Wednesday, August 17, 2022

What We're Writing: Rhys Down the Rabbit Hole

RHYS BOWEN: It’s interesting that Hallie has just written on research and how you discover weird and amazing things. When I wrote Murphy’s Law, (the first of the Molly Murphy books, over twenty years ago now!!! ) Molly is accused of a murder on Ellis Island and at the end of the book steps ashore in Manhattan a free woman. And I realized this was to be a series and that I knew nothing about Manhattan in 1901. I realized I was doomed to research on every single page. 

 This has turned out to be true, but you know what? The research has turned out to be the fun and surprising part of my writing. In the early days I went to New York and walked every street that Molly had walked. Browsed photographs at the New York historical society and amassed a collection of books, menus, timetables etc etc. The one trouble with research is knowing when to stop. I find a fascinating fact that leads to another fascinating fact and before I know it I’m off somewhere quite different and a whole morning gone. 

 When I write the Molly Murphy books (and now Clare writes with me) I always check the NY Times to see what really happened on those dates. If there was an event, a catastrophe, an election at that time, Molly would know about it, react to it. Sometimes what I find becomes an important part of the story: when I was writing THE EDGE OF DREAMS I discovered that there had been a horrific crash of the elevated railroad. A train had been routed onto the wrong track, come around a bend too quickly and plunged into the street below, killing 42 people. So I thought that Molly should mention this. Then I thought…. What if Molly was on that train? And it became an important development in the story. In my book it wasn’t an accident. 



 These days it’s Clare who does all the early research reading and comes across wonderful things. For our upcoming ALL THAT IS HIDDEN she got all the facts on William Randolph Hearst and his run for mayor of New York. Also on the corruption at the docks at that time. Our current book is set in the Catskills, at a fledgling bungalow community. Thanks to Clare I can tell you the railroad and steamship timetables, all the most popular Yiddish songs of the time, The history of the Jews in Poland. So the story is a murder at a small resort in the Catskills. Thus the suspects are all staying in the resort. However… Clare discovered that there was a bluestone mine right there–open pit mining with loud blasts disturbing the tranquility of the mountains. Not good if you want to build a hotel nearby. Also there was a brand new state park next to the mine and a clash between environmentalists and miners when they wanted to transport stone from the quarry to the boats down the Hudson through state park land. So we now have outsiders and more complex motives for murder. 

Here is part of a scene of the protest against the mine, using our serendipitous research:

Almost an hour had passed when we heard two horses cantering back along the road. They rode past the mine carts and drew themselves up in front of our protest. Two men swung down from the saddle. One was dressed in denim pants and a blue denim shirt. The other wore a brown suit and a derby hat. He spoke first.
                “Hello little ladies,” he took off his hat and gave a little bow. He sounded like a Scottsman. “I hear we have a bit of a misunderstanding, so I have come to clear it up. “I’m Ronnie Fitch and this is my foreman, Mitch Doherty.”
                “ And I’m Alice Haskin,” Miss Haskin said stepping forward. “You have illegally felled trees to create this road on state land. We are here to protest your actions.”
                “Now Mrs.,” he said with what he thought was a charming smile. “These matters are best decided by the business men. I suggest you let your husbands handle the political matters. You are all far too lovely to trouble yourselves.”
                “Do you see these chestnut trees that your men felled to make this road?” Miss Haskin continued. “You have cut right through a grove, destroying the infrastructure and spreading the blight. You must know that chestnut trees up and down the east coast are being destroyed by this blight. Do you wish a world with no more chestnut trees? Everywhere your men’s axes cut you will spread it more.”
                Doherty stepped forward. “I think we know a bit more about trees than you, little lady. Who do you think you are anyway, come out of the city with your do-gooding?”
                “I’m a researcher at Department of Agriculture studying plant pathogens,” Miss Haskins said coldly. “And I’m including your illegal behavior in our report to Congress.”
               
               
Whodunit? You’ll have to wait until March to find out. So who has a serendipitous research story? 

 And sharing a tidbit of good news. My new stand alone WHERE THE SKY BEGINS was #7 on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list of ebooks last week!

43 comments:

  1. Oh, my . . . that’s quite a “misunderstanding!” I’m looking forward to finding out just what happens to Ronnie and Mitch . . . and Alice. It’s interesting to see how history plays such an important role in the development of your stories, Rhys.

