Thursday, October 1, 2015

To Research; or not to research: a guest blog by Archer Mayor

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Archer Mayor is the mystery writer's mystery writer. How do I know this? Because he is, without a doubt, my mystery writer. When I was an uninformed scribbler trying to figure out how to turn my bad science fiction novel into a good mystery, I picked up a copy of FRUITS OF THE POISONOUS TREE and fell in love: with tough, honorable Joe Gunther, with the story's deep rootedness in the beauty and harshness of Vermont, with the walking wounded - victims, criminals and investigators - that populate Archer Mayor's books. It was the fifth in the series that has now reached twenty-six books with the just-released THE COMPANY SHE KEPT.

I can honestly say that if you like my work, it's because I paid attention to the lessons Archer was teaching me.

One of the things Archer is well known for - to the point of, I will admit it, a little gentle teasing from his fellow crime fiction writers - is his passion for research. In his home county, he has worked as a cop, a detective,  a death investigator, a firefighter and an EMT. Presumably, the only reason he doesn't hold the top office in town is that he's already the Mayor of Newfane.

But who can rib him about his devotion to authenticity when it yields such delightful results?

Many thanks for inviting me to chat.
As homework, I rambled around on the Jungle Red website, and I was caught by some references to research, accuracy, and how writers are naturally predisposed to “getting it right.”  My brain was instantly filled with examples both supporting this view, and flying in the face of it—without necessarily benefiting or suffering because of it.
 I believe it was John Gardner who introduced the notion that a writer’s job is to create a fictional dream space for the reader (it may not have been him, but it sure wasn’t me, lovely as that image may be). The notion struck such a clarifying chord with me—especially as a reader—because I had previously been baffled by why certain stories had suddenly lost their appeal in mid-read.
I realized that I had been enjoying a book (or a TV show or movie, for that matter) only to have my “fictional daydream” interrupted by either a leap of logic or a flat-out error. (Of course, there’s also always lousy acting or writing, but that’s another subject.)

I have to admit that I share recent blogger Maia Chance’s obsession with research—crawling through hoarders’ homes, exploring the innards of a 1920’s earthen dam, attending autopsies, visiting high-tech labs or horse-breeding farms—all to sometimes find that when that scene looms up on my writing horizon, I veer away from it and never use it.

I have been known to crawl through dark tunnels 70 feet underneath the Harriman Reservoir, to fully understand the experience for my “bad guy.” When writing about Northampton, MA (for Paradise City) I visited the former bunker (now Amherst library) hidden in the hills, very obscurely, and spent time downtown watching a woman painted silver stand frozen as a statue. In Philadelphia (Proof Positive) we scoured scary neighborhoods, (pretending to be tourists), ate cheese steaks and TastyKakes and even went to see the Rocky statue. 

I do enjoy the pure pleasures of the task, of course. I fondly recall inching along a 4-foot diameter tunnel under Brattleboro’s Main Street to share the experience of a homeless character in The Ragman’s Memory, or flying over Northampton to get a feel for the town, as an ominous, lightning-charged thundercloud chased us back to the airfield. And there was that trip along some of Newark’s worst streets for St. Albans Fire, taking photos for documentation, and being told by my fellow cop guide to keep moving, so we wouldn’t get shot… Ah! The joys.) 
That having been said, though, is there in fact a point to all this digging around? There obviously is for me—I want to “get it right” (and have fun in the process) but do readers actually care? Years ago, I was chatting with a well-known author at a Bouchercon, and he blithely commented that he never researched anything and had the sales record to prove that his readers didn’t care.

I was appalled (and remain so) but was he perhaps right?

Certainly some popular crime shows on TV seem to share his attitude, and thrive (while at the same time driving me from the room—it turns out that my many years as a cop and a medico-legal death investigator have hardened me against too much creative license. I am known to rant at the screen.) 
Now, of course I realize that there are realist/absurdists out there—“He can’t have used that gun. It didn’t have that kind of trigger until July, 1952, and this is supposed to be taking place that winter!” But if you are purporting to be writing about a real time and place, how rigorously should you toe the accuracy line?

And how much suspension of disbelief should you impose on your readers? Your thoughts?

During the height of a harsh Vermont winter, the body of a woman is found hanging from the steel-mesh retaining net lining the cliffs along the interstate. She was brutally murdered, with the word "dyke" carved into her chest. She was also a state senator and best friend and ally of the current governor, Gail Zigman. At Zigman's personal request, Joe Gunther and his Vermont Bureau of Investigation team agree to help the Vermont State Police in their investigation before the victim's high profile and powerful friends create the inevitable publicity maelstrom. 

Raffner was indeed a lesbian, and the word carved into her chest might be evidence of a hate crime, or it might be a feint designed to confuse and mislead investigators. But the question remains-what was she involved with, who wanted her dead, and what company was she keeping? What Gunther and his team discover during their initial investigation isn't the stuff of a simple murder. Someone killed a prominent figure and fabricated an elaborate scene for a purpose. 

And this might only be the Archer Mayor's The Company She Kept.

