Sunday, October 22, 2017

Write What You Know. Except When You Don’t

Write what you know. Really? What if I want to write about what I don’t know? Does Anne Perry know what it’s like to be Thomas Pitt, a police inspector in Victorian London? Does Jacqueline Winspear have firsthand knowledge of the world of Maisie Dobbs, a psychologist/investigator based in England in the early decades of the twentieth century? No. These authors and many like them do research to create their characters and stories. Lots of research.

Even in contemporary times, a sleuth may need to venture into an unfamiliar environment in order to hunt down a killer.

That’s where research comes in.

In Murder at the Moonshine Inn, Hazel Rose agrees to investigate the murder of Roxanne Howard, a high-powered executive who died in a pool of blood outside the Moonshine Inn, one of Richmond, Virginia’s most notorious redneck bars. Hazel immediately has two questions: who killed Roxanne? And why had the woman spent her leisure time sitting on a barstool at the watering hole, having loud fights on her phone with her husband?

To answer these questions, Hazel needs to go to the bar—undercover. Now, Hazel has never set foot in a redneck bar.  How does she act? How does she dress? How does she speak? What does the bar look like?

No question about it, I needed to visit a redneck bar that would become the model for the fictitious Moonshine Inn (not undercover, though.).

My friend Marie served as my consultant. She assured me that she was an expert on redneck culture. She advised me on dress, dialog, and any number of details. She sent me links to databases of redneck baby names. There is a wealth of online sources for redneckiana (not a real word, but perhaps it should be).

Vince, Hazel’s husband and undercover partner, admires his wife’s disguise:
“Wow!” His appreciative look said he liked the redneck me.

“It’s just for tonight. This is way too much work.”

“It’s the top I like. Hair’s for the birds. Literally.”

Vince referred to my Harley Davidson two-sizes-too-small tank top that revealed an impressive display of cleavage. I had a Victoria’s Secret contraption that I employed for the thankfully few occasions when I wanted to play up my assets. The jeans that I’d slashed in strategic places molded my bottom half, and Eileen’s boots fit well with the help of thick, albeit unsexy, socks. As for the hair, I may have gone overboard with teasing and spraying my chestnut waves into something like an exploded mushroom—or a birds nest. But, as long as I fit in, that was the main thing: frosted blue eye shadow and plenty of it streaked across my eyelids, and my nails sparkled with scarlet polish.

Back to me and my research. My own husband and I visited three bars and I combined the three in to one for my story. I tried to capture the essence and Marie helped. Between these visits, Marie, online sources, and my vivid imagination, I put together a passable chapter.

When Hazel arrives at the Moonshine Inn with Vince, she gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a redneck queen, she meets some very interesting people, and picks up information that may prove valuable in nailing Roxanne Howard’s killer.
Description of the Moonshine Inn:

Black-and-white tiles covered the floor, and dark leather booths lined the perimeter of the space. Grime streaked the windows. The ceiling came up short on its allotment of tiles. Apparently the Moonshine Inn had a special dispensation to allow smoking, as a thick fog made the TVs positioned throughout the bar hard to see. I saw a Florida room, all white with ceiling fans and clean windows, attached to the front of the building. A prominent sign proclaimed it a non-smoking section. I looked at it longingly but, as not a soul populated the space, I figured I’d best sit elsewhere so I could get information.

The patrons caught up on the news via ESPN and Fox News amid much yelling and derogatory jokes about Obamacare. For those disinclined to watch the news, one TV offered T.J. Hooker reruns. But we weren’t there to catch up on the news or ‘80s-era cop shows.

So, with a little research, an adventurous spirit, and a vivid imagination, you as an author are not limited to writing what you know. But beware: you may risk leaving your comfort zone!


Anonymous said...

excellent article.

Liane Spicer said...

Maggie, your research sounds like a lot of fun!

Maggie King said...

Thanks, "Anonymous" and Liane. Yes, it was lots of fun!

Amy M. Reade said...

Marie sounds like a keeper! Anyone who can help you with the ins and outs of a culture you're not part of is a huge help!

I can vouch for the success of the research--it's a great book and those scenes seemed authentic to me!

Unknown said...

Lovely post, Maggie. I enjoy writing about places I know, but I also like travelling around Google and its Earth (!) when I need to go farther than I can afford to. And having friends there to cross reference is a great help. Your book sounds interesting xx

Maggie King said...

Thank you, Amy and Mollie. You are very kind. And yes, Marie was a huge help. She also has lots of great stories that I have in my idea file.