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  2. Congratulations Rhys on your placement in the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.

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  3. Go Miss Haskins! Great scene, Rhys (and Clare). And congrats on yet another bestseller list.

    It was when I read about Amesbury, MA's Great Fire of 1888 that I got the germ of the idea that ended up to be my Quaker Midwife Mysteries. Each of the books had a research spark. When I read about the notorious Madame Restell, the Abortionist of Fifth Avenue, I knew I had to research contraception and abortion in the nineteenth century - and Charity's Burden won the Agatha for Best Historical Novel.

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    1. Rhys: it was an excellent story, Edith

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  4. Rhys, I just finished reading Where the Sky Begins and it is a wonderful story. Mazel Tov on all honors coming your way!

    The cover of All That is Hidden is fabulous. The consistency and beauty of the Molly Murphy covers really pulls your readers into each one.

    I thoroughly enjoy the topic of rabbit holes every time it comes up on JRW. One would never have known that you hadn't been a New Yorker writing such immersive stories set in Molly's time. My mother's family was from NYC in that era and your depictions ring true. I'm looking forward to a trip to the Catskills with Molly when the book comes out.

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    1. Rhys: thank you so much, Judy! I love it when New Yorkers tell me I get it right

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  5. Congratulations Rhys! I need to pick that one up.

    I love when a character who is being condescended to can give a snappy comeback.

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    1. Rhys: me too! Shades of myself?

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  6. I'm in the middle of WHERE THE SKY BEGINS, loving it, and can only imagine how much research went into making it feel SO real. What's amazing is that you can make the dialogue sound so believable as well (love the repetition of LITTLE LADY in this bit). I do hope Miss Haskin lives to tell the tale.

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  7. Congratulations Rhys on the WSJ Where the Sky Begins, placement. Onward and upward. I enjoyed the story very much. Your teaser is delightful and I am in awe of the research done by you all.

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  8. My apologies, I didn’t add my name - Celia

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  9. In the hands of skilled writers, the past comes alive for us--congrats Rhys and Clare--really looking forward to the next Molly book! And I've known a few of those 'little lady' types. Go get 'em, Alice!

    Congrats also on WHERE THE SKY BEGINS. I read it in one sitting and the oddest thing happened. I had been reading along and paused a moment. The book was so good, I turned to pick up my phone and call my mom. I knew she'd enjoy it as much as I was. My mom's been gone nearly 25 years now--but it felt like she was right there with me in that moment. I'm telling everyone I know--grab this book, you won't regret it!

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    1. Rhys: I got chills reading this. How special was that?

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  10. Ooh. I love that you included the destruction of the chestnut trees. The American Chestnut was a towering tree that filled forests up and down the east coast. Important food for forest creatures (and people), and an important source of wood.

    I'm pleased there are efforts to bring back the American Chestnut -- both here and in Canada. Though I will never see the towering trees in my lifetime.

    Wonderful writing, as always. Love the female Ag researcher!

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    1. I should add - congratulations to Clare on such terrific research!

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    2. Clare: Thank you!

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    3. We have an ancient Chinese Chestnut in our yard, creeping towards the end of its life. The blossoms in the spring are breathtaking. The chestnuts being planted now are American/Chinese hybrids. Researchers found that just a bit of the more blight resistant Chinese variety would strengthen the American strain.

      A life lesson, perhaps?

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    4. Rhys: the Chestnut story was another serendipitous piece of research

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  11. Hank Phillippi RyanAugust 17, 2022 at 8:55 AM

    Hooray, Rhys! You are absolutely a force of nature!
    And it sounds like Alice is, too. Love love love this! And yes, research is the good news and the bad news… It’s daunting, but it’s fabulous.

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  12. I love doing any kind of research and have discovered all sorts of different things. In a book I read recently it was mentioned that Wyatt Earp not only knew John Ford, the director of so many Westerns, but was actually on set as a consultant. That seemed hard to believe so I looked it up and found even more fascinating details. One, that I don't believe is that Earp and John Wayne knew each other and were good friends. Too good a story to be true, although it is highly possible that they at least met.

