When I read a book, I want to be right there with the characters, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting their world through their eyes. By the time I’ve finished, I hope to feel like I’ve visited a place that was foreign at first, and then became as familiar as my hometown. That’s why I believe vivid descriptive scenes are as vital to a good novel as believable, sympathetic characters and true-to-life conversations.
To get that all-important color and flavor in my own writing, I opt for first-hand knowledge whenever possible -- the hands-on approach – which I’ll admit has made my life quite, ahem, interesting. And at times, downright chilling.
For my historical romances I did a lot of research simply by reading up on the time period in which my book was set, which was pretty tame stuff. But I also went spelunking in a cave that was NOT designed for tourists, and am still amazed I emerged unscathed. My tour guide was a college student looking for some pocket money, and we did not have hard hats with lights on them. We had old flashlights, candles and matches, and kneepads to crawl through the tight spots. Good thing I’m not overly claustrophobic because there were long stretches inside those tight spots.
At one point, after straddling an icy stream for about twenty yards, when I was finally able to stand upright, I aimed the beam at the ceiling and discovered that it was a mere inches above my head. And hanging directly above me were about a thousand brown bats about the size of my thumb. Trying not to make a sound, I hunkered down and backed out very slowly.
Let me tell you, that scene played out exceedingly well in my story.
I also had my husband assume the roles of both hero and villain to help me script those black moment scenes. If anyone had glanced in my office window as we were role-playing, I’m sure the cops would have been there soon after. I have my suspicions that my husband took great pleasure in pretending to try to throw me down a well. I’m just saying....
For my mysteries, my research has taken me to very cool places as well as really strange ones. For The Flower Shop Mysteries, I spent a lot of time with florists, soaking up their techniques and that wonderful tropical atmosphere, pouring over floral magazines, and doing virtual flower designs. Pure heaven.
But some plots weren’t exactly heaven sent. When I wrote A ROSE FROM THE DEAD, in which my sleuth, a feisty florist named Abby, sets up a booth at a funeral directors’ convention, I needed an in-depth look at a mortuary – really in-depth, because I had to climb inside a casket. And let me tell you, it’s really, really dark in those boxes. Still, I needed to experience it because that plays an important part in the story.
Then there was the day I toured a crematorium. Enough said. And way more info than I ever wanted to know.
In the name of research, I’ve also:
Held an eight-foot snake.
Ridden a donkey up the side of a steep cliff and didn’t fall off.
Took a hot air balloon ride. You can hear a person talking in a normal voice on the ground when you’re way up high.
Stood inside a prison cell. I can still hear the clanging of that door.
Sat in a tiny room in a prison with a criminal defense attorney as he interviewed a huge and frightening man accused of a grisly crime. (I told you it could be chilling.)
I never expected to be a mystery writer. As a child, I was the one cowering in the back row of a movie theater with my hands over my eyes. I was the shivering, skinny little girl unable to finish swimming lessons because I was afraid to jump off the high dive.
So this new-found courage, where does it come from?
It’s some kind of transference, I guess, because somehow, after having lived in my characters’ heads for years, I’m not scaredy-cat Kate any more. I’ve become bold, empowered by a passion for life and a fierce need for justice. Just like the characters I write about, I stand up for my rights now and try my best not to let bullies in any shape or form intimidate me. I fight for the underdog, and what a powerful feeling that is.
To be a writer you have to become many characters, and to do that accurately and with feeling. You must step outside of yourself and live fully in their worlds, seeing things from their perspectives – and it often isn’t your own.
But it’s all fun stuff to a writer. And hopefully to the readers, too.