I Swear, Honey, It’s Research
When I decided to try my hand at publishing a book, one of the most important things I had to learn was how to research. I know. Anybody who’s ever done a term paper on Algeria had to figure out how to use a library. Not so much. After all, I’m a nurse. Nurses don’t use libraries to research. We play with things (try learning how to give a shot via a book. It’s more fun injecting vodka into oranges. And much more delicious).
My first books, I admit, stayed pretty close to home. There were a lot of nurse heroines, and they lived mostly in St. Louis. But I knew I could ride that gravy train only so long. I had to figure out how to overcome my deficit.
My first revelation came when I realized that instead of reading books (did I also mention that I have ADD? I have the largest collection of forensic research books south of the medical examiner’s office, and I haven’t made it past the first chapter in any of them), I could talk to people. People love to tell you about a)what they do or b)what their passion is. So I sat with everybody from cops to Olympic Athletes to fertility specialists and learned not only their secrets, but their lingo. Their routines. Their problems and their habits.
Great. But I couldn’t set every book in St. Louis. Which brings me to my second revelation. If I went to Hawaii, I could set a book there.
I know. You’re rolling your eyes and saying, “What a flimsy excuse.” But no. It’s not just that. All right. I admit it. If I have an addiction, it’s travel. I love discovering new places and people and foods. I yearn to wade in oceans and hike mountains and sit at streetside cafes sipping wine. And like any author, I feel compelled to share what I’ve seen and heard and tasted and smelled. But it’s more than. It’s about giving veracity to the story.
To give you an example, my friend Elizabeth Grayson wrote a historical called Colors of the Sun that involved wet plate photography. Her descriptions still stay in my mind. Her research was (and always is) breathtaking, so detailed that you could see and hear everything. But she did all her research via phone and email. When we finally got to visit the studio of the man who had helped her, two things immediately struck me. One, that because of her book, I felt as if I’d already walked through that studio and watched the photographer develop his photos. Two, except for one thing. The minute we stepped into the room, we turned to each other and cried, “The smell!”
Because the photographer had never thought to mention it, Karyn didn’t realize that the studio reeked of the chemicals used to develop his pictures. The cloying sweetness of collodion, the astringent bite of cyanide, and, most amazing, the soft whisper of lavender, which was used to set the photo. The smell was so pervasive that it was an integral part of the character of the room.
Because of that, when I did my first suspense, I asked a homicide friend of mine to take me to his office downtown. “Why?” he asked. “I can tell you what’s there.”
“I need to smell it,” I said.
When he came back with predictable, “Huh?” I asked. “What does homicide smell like?”
He paused and shrugged. “Homicide.”
For the record, back then the St. Louis Homicide Unit smelled of coffee, cigarettes, floor wax and bad air freshener, with an underlying hint of popcorn (the preferred meal for those who keep missing lunch breaks–take it from a trauma nurse). Suddenly the place was alive for me.
I got to do the same thing for my new series of historical romances. No, I didn’t get to Waterloo, where BARELY A LADY begins, which I will always regret. But I was able to go to England. I was able to walk every street in Mayfair and St. James, peeking in the windows of Berry Brothers and the Burlington Arcade. I drove the Cotswolds, not only recording the gentle, sweeping hills and valleys, the lush rivers, thick whitethorn hedgerows and neon yellow fields of rapeseed, but the scent of farmyards and fresh grass, woodsmoke and bluebells (who knew they smelled like hyacinth? (Read an excerpt of Barely a Lady here: http://www.eileendreyer.com/BarelyALady.shtml )
I sat in the Old Bell Inn in Malmesbury and listened to the locals discuss town politics, and spent two nights in theFrampton Court Estate, a Grade I historic home where my characters might have spent a country weekend, and I interrogated everyone I met about the architecture and furniture and traditions, the people who lived there and the lives they led. I really did smell the beeswax on the gleaming wood banister and see dust motes float in the shaft of sunlight that poured through the fanlight over the doorway. And it will all end up in my series.
Now, everybody doesn’t research like this. Jeffrey Deavers has said that he only researches on the internet. Other authors I know, like my friend Karyn, can play libraries and the internet like a Steinway. But I just can’t get the marrow out of those bones. So I walk the streets of Mayfair. And, for the next book of my Drake’s Rakes series, Calcutta. I can’t wait to share those sights and smells and sounds.
What works best for you?
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