Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. For more information, visit her at website or Amazon Author Page.
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Characters and setting—I’ll expound on both whenever I get a chance—are the two items that are really important to my enjoying a story. Several of our recent posts here on Writers in Residence have been on research, so I thought I’d add my voice to the discussion. And why? Because without research—unless you’re one of those people who already knows everything about everything(smile)—characters and locations have no backbone, no appeal, no enticement, no flavor without it. I know I mention P.D. James a lot, but setting and characters are two of the many aspects of her writing that I revel in; the places, buildings, institutions she took me to, and going there through the eyes of so many multi-careered characters with their own unique back stories was marvelous.
And in my own writing mind, one of the major items in location is sensory experience, and one of the main ways of presenting a character, is explaining how they are experiencing the world through all their senses.
Going off tract a bit with a little back-story, as a child, an elderly and kind lady—still remember her name, Mrs. Shoecraft—in the flat above us, I grew up as a Chicago kid, would often bake yeast-bread. The aroma floating to the floor below, was marvelous. And to my delight, she made mini-loaves and shared. As an adult, and primarily a west coast dweller, I’ve retained my love for good bread, but it isn’t easy making good yeast bread of any type, including rye-bread, ciabata, and baguettes (other childhood favorites and memories), and I have consequently collected various and now seldom-used items like a bread mixer, mix-master kneader, and a lots and lots of books on bread making.
Back to the writing part, Hester Miller, a character in my current WIP, and a carryover from Rhodes – The Mojave-Stone, is baking bread in a scene. Why? Because I think she’s a bread-making kind of Romani housekeeper, and bread baking is a new aspect of her that might explain, or counterbalance some of her other actions. Of course I couldn’t just write the darn scene. I had to do more research on bread! By late afternoon, I’d ordered yet another book from Amazon, and printed out three new recipes from the internet.
Did I write anything that day? No. But two days later, wrote these lines:
Then he caught the aroma in the air. “Is that yeast I smell?”
“Yep,” she answered.
He smiled, not just at her short and enigmatic seeming answer, but his mind shot back to those days eons ago when his father Everett and his mother Sophie would take him to her mother’s house in Austin. Grandma Nelson would always have dough rising when they came over. Invariably Sundays, and she had mini-loaf pans—everyone got their own loaf of warm buttery bread. The aromas at Grandma Nelson’s were heaven; but the homemade yeast bread Leiv knew he would never forget. Yep, a special memory.
Ended up, in my story the reference/memory wasn’t even with the same character in mind. Was the additional research worth it? I’m doubtful. Did I enjoy going back down my sensory bread-lane? Definitely.
And this isn’t an isolated event for me. Research that gets out of hand—at least at “that” moment of interest. Here’s a picture of an ages old bookcase in my kitchen, stuffed with unused recipe books and internet printouts. Many are products of “Research.” Nonetheless, I sincerely believe–not only are past memories, experiences (see several preceding excellent posts here on our site), and travels invaluable to writing, but all the “research gone array” also contributes to the mosaic of our stories. Maybe not exactly at this moment in writing time, maybe even unconsciously, but down the road for sure. To use a bread analogy, to write with texture, flavor, and aroma (I can smell the bread), research is invaluable. Though it can get out of hand for some of us. But even if I’m completely wrong about the value part, it sure is fun.
I do need to figure out what kind of filming camera one of my characters would prefer. Hmmm, maybe there’s something on the internet…or a book on Amazon maybe….
Happy writing trails!