Book research can mean travel or contacting primary sources or searching online or a combination. Whatever form it takes, I find research always interesting and often fascinating. I have to hold myself back from oversharing in my novels.
For Primal Obsession the bulk of my research was hands on. As public-school teachers, my husband and I used to leave our coastal Maine home on the long Columbus Day weekend (yes, then it was Columbus Day). We rented a cabin somewhere new to us in northern or western Maine, a scenic area with hiking possibilities. But we never went into what folks call the “real Maine,” the wilderness.
When the opportunity arose for a six-day guided canoe expedition on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, we took it. The trip offered outdoor education credits for teacher recertification offering wilderness skills. It didn’t matter that we were classroom teachers, not even physical education teachers.
Once the trip was booked, I started pondering how to use it in a book. Here’s a short description of the romantic suspense novel’s plot. On a wilderness canoe expedition of six people, Annie, an investigative reporter, and Sam, the Maine Guide leading the outing, play cat and mouse with a serial killer. Like me, Annie is a novice in the woods, but she signs up for the trip partly to fulfill a promise to her murdered friend and partly to try to understand the killer. Little does she know… When the others on our expedition learned I was an author plotting that storyline, they were happy to make suggestions, some of which I used in the book.
We had a canoe, built by my husband, but my paddling skills were limited. I learned to paddle different strokes and to put my shoulders didn’t suffer. We paddled eleven to 13 miles a day, for a total of 44 miles. I learned how to watch for hidden rocks when paddling rapids. Twice, we traveled rapids, not major ones, but definitely challenging to this novice. I have no photos of that, for obvious reasons. But here we are at the start of the tip.
We paddled every day and camped overnight in small tents at sites designated by the state that had outhouses, which we called the lounge, close by in the woods. In Primal Obsession, the campers took turns digging their own lounges. But like in my book, we took turns gathering firewood and preparing the dinners brought in coolers, and of course with the clean-up afterward. Over our campfires, we barbecued chicken and baked an apple pie in a Dutch oven.
Other than paddling rapids, the biggest challenge for us all was “bushwhacking.” That’s our Maine Guide’s term for orienteering, which is using a compass to reach a particular spot on a map. On our first attempt at bushwhacking, I learned exactly why it’s called that.
The six of us were divided into two teams. One team, consisting of our guide, my husband, and me, had to use our compasses to traverse a small tree-covered island and come out at a specific location on the other side. The other team in one canoe had to paddle around the island and meet us there.
The wind came up, and the paddlers could not make it around. Blowdowns and boulders blocked us, so what was to be an hour’s trek took three hours, and we never made it to our designated spot. Finally, we were picked up by the park ranger’s boat. He’d already towed the others to our campsite. That rescue proved to me the saying, “Maine is a small town.” The ranger turned out to be a young man I’d taught in junior high. Yup. The experience of that trip was invaluable in making my story come alive. I also used our bushwhack and paddling rapids experiences.
Later, while writing Primal Obsession, I conducted other, less adventurous research. While Annie and Sam are deep in the wilderness of northern Maine, her brother Justin, a state police detective, is trying to solve the serial killer case. Questions about police procedure and jurisdiction meant a phone call. That was to the Maine State Police public information officer, Stephen McCausland. He was extremely helpful with lots of information and advice.
Two decades later I called again with questions related to the second book in the Obsession set, Hidden Obsession. To my amazement, he remembered me and that call, and we chatted amiably for a few minutes. Steve has since retired, and I will miss his voice announcing progress on cases in the media. It won’t be the same if I ever call again.
I never know all the research I might have to do when I begin a new book, whatever it is will fascinate me. And challenge me.