Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cindy Brown Has Fun with Research

RHYS: One of the things I always look forward to in the summer is being on the faculty at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. This is the one place where the craft of mystery writing is really taught intensely and well by top level faculty. It has produced a whole bevy of published writers--among them Cara Black, Sheldon Siegel, Susan Shea.  And now Cindy Brown. I mentored Cindy at the conference and saw great promise in the story that is now about to become her first published book.
I told her when she was about to be published she should be our guest on Jungle Red Writers, and I'm delighted to welcome her today.  You'll love her quirky humor.  So Cindy, it's all yours:


 Learned how to build a letter bomb.
 Conducted an experiment to see if Diet Coke would dissolve a nail (nope).
 Cajoled my husband into posing as a dead body so I could see how a corpse

In the name of research, I have:
 Attended an Alcoholic Anonymous Back-to-Basics meeting.
 Hung out at my auto mechanic’s shop, spit-balling ideas about car fires.
 Gone on a ride-along with a member of the Sun City West Posse (yep, posses
still exist, at least in Arizona, though they now use cars instead of horses).

As you may able to tell, I LOVE research. And being a mystery writer gives me a
certain liberty. A few months ago, I was standing in line at a store behind a man who
wore an athletic shirt with a pocket on the back (it’s designed so cyclists don’t have
to sit on their wallets). I asked him if he’d ever lost anything out of it. He hadn’t. I got
to my real question: did he think someone could pick that pocket more easily than a
traditional pocket? “Why don’t you try?” he said, putting his wallet in the pocket. He
learned that he might not want to wear that shirt in a crowd, and I learned that I
possess a certain skill that could be useful if I decide to become a criminal.

One of the things I really love about research is the fascinating stuff I run across
during the process. For instance, I wanted one of my characters to buy something in
Costco that could be used in a crime. But what? In researching the idea, I not only
learned about dangerous office products (stay away from paper shredders and
staple removers), but also that Costco sells home monitoring kits, caskets and
I love to look up words and phrases, too. I now know “forty Yiddish words everyone
should know.” I have an online map of the U.S. that tells me where people say “soda”
and where they say “pop.” And I now know that if you are researching current
teenage slang and decide to look up “sex” in the Urban Dictionary, you will get this
message: “What kind of moron are you that you look up sex in the urban
dictionary?” Yes, it really says that.

And though I’m really looking for details to include in my books, I find that my
research often proves to be practically useful. I’ve learned that powdered lemonade
cleans toilet bowls, that Doritos are good fire starters, and that a wooden spoon
placed on top of a pot of boiling water will keep the liquid from boiling over. I’ve
also learned how to make a duct tape bra (I haven’t tried it, as I think I’m a little old
for strapless bras, and besides, it sounds really uncomfortable).

Truth be told, I’m even treating this guest post (thank you Rhys!) as a bit of research,
because I’d love to know what wacky things you have learned while writing. And to
sweeten the pot, I’ll give away a signed copy of Macdeath to one lucky commenter!


Macdeath, a madcap mystery set in the off, off, off Broadway word of theater, was
just released by Henery Press on January 20th. The lovely Rhys Bowen calls it “ a
delicious romp with plenty of humor and suspense.”

Cindy Brown has been a theater geek (musician, actor, director, producer, and
playwright) since her first professional gig at age 14. Now a full-time writer, she’s
lucky enough to have garnered several awards (including 3rd place in the 2013
international Words With Jam First Page Competition, judged by Sue Grafton!) and is
an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. Though Cindy and her husband
now live in Portland, Oregon, she made her home in Phoenix, Arizona, for more than
25 years and knows all the good places to hide dead bodies in both cities.

RHYS: So thank you, Cindy. I'm dying to hear what kind of insane things others have done in the name of research. I've wrestled on the floor, found where to push someone out of a train, thus terrifying everyone else in the carriage and suffered for my art by having to spend time in Nice and Paris!


  1. I couldn'the possibly top your adventures, Cindy! It certainly sounds as if you had a great deal of fun doing your research . . . .
    Congratulations on having your book published . . . I'm definitely adding Macdeath to my teetering to-be-read pile.

