Welcome back guest blogger, Marcia Talley, author of The Last Refuge and ten previous novels in the Hannah Ives mystery series. Today Marcia talks about the perils of research. Take it away, Marcia!
Ever since I began writing mysteries, I’ve been amazed at how willing people are to help an author with her research. Experts, friends, fellow writers often go out of their way to help make sure that the fiction I write has the ring of truth, sometimes at their peril.
Some years ago, while writing This Enemy Town, I set a scene at St George Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. I knew that Donna Andrews lived nearby, so I asked her if she knew the church – she did – and could she check out a few details for me. She agreed and took her camera along, snapping photos right and left until not one, not two, but THREE police cars came whoop-whoop-whooping up to the curb, lights flashing. One of the officers climbed out of his squad car and demanded her camera, then watched as she deleted each of the photographs she had just taken.
Donna’s crime? In the background of each photo was an otherwise non-descript office building. Little did Donna know that it housed DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – whose mission is to develop military technology that “Creates and Prevents Strategic Surprise.” 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, so Donna came perilously close to being arrested on my behalf. I would, of course, have bailed her out -- assuming they accepted VISA.
I knew it well, a maximum security prison known as “The Castle” with a million-dollar view of Lake Barkley in Eddyville, just a few miles from my husband’s family farm in western Kentucky.
I was visiting my mother-in-law at the time, so I cruised by the prison, pulled over to the side of the road and began taking photos. A guard appeared out of nowhere, armed to the teeth, and asked what I was up to. Fortunately, I had a copy of one of my novels in the car, so he let me off with a warning, but he was still scowling, not entirely convinced that I wasn’t planning to spring my lover from the pen. Kent tells me he’s using the prison in a novella called “The Levee,” so my mission was worth it.
To help my friend, Kate Charles with her compelling novel, Strange Children, I contacted my daughter’s former boyfriend—a licensed clinical psychologist, sex therapist and frequent television talk show personality—and had a surreal conversation that resulted in material being mailed to my house in plain brown wrappers.
While doing my own research, I nearly sank our sailboat (Sing It To Her Bones), climbed to the top of Mahan Tower at the Naval Academy where the marks of my fingernails are still clawed into the granite (This Enemy Town), had an all-day treatment at a luxury spa (Through the Darkness), dragged my reluctant husband and his two left feet along to ballroom dancing lessons (Dead Man Dancing), ran the Komen Race for the Cure in a downpour (In Death’s Shadow), drove 200 miles to attend a television medium’s live performance (All Things Undying), and drew unwanted attention from the U.S. Coast Guard (Without a Grave) when I asked an officer to describe how I could rig a sailboat to get drugs past them.
Stepping into Hannah’s shoes most recently for my novel, The Last Refuge, I had to become an expert on daily life in 18thcentury Annapolis. I’d always been a fan of those historical reality shows on PBS where they take a dozen or so modern-day people and see how they cope with everyday life in another time and place. Shows like Colonial House, Manor House, Frontier House and even Texas Ranch House ("110 degrees! 200 cows! 47,000 acres and 15 people!!!") Who could resist that? I watched them all. I also paid several visits to Colonial Williamsburg, and I talked to living history specialists and recreationists like Dr Joe Gagliardi who practices medicine both in the past as Dr A. Dobbs and in the present as head of a Maryland detox center. I borrowed books from my friend, Lucia St. Clair Robson, who writes historical novels—Lucia even keeps a file of amusing colonial ways to die!—and the folks at the William Paca House (where The Last Refuge is set) continue to be amazingly supportive. I got the deluxe tour of the house, including the secret passages! – and they let me wander around and take photographs which are normally strictly forbidden.
Living a couple of months out of the year on an island in the Bahamas where power outages are almost a daily thing, I know first-hand what it’s like to be without electricity or running water, but I didn’t go without deodorant, toilet paper, toothpaste or (gasp!) my iPhone in the name of research. I did eat the food—Apple Tansy is delicious, but I drew the line at Pig’s Head pudding—and was continually amazed at how l-o-n-g it took to prepare certain colonial staples, like beaten biscuits where you combine flour, water and lard and actually beat it with a stick for an hour or two! I can tell you from experience that this culinary cardiovascular-aerobic exercise is made bearable only by imagining that the dough is the head of the bitch who married my father after my mother died. And I tried on the costumes, of course. In spite of being trussed up in stays like a Thanksgiving turkey, they were amazingly comfortable. I had to practice arranging my skirts, underskirts and hoops so I could actually sit down in a chair, and until I got the hang of it—my hips had the wingspan of a 747 -- I could sweep a coffee table clean with one pass.
Right now, I’m writing Hannah’s twelfth adventure, Dark Passage. Hannah’s on a luxury cruise. Sometimes research can be hell, ya know?
Nobody knows that better, it seems to me, than Femme Elaine who has worked as a telephone solicitor, bookstore clerk, hotel maid – to name but a few – and most recently, as a stewardess on a yacht. How about the rest of the Femmes? To what lengths have you gone in the name of research?