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.