  2. I'm thinking I need to take up writing just for the cool research. You adventures sound like way too much fun.

    As does your book. Definitely adding it to my TBR mountain range.

  3. I'm a reader but that rresearch sounds like something I may take up because you make it sound like so much fun!

  4. My Boy Scout son tells me that Fritos corn chips are also excellent fire starters.

    My own research has me convinced that I'm on some kind of watch list (how to build a pipe bomb, effects of aconite poisoning). But I don't have anything to top your experiences.

  5. Fun essay, Cindy! And congratulations on the book! I'll be on the faculty at 2015's Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference (7/23-7/26 and I'm looking forward to it! I can't tell you how many terrific, up and coming writers I've met there who've gone on to be well published.

    A few things I've done in the name of research:
    Visited a brain bank (were they keep real brains)
    Gotten into an MRI scanner
    Made myself an AVATAR in Second Life.
    Gone up into the attic at the New York Historical Society.
    Sat in a squad car and visited my local jail, of course.
    Fired all kinds of guns.

  6. Too fun, Cindy. Don't you think authors are so interesting because of their innate curiosity? They learn all kinds of cool things.

    My own research: In the early 90's I interviewed 130 sewing entrepreneurs in four different countries for a book I was writing. Their businesses ranged all over the place, from clown costumes to stage curtains to covers for industrial machines. It was fascinating, and I was able to identify 70 different sewing specialties. Later on I found more, including one woman who said she "replaced leather butts", the seats of a certain kind of riding apparel worn by working cowhands.

    Other stuff I've learned: setting up an efficient workroom; pricing various types of services; the differences between incandescent, fluorescent and LED lighting; latest trends in garden design; and latest trends in kitchen and bath design.

  7. Good morning all!
    Glad to hear that Fritos work as fire starters( I bet they might actually work a bit better- don't they seem a bit oilier?) & that "leather butt replacer" is a job (just in case this mysterywriter thing doesn't work out).

    And now I want to visit a brain bank! Hallie, I have this Frankenstein-type vision of the brains floating in water tanks, but what's it really like?

  8. I also want to give a shout-out to the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, where I met Rhys. Great mystery-specific info from writers and experts, wonderfully generous mentors, and an enormous amount of fun! I HIGHLY recommend it!

  9. Doritos are good fire starters? HOw? Fritos? WHY?

    And I didn't call it research, It was just --my job. Been in a SWAT team hostage situation, been tear gassed (sort of) been at fires and murder scenes, in hurricanes and in prisons, ridden with cops and firefighters and EMTs, in helicopters and hot air balloons. In a nuclear reactor, and the airport control tower (and behind the scenes at baggage claim--scary!), and the cockpit of a 747.

    I'e also tried to get two bugs to fight, but that's another blog.

    ANd welcome, Cindy! I still want to know about the Doritos..

  10. Hank, it's the oil in the chips. So oily they are combustible. And the oil burns hot, therefore, good fire starters.

  11. Gosh, I'd hate to waste good Doritos starting a fire. In the olden days scouts would use kotex pads tied on a stick as torches. Not really research though. I did get turned away from a courthouse once; I wanted to see where wacko John Brown stood trial; I thought it would be a historic site. Nope. Still a working courtroom. But the guard was nice about it. Cindy, your book sounds great.

  12. Hank, they really do work! They take awhile to get started, but burn for a long time. And as to the why, if you're ever grilling or camping or starting a fire in a really damp environment (yes, I love Oregon, but...),it can take a long time to get a fire lit. Plus, with Doritos, none of that lighter fluid smell or taste!

  13. Torches made from Kotex pads on sticks- brilliant, Pat! Wonder how I can work that into my next book...

  14. Okay Hank--we'll all shut up because we can't hope to top your research. You have done the sort of things most of wonder if could do when called upon.
    But having tea at the Ritz in the name of research is more fun!

  15. I am tickled and impressed by you all! And, I have to admit, a bit jealous.
    Guess I'll just have to make a cup of tea and go read a good (well researched) book!
    I have been looking forward to Macdeath. It sounds great.

