RHYS BOWEN: When we start writing we have in our minds a story we'd like to tell. It's about the characters and murder, betrayal, revenge, greed, fear, secrets... but to bring these stories to life, we need to put our characters into a setting and in my case into a time. I've set books in New York, in Nice, in Dublin, London, and this year's books in Paris and Hollywood. Since I don't live in any of the above places, I've had to do my homework and make sure I get everything right. This involves going to the city, walking the streets that my characters walk, eating where my characters might have had a meal and generally seeing the city through the eyes of my characters. I prowled around the Hotel Negresco in Nice--peering into corners and behind doors. I have spent time at Hearst Castle where foul deeds will happen next year.
But then our stories also take place within an environment, a particular level of society, within a trade, a profession. I've set stories within the sweat-shops of the garment industry, at a stately home of a duke, at Coco Chanel's fashion show and the upcoming Molly book will be set in the art world of post-Impressionist Paris. All of these involve a good deal of research. For the sweat shops book I read the Senate depositions after the Triangle fire so that everything that happened to my characters had happened to a real girl. I read every biography of Chanel, books on and by Picasso, Gertrude Stein, the Impressionists. I also look at hundreds of photographs of the time and place.
And along the way we realize we have become something of an expert. This was brought home to me when I watched PBS a few weeks ago and saw programs on Chanel and on Post-Impressionist Paris. I found myself arguing with the screen, pointing out things they had overlooked or hadn't got quite right. "What about Vera?" I demanded. "You haven't mentioned how Coco lured her back to Paris to destroy Churchill."
It's rather satisfying actually, to become knowledgeable in subjects we never expected to study. Another good by-product of being a fiction writer. And it always amazes me how very generous the real experts are. If we approach them and tell them we need certain knowledge for a book they go out of their way to make sure we get everything right. I've thanked policemen in Wales, a forensic pathologist, the New York historical society and many more.
So how about you, Reds? Have you become accidental experts?