favourite areas, Washington D.C, where I lived for a couple of years. And it's during azalea season. Man, do I love those splashes of vibrancy. My panel, Getting in their Heads: the psychology of murder (isn't that a fabulous topic?) is on Saturday from 10:00 to 10:50.

On the way back the four of us will be stopping in Mechanicsburg PA, to spend a couple of hours discussing our books at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop. We, myself, Vicky Delany(Eva Gates), Mary Jane Maffini (Victoria Abbott) and Linda Wiken (Erica Chase) will be there on the Sunday from 4:00 pm to 7:00.

It would be wonderful to see you at one of these events.