    Rhys, that is so interesting that you used the almost certain demise of the chestnut trees in your book. The husband of a friend of mine is president of New York State chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. They are working on distributing a blight-resistant mother trees. They also would like to hear from anyone who knows of a wild american chestnut tree growing near them.

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    1. Rhys: I’m so encouraged by the move to bring back chestnuts. Picking chestnuts was a normal thing to do in England

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    2. It is in Galicia, Spain, too. For a while my husband and I had a house in a small village outside Monforte de Lemos, and it was near property with a whole forest of chestnut trees. All the locals would be picking chestnuts in the fall. You'd also see them for sale at all the ferias on market day.

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  13. Personally, I really appreciate well-researched books that include new-to-me details of other lives and times. I so enjoy learning that kind of new detail, and painlessly, in fiction.

    My first book came about because I was fascinated by all the different ways local people were using sewing to have successful businesses, and I was encouraged to write a book about it. Realizing it needed to be about more than my Ohio friends, I created a mailing list by gathering names and addresses in various ways, including online message boards. With the help of a researcher at Ohio State, I created a four-page questionnaire and sent it out to 500 people. Amazingly (unheard of response), nearly half of them came back filled out. I ended up doing 200 hours of telephone interviews with over 100 people in 70 different unique specialties.

    That was 1994, and the book is long out of print, but it was the only one of its kind, and probably will always be!

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    1. The responses, by the way, came from five different countries, including England.

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    2. What an achievement, Karen ! Rhys

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  14. Lucky number 7, Rhys!!! Congratulations! I'm always amazed when a bit of research changes the whole plot of the book. I prefer for this to happen before I start writing but sometimes it's in the middle of the book and...ugh!

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  15. Rhys: and when another piece of research in the middle of the book shows I’ve got the timing wrong? Ugh, as you say

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  16. Get 'im, Miss Haskins! My serendipitous research came from wondering why a family graveyard in upstate NY was so close to a reservoir. Digging in, I discovered the Great Sacandaga Lake was artificial, created in 1930 as a way to manage Albany's water. And that there had been drowned communities and translocated cemeteries as a result... all of which formed the basis for my book OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY.

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  17. It’s good to know that people were trying to protect nature even a hundred years ago.
    Loved the excerpt.

    And Rhys , I loved Where the Sky Begins, I couldn’t put it down
    Danielle

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    1. Rhys: thank you for your review, Danielle!

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  18. Sounds good. And congrats on hitting #7!

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  19. Congrats on the #7, Rhys!! Although I'm not surprised as Where the Sky Begins is so good!!
    I loved today's excerpt and can't wait to read more about Miss Haskins, and to see how Molly is involved.

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  20. Looking forward to the new book, and certainly agree about the fun of the research rabbit hole. In my Brooklyn series, which is contemporary but about how the history lives on, for each book, the story I ended up telling was not the one I thought I was getting ready to write. I found it in the research.Plus there are always those surprising tidbits - ex. an interview with the grandson of one of the leading Brooklyn mobsters, notorious Murder Inc , talked about what a gentleman he was and how he admired Lincoln and Gandhi! (Brooklyn Secrets) You can't make this up. :-)

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    1. Truss, you’re so right. You can’t make up anything more amazing than reality

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  21. I love the Molly series. I got behind lately because we were moving, but I hope to get back into her adventures soon. I really enjoyed this teaser of All that is Hidden. Meanwhile, congratulations on being on the WSJ best seller list.

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  22. I love it when these rabbit hole trips wind up in books. What better way to learn bits of history?

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  23. Congratulations Rhys! I look forward to reading your new Molly novel. My great grandmother was quite a feminist and named Molly. She stood up to her husband (my great grandfather) who was a very religious minister. LOL. She went to the barber with my grandmother and both ladies got the marcelled bob hair that was popular in the 1920s. He told his wife that he could not take her to church anymore. Molly said "I do not care!". She really had spunk!

    Yes, I am finding so much fascinating information during my research like how evil Sigmund Freud was and about Queen Victoria communicating to Princess Alice of Battenberg in Sign Language. Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the Princess of Wales, was another brilliant person. She was deaf and she accomplished so much in her lifetime despite her deafness. She was the first person in the Royal family to use a Brownie camera.

    My cozy mystery novel set in 1920s England is going to be wonderful because of all the fascinating background research.

    Diana

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