You can learn more about Archer Mayor and read excerpts from his books at his website. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter as @ArcherMayor. and see interviews and book promos on his YouTube channel.


  1. While I could never picture myself crawling through tunnels or being courageous enough to brave some of those streets in Newark, I find I have a great deal of admiration for those who would, all in the name of "getting it right."
    Creative license definitely has its place in storytelling and while I'm good with a reasonable amount of suspension of disbelief, I truly appreciate the accuracy that makes the story feel . . . perfect.

    "The Company She Kept" kept me on the edge of my seat and, like every other Joe Gunther tale, I loved it.

  2. I don't claim to be a super-sleuth, but I've definitely read some books in which the author did no research. I call this the "I'll write a book set in Maine" approach. All of the details are cliched, and I generally toss it aside after a few pages. That reader's dream state is a marvelous feeling--and for me, at least, entering into it requires some effort on the part of the author to make it feel real. A sense of authenticity, a sense of detail--that slippery level of getting enough there to invoke the willing suspension of disbelief, but no become a travelogue or lecture.

    And Joe Gunther and I need to spend some more time together. ;-)

  3. Archer, it's such an honor to have you visiting today!

    Joan, I'm with you--no way am I crawling in a tunnel to make things more clear for readers! But I do think going to a place yields a much more believable story than what any Google app can do. I have read several books set in Key West that truly could have been set anywhere. There was nothing in the writer's description that anchored me in that particular place--a loss for the reader, definitely!

  4. I research small details (bus routes, food ingredients, names of architectural features) but I have lived or visited all the places I write about. I'm very fond of back alleys behind restaurants. So many places to stash a body.

  5. Some of the comments above stimulated a memory in me, of reading a book by Robert Parker — admittedly many, many years ago — in which he had Spenser visiting Hollywood (or LA — I'm a little vague, there.) In any case, it became so transparently clear that Parker had written a long scene of his hero jogging up and down the local streets, with only a map on his lap... including one where the traffic was running in the wrong direction.

    In part, I find this okay. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, sometimes — for whatever reason. But apart from the geographical error, there was also no mention of the sights and smells, of the types of people wandering those same streets, or of anything else "real." It was a pity, and I won't deny that it ruined the book for me.

    As for the tunnels, by the way, not all of them are creepy. The one under Main Street in Brattleboro — while sometimes the home of a few homeless folks in mid-winter (who like it for the consistent temperature — is an inordinately peaceful, quiet, and meditative spot.

  6. Since I write police-procedural, research is important to me. Yes, call an actual cop and find out how it would really work. I've attended a citizen's police academy and other classes to help with this, gone on a ride-along, etc. But one of my favorite lines about this comes from Lee Lofland, "We are creating believable make-believe." Sometimes, to keep the story interesting, you have to crib on the details. But you can't write something so unbelievable that it breaks that dream state.

    I have the same issues now with a lot of TV shows, to the point that my daughter won't watch them with me.

    I take field trips to my story setting, Fayette County, at least twice a year just to remind myself of the sensory details. And it's just a really pretty area, so I don't field these trips all that difficult to endure. =)

  7. Hey, Archer - when you do your research it shows... witness the Joe Gunther series. I'm never pulled out of your story by something that doesn't ring true, but it's that character that keeps me coming back.

    For me, research doesn't just make the story feel right, it often sends the story in directions I'd never have imagined.

  8. Speaking of tunnels, when I lived in NY I was fascinated by an abandoned subway station that you could see from Riverside Park. And now I'm wondering if I dreamed it.

  9. Love doing research, and not only do I put in the legwork, but I also ask people — a London Blitz survivor, a historian, a retired police officer, a doctor — to read over my work to make sure everything's "real." Reaching out to different experts has been amazing and has led to unexpected friendships!

  10. What wonderful commentary, and thank you for your kind words. It is true, of course, that research can also be overdone. I've sometimes found it so heavy-handed as to be exclusionary (perhaps the writer having so much fun that she or he had a tough time letting go?) Hallie said it well when referring to the importance of character, where the "research" has more to do with the common ground between reader and writer, than about the character's profession or work habits. I've always tried to leave room for the reader's imagination in my stories in that department, so that they can become sort of co-storytellers, punctuating their reading with asides like, "I know exactly what that's like," or "Jeezum, do I ever know how that feels!" (Okay, okay… maybe not "Jeezum.")

  11. SUCH a fan, as you well know, Archer!

    And exactly-- I wonder if "research" doesn't only mean "go to the place and make it's just like that on the page" but also "as an author, now i know how this feels."

    And I get very annoyed with the "oh, I just make that up" claim. They do not. :-)

  12. I guess it depends somewhat on the reader and how much dissonance they can take.
    It's a fine line between accuracy and information overload. Too little of the former or too much of the latter can pull me right out of the story.
    I challenge my husband after we have watched a movie. As I get ready for bed the various parts that I let go by while watching suddenly jump up for my attention. Many mornings he is greeted by notes from me with "What about..."

