Since readers are often curious about how we develop our stories, we thought we’d end the month of January by sharing some of the adventures we’ve had over the years doing research. As you will see, not all of our research involves looking in books. Sometimes we have to leave our desks to spend time with people who have the expertise we need.
Kate Flora: Before I became I writer, I used to think that what writers did was sit at their desks and make things up. Many years of crime writing–writing for a crime-savvy audience–has disabused me of that idea. Now I look forward to those times when I can leave my desk and go out into the world to ask questions. One of my favorite adventures in research was while I was up in Miramichi, New Brunswick, doing research for Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice. One night, the detective I was working with asked me if I wanted to go on a stake-out. Of course I said yes. So he picked me up, and we drove to an industrial park where thieves had been stealing copper pipe. Far across the park, I spotted a white station wagon tucked down below a knoll. “What about that car?” I said. “What is it doing here?” Lo and behold, I’d spotted the thieves. I got to watch the arrest, the moment when the suspect produced a “receipt” from the owner, authorizing him to collect the copper, and even go to visit the supposed writer of the receipt who said it was bogus.
Vaughn C. Hardacker: For my second thriller novel, The Fisherman, I wanted a remote location where a person who wanted to leave society and all its problems behind might live off the grid. A friend lent me a novel written by a retired Maine game warden entitled A Warden’s Worry (the title immediately caught my eye as a warden’s worry is the name of a popular fishing dry fly here in Maine). The novel was about a Korean War veteran who upon return from the war was suffering from PTSD (although he was not aware of it) and wanted to get away. He rides a train and gets off at a place called Howe Brook Village. During the 1950s and early 1960s the north Maine woods was undergoing an infestation by the Spruce Budworm a pest that attacked and killed trees. The logging companies created a town that could be brought into a remote place in the woods on a railroad flatcar. They constructed a small village consisting of a hotel/general store/post office and a number of cabins for the number of cabins for the loggers to live in.
Once they had harvested all of the trees they wanted, the village was taken down, reloaded on the flatcars and moved up the line to the next location. The protagonist lived in one of the cabins and stayed after the site was taken away. I immediately took my copy of the DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and found Howe Brook on the shore of Saint Croix Lake on map 58 at location C-4. I immediately knew I had to go there. I knew immediately that it was going to be an adventure when I realized that the nearest town was Masardis on route 11. Masardis consisted of a bridge over the Aroostook River and a single store (which has since burned down). Not to belabor this, from Masardis we followed unpaved woods roads for forty miles. I was about to give up when I rounded a curve I was surprised to see a street sign that said Main Street (it probably should have read Only Street) beside what was formerly the tracks of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. I turned right onto Main Street, drove across the beaver dam and found myself in the midst of six cabins (one of which was the actual cabin used in both the warden’s novel and mine). I had found my off grid location. It is so far off the grid that the power company does not have electrical lines in there. So if you plan on going to Howe Brook Village, bring your own generator.
Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: This is an adventure from some time ago (almost 15 years, to be exact), but I was reminded of it recently when I saw the following real estate ad: https://www.christiesrealestate.com/sales/detail/170-l-775-f1608200308700004/117-jetty-road-islesboro-me-04848
Back when I was working on Lethal Legend, the fourth book in my Diana Spaulding Mystery Quartet, which is partially set on a fictional island near Islesboro in 1888, my husband and I decided a research trip/mini-vacation was in order. So off we went by ferry to Islesboro to spend a couple of days discovering what life on a real island off the coast of Maine is like. We made reservations to stay at the Dark Harbor House. There actually aren’t many places to stay on the island, and this one was expensive, but it was also built just after the period I was writing about, so I was hoping to get a “feel” for life among the well-to-do at the end of the nineteenth century. Boy, did I. It turned out that the mansion-turned-hotel was about to go back to being a private home and on the second night we were there, we were the only guests. The owners kindly gave me permission to wander freely through the rooms and immerse myself in the ambiance of that bygone age. If you follow the link to the photos in the real estate ad, you’ll see what I mean. Yes, I could have written the novel from photographs alone, but in this instance the experience of doing on-hands research was definitely worthwhile (and fun!)
Susan Vaughan: I’ve written about this adventure—more correctly, misadventure—before, but it certainly fits the title of this group post. When I was writing Ring of Truth, I needed direct information for the backstory, which involves a theft of crown jewels at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. A conference of the Romance Writers of America in D.C. offered an easy opportunity to interview with the manager of security and to see the layout of the room where the fictional theft takes place. I set up an appointment ahead, explaining I was a novelist doing book research. Before my
meeting with the manager of security (I’ll call him Smith here. You’ll see why.), I took time to see the exhibits in the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals on the second floor where the Hope Diamond and other jewels are displayed. Security was visible all around—guards standing at alert, cameras on the ceiling. \ I then made my way to the security headquarters in the basement, down a long hallway. Smith met with me in an outer office, me beside the secretary’s desk, him leaning against a table. A burly guard stood by. I again explained to Smith my purpose, then stated that the burglary in my story took place years previously and I wondered if my scenario was at all possible. As I ran through it, his blank cop face morphed into a hostile mask. He insisted no burglary could happen under his watch and guards could never be involved. He demanded I not write the story as an inside job. It couldn’t happen, he said. All this time the burly guard and the secretary remained riveted on our conversation. Smith leaned back, arms folded, and speculated I might not be who I claimed to be. Perhaps I was using this meeting as a ruse to set up my own crime. I quickly dug out my proof, such as it was. When I handed Smith bookmarks and my driver’s license, the guard and the secretary asked for bookmarks. “For my wife,” said the guard. The boss ignored them—and my proof. He was done. He directed the guard to escort me out of the museum. With adrenaline roaring in my ears, I trudged down the hall, up the stairs, and all the way to the door leading to Constitution Avenue. I may be the only author to be kicked out of the Museum of Natural History.
John Clark-Librarians get plenty of unusual research requests, often from unexpected patrons. One I remember came from two doctors at the old Augusta Mental Health Institute. An older patient had been to a specialist who suggested a Classman’s Level. Both of them were stumped as neither had ever heard of such a test. Ten minutes later, I had the answer, the specialist was referring to a 4-prong cane to aid in walking.
One of the more unusual research requests (actually a series of them) turned out to have a most unexpected result. One of my patrons at the Boothbay Harbor Library was taking an online graduate program in counseling. The books and articles she needed were fairly esoteric, but thanks to my mental health library connections and the great lending program at the Maine State Library, I was able to obtain most everything she needed. She and her husband were live-in managers of a popular resort in the area. When a new owner fired them and gave the couple 2 days to move, they panicked and called me for assistance. That turned into their offering me a mind boggling array of items as they were in a bind. I ended up filling my truck with everything from sterling silver to maple syrup and organic pancake mix, demonstrating that research can easily produce unexpected results.
Charlene D’Avanzo: In the days of tie-dye and Earth Day’s birth I was a grad student studying at the Maine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. Since my work was coastal, an invitation to join a research cruise to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean was a rare opportunity, and I took it.
All these years later, I’ve used vivid images from that experience – countless rafts of Sargassum seaweed that harbor baby turtles and dolphins turned bioluminescent-blue in the ship’s bow wake at night – in the upcoming book of my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi series.
My grad student self would never, ever, have imagined this turn of events!