Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guest author Lesley Diehl: Research in Writing

Lesley Diehl
Lesley Diehl retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in upstate New York. In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport. She is author of several short stories and several mystery series: the microbrewing mystery series set in the Butternut Valley (A Deadly Draught and Poisoned Pairings) and a rural Florida series, Dumpster Dying and Grilled, Killed and Chilled (to be released late in 2012).  She recently signed a three-book deal with Camel Press for The Consignment Shop Murders including A Secondhand Murder. For something more heavenly, try her mystery Angel Sleuth. Several of her short stories have been published by Untreedreads including one (Murder with All the Trimmings) in the original Thanksgiving anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry and another (Mashed in the Potatoes) in the second anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping.  She invites readers to visit her on her blog and website.

How a Boring, Retired Professor Spices up Her Mysteries
(Hint—I hang out in cowboy bars)

Seasoned writers and authors often tell novices to “write what you know.” That’s not bad advice as it assumes what you know will give your writing depth and authenticity. When I began writing mysteries, I took this advice seriously and constructed a mystery about a professor of psychology. I had no luck in finding an agent to represent me on this work. I suspect they found it deadly boring. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at their reaction. I had been a college professor and administrator for years and never found much of that experience worthy of reading in a mystery, but it was what I knew. I thought I could spice it up by writing humor into the plot. It didn’t work.

When I look back on that manuscript (still on my computer but not published) it’s clear there were many problems with it. Even though I was writing what I knew, I wasn’t writing it very well. And, to be honest, I was just too close to the subject to get out of my own way and let the story unroll. The writing was catharsis for me, but it wasn’t very creative. The failure of writing what I knew to lead to publication was probably one of the best things to happen to me. It forced me to do research, something I loved, and led to expanding my knowledge on subjects I formerly knew nothing about.

What did I like to read? I loved the fast pacing and plot intricacies of a mystery, but I was also drawn to one that taught me something I didn’t know before I began the book. I found it exciting to learn about law, politics or the unusual occupation or hobby of an amateur sleuth. Sometimes a period in history caught my attention. Cooking, catering, or work on a small town newspaper or running a bed and breakfast or an herb shop taught me about aspects of life of which I was previously ignorant. Settings, too, called to me—the Texas Hill country, a city I’d visited only once like Seattle or New Orleans. There were things to learn out there, and it was possible to learn them through the vehicle of a murder mystery.

I decided to create an amateur sleuth with an unique occupation. My first book (A Deadly Draught) featured a woman microbrewer. What did I know about craft beers? Absolutely nothing, but I found the research not only fascinating but also fun. I took hubby with me to do the research, which often involved not only a tour of a facility but tasting the finished product. I met microbrewers in the craft eager to help me understand what they did. I toured numerous microbreweries and grew to respect the art and craft of brewing and the people who did it. I even liked the beer. The second one in that series appeared this year (Poisoned Pairings). I added to my story by taking on another piece of research, that of hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to drill for gas. I used this controversial technique as a political and economic backdrop for the murder in the brewery.

My other books are similarly infused with research. The second book (Grilled, Chilled and Killed) in my Big Lake mystery series set in rural Florida features my bar-tending protagonist (yes, I had to research bar-tending also) encountering feral pigs and sinkholes. I am fortunate to live in rural Florida part of the year, so I can bring some genuine atmosphere to the bars, cowboys, land and animals such as horses, cattle and alligators found in the story. Hubby and I frequent the cowboy bars to do a little swing and two-step, as do my characters.

My next project strikes closer to what I know well, yard sales and consignment shops. Camel Press will release the first in this three book series in 2013. The protagonist is a woman who owns a consignment shop in rural Florida, and she finds one of her wealthy consignors dead on the dressing room floor. There’s still research to be done here. I’m scheduling a ride on an airboat this week, something I never thought I’d be interested in doing, but I am going to kill one of my characters on an airboat ride, so what choice do I have but to see, feel, hear and smell that experience.

The important aspect of injecting research into a mystery is doing it without lecturing or preaching, but in such a way that readers may not even realize what a wealth of information they are gaining. I think much of the writer’s ability to do that has to do with how fascinated the writer is by the research. The writer’s curiosity should allow her to weave the research throughout the story so that it becomes one with the plot and character development.

Is research for a mystery boring? Not for me. I love learning something new that can be used to develop or challenge my characters or create plot twists that surprise. What do you like to read in a mystery? Do you read close to home, a story about someone who shares your occupation or hobby? Or do you seek out stories with protagonists with unusual occupations, settings unfamiliar to you? And if you are a writer, can you share some of the techniques you use to insert research into your work?

Win a free copy of the second book in my microbrewing series, Poisoned Pairings, if you are the first to correctly identify the flowers on the cover of the book. Go to my blog, website or Amazon link to see the cover.

—Lesley Diehl


Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Lesley!

Looking forward to reading your mysteries, particularly the ones set in Florida since I'm something of a Floriphile(?).

Lesley Diehl said...

It's good to be here. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say.

Patricia Gligor said...

Okay, I'm going to guess "azaleas." Mind you, it's just a guess.
I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your books. Not only do you provide readers with an intriguing mystery and fascinating characters, but you teach us something along the way.
In answer to your questions: I'll admit that I love to read mysteries where one of the characters is a writer but I also like to learn about other occupations. I like Cincinnati settings but I'm also partial to novels set in small towns and, since I love the ocean, any seaside mystery will definitely get my attention.
As a writer, I enjoy doing research. One example is my interest in the Civil War Era which I incorporated into "Unfinished Business."
Great post!

Vonnie said...

Nobody has ever offered me a free beer, Lesley. Obviously I'm doing my research in all the wrong places!

Paul McNabb said...

I wandered through the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and the vintage racing at Laguna Seca doing the research for The Jaguar Conspiracy. Add in a couple of days of trudging around the marina district of San Francisco looking for locales. I found it heavenly.

marja said...

After reading your post, I think I may have to make my characters take some new directions so I do some fun research. Excellent post!
Marja McGraw

Lesley Diehl said...

Sorry, Pat, but the answser is not azaleas, although that's a pretty good guess.

JoAnn Bassett said...

Hi Lesley, I'm guessing oleander, since oleander is poisonous. I also write mysteries with fun research behind them. My "Islands of Aloha Mysteries" take place on each of the Hawaiian islands. I used to live on Maui but now I'm back on the mainland. So, I need to go over at least twice a year to check things out. Tough gig, huh. Anyway, loved your post and I'm going to download "Deadly Draught" as my son is a micro-brew fanatic and it would be nice to understand the allure.

Lesley Diehl said...

JoAnn, you are correct about the flower and are a winner! Now you'll have the second in the series to accompany the first you bought for your son. Enjoy. I need your addres to send you the book, so email me at


Carol Mitchell said...

Two of my books are historical fiction so I have had to do research on the 16th century Caribbean history. I am working on a book with a protagonist with a hobby that consumes a lot of his life so I have had to do some research on that. Luckily my son is involved in the same activity so watching him, talking to him and his instructor has been very helpful.

Liane Spicer said...

Joann Bassett, congratulations! Thank you for visiting and entering the contest. Happy reading!