  13. Yep, yep. I totally get it, Libby. It feels like a thousand years ago, now, but I recall reading something by John D. McDonald about either tort law or real estate (can't remember) and feeling that I'd just been mugged by someone who did in fact want me to see them sweat. One of the techniques I use — especially in these days when publishers are so swamped and both underfunded and understaffed — is to have a battery of trusted reader/editors available, who will inform me about "voice." Am I jamming in too much? Have I left enough creative space for the reader's imagination?

    Perhaps one of the ingredients that should be mentioned in this context is enthusiasm. I, for one, generally try to aim myself at topics about which I'm both ignorant but also genuinely curious. The hope is that I'll be able to pass along some of the pure fun I've had in finding this "stuff" out.

  14. Something just occurred to me: How many of you have done a ton of research into some topic, only to discover that the results didn't lead you where you wanted? Or you just got so wrapped up that you were reluctant to break away and return to writing?

    When I was circling BORDERLINES, the second Joe Gunther entry, one primary plot device was cult-like communities. I interviewed PhDs, visited sites, spoke to experts of all stripes, and — since "my" cult, while not religiously motived, shared many of the same tenets — religion scholars & psychologists. By the end of countless months and pages and pages of notes, I realized that I was closing in on my deadline and still hadn't begun writing. Good lesson learned.

    Any similar misadventures out there?

  15. I generally trust the author to have some knowledge of what he/she is writing about.I'm not particular about how the knowledge is acquired. I've started books set in locales I'm familiar with only to throw them down in disgust when it becomes obvious the author hasn't a clue. It is such a joy to read a mystery and not only read a good story but learn new things about places, people, history, whatever.

  16. Love, love, love your books. Vermont is such a special place, and you render it brilliantly.

  17. I've had a book where, as Archer describes, I did a lot of research that DIDN'T lead me where I thought it would. In OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, the action goes back to the 1920s, and the mystery involves a family coming down with diphtheria. It turned out the medical issues, as treated in the 1920s, were different than I had planned. Also, the plot involved a "drowned town" created by a dam, and I thought that would fall out in a different way.

    At the end of a LOT of researching, I wound up with what I modestly think of as a nifty plot, where every aspect works together nicely. I had to spend a lot of time at the Saratoga County Historical Society to get there, though.

  18. That's awfully nice to hear, Susan — and Hank and Lucy and Joan and everyone. I cannot deny that I love writing about this place. When I moved here, 35 years ago, I was already a professional writer (or at least kidding myself that such would be so after I'd spent all my savings and got hired to write something,) and thus I could have really chosen anywhere to live. Unemployment is unemployment, right? But there was never a doubt that home would be Vermont. I had family members in New Hampshire, but there was something about the Green Mountain State that just felt good. And I've never rued that gut reaction. The state has rewarded me forever after with good stories, a great setting, as close to peace of mind as I'll ever get, and — at last — a true sense of belonging. I had lived in 30 different places before then, all over the so-called Western World. I've now lived in the same house for 33 years.

    In exchange for that cultural embrace (so much for chilly northern standoffishness!) I dedicated myself, through the Gunther series, to pay homage to a people and the place they inhabit, giving my best effort to not just telling tall tales, but to representing what these Vermonters had done for me. As a result, the subject of "research" instinctively went beyond just getting the mechanics right; it included portraying the people around me with all their quirks and foibles and sometimes unbelievable contradictions. It's been a joy, in a nutshell, and I am delighted that it's hit home for you, too.

  19. It is interesting, Julia, how the writing of a book can feel so differently from the way others receive it later. When I'm asked, "What's your favorite?" I tend to respond nowadays, "The one in my head, 'cause I haven't screwed it up by writing it yet." We writers know everything about what was pondered, deleted, questioned, and suffered through during a book's creation. And if we did our job properly, none of that should show through in the end. It does make for a quizzical relationship with these wayward children, though. A lot of people compliment me on BORDERLINES, but I will forever remember the complications of writing it.

  20. Sorry I'm late to the party! What in interesting post, Archer. I do research, and like to have at least set foot in the parts of the UK I write about. I have occasionally made a bit up, but very seldom and if so, I try to get in the sensory details I know would be there. I've fallen in love with so many places over the years because writers have brought them to life for me--I certainly want to do the same.

    I'm trying to remember if I've written a book that turned out the way I thought it would. It's funny but afterwards I remember the research much better than I remember all the agony of the twists and turns of the plot:-)

    How can I be so remiss as to have not read your books?? I will remedy that, and of course any books that Julia loves are bound to be terrific.

  21. Ah! Deborah, you really hit a note with that comment about remembering the research better than the plot. I'm sure that you, too, have been all but flummoxed when an interviewer brightly asks, "So — what's your new book about?" and you can barely recall a single detail!

  22. Deborah, I read your book which featured a dead sculler, and being a rower for 20+ years, you nailed it. Details, technical aspects, the intensity of the personality, all spot on. VERY impressive. (Actually, I have read ALL your books and love them. Terrific characters and great details about location.... makes me know I am there.)