Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Accidental Expert

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?


  1. Although fiction is often about willing suspension of disbelief, the meticulous research you describe is, I think, part of the reason that the Jungle Red Writers’ books appeal to so many readers. That careful attention to even the smallest detail can make all the difference to a story . . . .

  2. For the monstrous multigenerational novel I've been writing for more than a quarter of a century, I have a stack of 1972 women's magazines (want to know what people were wearing? What they were cooking? There's your resource) and I actually sat in the rare books room at the UCLA library and read through all of the camp newspapers for two of the WWII civilian American relocation camps (internment camps were actually different from relocation camps, but people don't realize that).

    I also attended almost all of the hearings of the Committee on Wartime Relocation of Civilians (did you know that in addition to Japanese Americans, Aleuts were also relocated?) For those hearings I couldn't attend, I read the transcripts.

    I also attended Christmas Eve services at an Episcopal church.

    It all connects-- or will, if I ever get to finish the book. In the meantime, my head is full of a wealth of information that is probably useful only to me.

  3. I use women's magazines too, Ellen. And I have a 1900 Sears catalog. They give a good feel for what life coat and what was important.

  4. Oh, the things I've learned! One of the most unexpected, and the most satisfying parts of a writer's job.'

    The tea industry and the history of tea shipping, and the history of the London docks; Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brook in Edwardian Cambridge; Sylvia Plath in 1960s Cambridge; Notting Hill in the 60s and the racial unrest there; the antiques trade; German Jewish evacuees in London during WWII; art auction houses; the making and history of Scotch whisky in the Scottish Highlands; the English waterways and the history of narrowboats; rock guitar and the London music scene, canine search and rescue... But the most surprising of all was competitive rowing. I stayed at Leander Club (the most famous and elite rowing club in the world.) I interviewed rowers and coaches. I read every book ever written (I think!) about rowing. I learned how the boats are built. And I went out in a double scull with a two-time Olympic Gold medalist.

    That was an unforgettable experience.

  5. Rhys, one of the many reasons I love your books so much!

    I've also walked in the steps of my characters in various cities. I also have established long-term friendships with various WWII historians, medical doctors, police officers (U.S., British and Scottish), as well as a number of Blitz survivors and their families.

    It's not just an education, but a brand-new way of looking at the world, with all of its layers of history...

  6. Ellen, what you describe is amazing! hope you get that book finished so we can read it.

    Rhys, you're so smart to set a book in Paris. I'm trying to figure out how I can do that...

    And Debs, you remind me of the Citizens Police Academy that I took last year in Key West. Learned so much and had so much fun! Next week I start the Key West ambassador program, which is all about how the city is run--and politics too I think. Lots of plot twists and telling details, I hope...

    and thank you Joan--you're such a good supporter of JRW!

  7. I have such great respect for all of the Reds and the research you put into your books. I am forever learning more about places and times from reading your stories. They spur me on to check out even more, both in reading and in life. Although I'm still catching up on reading through all of your books (there are so many after all), I am up to speed on some. Such smart women, such smart books.

    Due to Julia's series set in the Adirondacks, after Bouchercon last September and on our way to Niagara Falls, my friend and I took a detour trip through some of the Adirondacks, eating lunch on Lake Sacandaga. Julia's descriptions of the harsh winters really rang out as we drove on some rather isolated roads.

    I have earmarked places in and around London that I want to visit due to Deb's fascinating historical background concerning them. Each new book of Deb's adds to the richness of London in its disparate sections and their evolution. Crystal Palace, Brick Lane, Portobello Lane, and more. Then, learning about the whiskey industry and its history in Scotland was so thrilling for me. Oh, and who can forget all that I learned about Glastonbury. I so want to go to the festival there now.

    I sit back and feel the love I have for all things Key West in Lucy's descriptions of the streets and places in this paradise. Haley Snow introduces some lovely foods, too.

    Rhys' Molly Murphy series, which I am in the middle of, is providing much education about the early 1900's in New York City, especially about being a woman in that time and place, and information about the NYC police department then. The women's sewing factories were so appallingly awful.

    Hallie, the link to the B-25 bomber crashing into the Empire State Building in 1945 and the survivor of the elevator fall in There Was an Old Woman had me mesmerized with interest. The New York history intertwined into this novel was so satisfying.

    Hank is certainly bringing Boston alive for me in her Jane Ryland series. There seem to be quite a few bridges in this city. I have #2 ready to read and learn more this month.

    I love doing research, so I really appreciate the time and effort authors put into it. I think it must be one of the most delightful parts of being an author.

    On a much lesser important line of expertise, I had to laugh at my experience in the grocery store yesterday. I was buying some green peppers, and a woman was looking at the display of the various peppers. She asked me if I knew much about peppers, and I answered that I had eaten them all. She needed a red pepper, but didn't want to buy the package of three different kinds with a red in it, and there weren't any individual reds available. She wanted to know which I'd buy to substitute. I told her not the green, that the yellow or orange would be better in comparison to the red taste. We finally settled on the yellow, and she thanked me for my expertise. I had to laugh, as I had never considered myself a pepper expert. Who knew? LOL!

    (Me thinks I have too much time on my hands this morning.)

  8. Books have opened up the world to me. And I especially appreciate authors who can blend in culture, geography, and history with great stories and interesting characters!
    Thank you, writers, for doing the research!
    I have had a project involving saints which led me into many intricate pathways of mythology, history, and church politics.

  9. Since I'm not a writer, I haven't used that as an excuse to research something. However, books I do read often spark an interest or are based on an interest I already have. I've learned about things from books (and then researched more on my own) as a result of things I've read. Mrs. Pollifax springs easily to mind. Another is my interest in Edward and Mrs. Simpson as sparked by a certain Jungle Red's series about a minor royal.

  10. I spent four years first finding, then surveying, interviewing and then writing about sewing businesses in six different countries. I've written three books on this topic, possibly more than anyone else has, many articles, and then teaching classes all over the US for more than 15 years.

    And that all began accidentally. So I understand how one can become an expert on something unusual.

    Isn't it fun?

  11. Rhys: you are so right about experts willing to help with research and specialized knowledge. For The Christmas Carol Murders, I used a collector of Dickens Village items and an organist. For The Edwin Drood Murders I corresponded with several Dickens scholars about the way Dickens wrote his last uncompleted novel. And for next year's Our Mutual Friend Murders I had a former French Laundry chef build a fancy dinner menu and consulted with a taxidermist. Every one of these people was gracious and excited to help. I've definitely made new friends this way (and found new readers as well).

  12. I love that part about writing and love learning new things. I also started following the blogs of a couple historians, which is a catch .22 since I get as many plot bunnies as I do tidbits for books. :)