  16. Congrats on your book from another research addict!

  17. Thanks, all for your kind words!
    And BTW, just noticed a bit of my essay was cut off - I had my lovely & long-suffering husband pose as a corpse behind a door, so I could see if I could shove open the door with him behind it.It takes a lot of effort!

  18. I always wondered about that corpse behind the door thing. Good to know.

    Other good firestarters: dryer lint, pinecones, real wine corks--champagne corks are the best, paper egg cartons torn in half (ideally, with either a pinecone, a cork, or some dry lint inserted into each half). Pinecones and corks, especially champagne ones because they are compressed, burn a long time.

  19. Corks! Who knew? And BTW, the lemonade toilet cleaner really works, too. Just use a powdered one that has citric acid in the ingredients.

    And though I try out the practical ideas, I do love the mystery-related research that I just use in books. Last week at Sisters in Crime, I saw a slide of a decomposing corpse whose arm was green. Not a little greenish, but bright Kelly green. Love learning those little details.

  20. One time when I worked as an EMT we responded to a call where someone was unconscious in the bathroom, blocking the door. We removed the pins from the hinges and took off the door altogether.

    And in the interest of further information, folks can have occurrences of fainting/cardiac arrest from a drop in pulse rate that occurs from "bearing down". Hence why folks are found on the bathroom floor. Probably more than even y'all wanted to know.

  21. Karen, I think that's what killed Elvis. My daughter the nurse told me this.

  22. I am going to be really careful in the bathroom from now on...

  23. Haven't done that kind of research, but I did sit in on almost all of the hearings of the Congressional Committee on the Wartime Relocation of Civilians (that's the Japanese American deportation to the interior camps to those not in the know). And read a whole bunch of camp documents in the rare books room at the UCLA library.

    And for a science fiction book set on a water world, I read through a four-foot stack of books on oceans, fish, seaweed and sea mammals.

    So there you are at a cocktail party, and someone asserts something TOTALLY incorrect-- do you mention that due to your research, you know they're wrong? Or do you just excuse yourself to go over to the food table?

  24. Depends, Ellen. How bad a day you had, how much you've had to drink, how much you like/dislike the person/your host.

    So many story choices, so little time. :-)

  25. Hmmm...Ellen, the cocktail party question is a toughie, but I recently watched a young friend of mine come up with a gracious solution. She said to the ill-informed person, "Wow, I didn't know that!" looked it up on her smart phone to show her interest, then said, "Oh, you know, it's actually XXX." Worked beautifully.

  26. YOu all are SO valuable! LOVE the fire starting stuff.

    ANd I am picturing the corpse behind the door. Does a corpse weigh more or less than a live person, just wondering? (And only here could one ask that, right?)

  27. Hmmm. I wouldn't think a corpse would weigh more, but there could be some fluid build-up...

  28. Brains: think cauliflowers. Prosaically ahipped in Fedex boxes.

  29. Ooh Hallie, that sounds like the basis for a story- a FedEx "brain box" delivered to the wrong address...

    Thanks all, for a fun day, with special thanks to Rhys!

  30. I'm coming in late today, been gone to darling granddaughters again. What fascinating research you all have done! I'm with Mark, thinking I need to take up writing for the research. Actually, I've always enjoyed research, one of those over achievers whose Masters paper was supposed to be 35-40 pages, and I had 80. Just so much to study and write about boys and reading.

    Cindy, your husband is a good sport, posing as a corpse. I like how you speak up and ask people about curiosities, such as the top back pocket on the man's shirt. Since I'm not especially shy, I'm thinking of pretending to be a writer and asking such things. Hehehe!

    Hallie, a brain bank? Not sure I want to see that, but it would be something different for sure. Ellen, great question about correcting someone. I think Karen answered it well.

    Cindy, I'm looking forward to reading Macdeath and wish you much success with it.

  31. This was so much fun to read. Ummm, I think you need the 'real' coke, not the diet. My father-in-law was a mechanic in the very old days and would put the bolt and screw in the coke to loosen it and I believe it dissolved if he left it too long. Just sayin' Blessings, Janet

  32. JKW, I bet you're right about the Diet Coke! I will have to try a new experiment.