A panel at last weekend’s Deadly Ink 2015 conference represented a spectrum of views about the research lengths mystery writers go to. At the “as factual as possible” end of the spectrum was K.B. Inglee, a writer of historical mysteries who is also a history museum docent and reenactor (talk about living your research!), closely followed by Kim Kash, who seeks a realistic recreation of Ocean City, Maryland, where her fictitious characters and stories play and play out. Setting her mysteries there began when she wrote a tour guide for the city, a compilation of facts and contacts that has since served her well.
Tim Hall, who writes cozy-ish mysteries set on Long Island said his kind of story is so character-driven that what’s needed is enough research to make sure they remain internally consistent. No blue eyes on page 30 and brown eyes 100 pages later. Similarly, S.A. Solomon does enough research to ensure plausibility. A big gaffe makes readers start to doubt the whole story—a disaster for mystery.
Surprisingly, the one author of “alternative universe” mysteries, Roberta Rogow, said the science fiction audience is one of the most demanding. Any would-be sci-fi authors who hope they can “just make it up” soon learn otherwise. That pleasure is reserved for another genre: fantasy. And even there, devoted readers patrol for consistency.
A key benefit of research the panelists agreed is that it helps the writer avoid stereotypes, generalities, and clichés in their characters, places, and actions. When you know the exact particulars of something, you can describe it with greater exactitude. “I took the bus” becomes “I caught the packed bus from the Weekly Breeze office uptown near the Delaware border, down to DaVinci’s around Fourteenth Street. There was only standing room on the bus, it being dinner hour with everybody heading out for crabs, fries on the boardwalk, and happy-hour drinks.” (from Kim Kash’s Ocean City Cover-up).
Although Wikipedia can provide a quick overview of a topic for writers, it’s more useful in terms of pointing them in the right direction for further research. Hyperlocal resources are readily available online, though there’s no substitute for visiting the place being written about. Several panelists are devotees of “just talking to people.” While people’s time is valuable, especially that of professionals (cops, investigators, medical examiner staff), these writers have found that all kinds of people—most of whom seem to be would-be novelists themselves!—are delighted to share their knowledge.
Recent books by these Deadly Ink panelists:
- K.B. Inglee – Her story “The Devil’s Quote” leads off a 2015 story collection And All Our Yesterdays—mystery and crime through the ages
- Kim Kash – Her other Ocean City mystery is Ocean City Lowdown, and the book that started it all: Ocean City: A Guide to Maryland’s Seaside Resort
- Tim Hall – He grew up in the Long Island area he writes about, but still has to keep up with the changes! Dead Stock was his first book
- S.A. Solomon – Read her fine story “Live for Today,” published in New Jersey Noir, published by Akashic Books
- Roberta Rogow – Her most recent series involves an alternative history of the Island of Manatas (Manhattan), volume 3 of which is Mischief in Manatas