Everything is Research by Linda O. Johnston

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Linda O. Johnston, a former lawyer who is now a full-time writer, currently writes two mystery series for Midnight Ink involving dogs: the Barkery and Biscuits Mysteries, and the Superstition Mysteries.  She has also written the Pet Rescue Mystery Series, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime and also currently writes for Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries about shapeshifters for Harlequin Nocturne.  Her upcoming May release is her 45th published novel, with more to come.
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I’m  writer, and I assume that’s true of many people who read The Writers in Residence blog posts.  I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and it dawned on me long ago that I could, and do, use many aspects of my life as research for what I’m writing: what I read, what I accomplish, in effect nearly everything!
 
For one thing, I love to incorporate dogs in my stories.  I’ve been owned by Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for many years, and most of my friends, neighbors and relatives own dogs.  Plus, I’ve been able to observe a lot of dog training and other events involving dogs–and often what I see and experience shows up in what I write.
 
I’m not much of a cook, yet one of my mystery series, the Barkery & Biscuits Mysteries, includes not only dogs but the protagonist, Carrie Kennersly, owns both a human bakery and a barkery where she sells dog treats.  Some of the barkery material is derived from my visits to local shops in Los Angeles where dog food and treats are cooked and sold–so just visiting there, even if I’m hoping to buy things for my own dogs, is research.
 
Carrie is also a veterinary technician, so when I take my own dogs to the vet I’m also doing research.
 
I’ve also written Superstition Mysteries, and there are a lot of superstitions out there.  While I’m walking I’ve watched strangers stoop to pick up “lucky” pennies–and I do too, just in case.  Others cross their fingers while saying something, or knock on wood.  I’ve heard a lot of people extol their black cats and say they’re lucky, no matter what the superstition says.  Of course black cats being unlucky is a U.S. superstition; in other countries they’re considered lucky.
 
I haven’t run into real shapeshifters yet, I’m sorry to say–I think–but it’s fun researching the legends about them for my Alpha Force paranormal romance stories for Harlequin Nocturne about a covert military force of shapeshifters.
 
Just walking out the front door of my house provides me with ideas and research for some stories.  At the moment all my neighbors are good, but we’ve had some bad ones who, at least, give me story ideas as well as providing research regarding attitudes of some of today’s mostly younger folks.  I also derive ideas and research from some of the things picked up on the security cameras my husband mounted as a result of some of those bad neighbors, as well as from thieves and vagrants who’ve visited our street.  Do we live in an awful, rundown area?  No, just the opposite.  Our neighborhood is great, which may be why it attracts these kinds of issues.  Not fun in reality–but research!
 
Then there’s a new idea I’m working on now that was created after I went on a holiday outing to an interesting area–and my mind just took off on what kinds of mysteries could evolve around there.  Of course I’ve been doing additional research on that area.  Don’t know if this idea will go anywhere, but I’m certainly having fun working with it.
 
And meeting with other writers?  Everyone’s outlook on things is different, even if they’re writing in similar genres, so just talking about life and writing can also be considered a kind of research.
 
So here I am, writing this–and wondering what the next piece of research I’ll pick up will be, and how I’ll incorporate it into a story! 
 
How about you?  What is the most fun or helpful kind of research you’ve happened into in your life?
 

And So What Do You Bring to the Party?

99be9-gayle51closeupA former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy, Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in book form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

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If you are a writer, you do research. If you are a good writer, you do a lot of research. If you are a procrastinator/writer, you do even more research and very little writing. That isn’t good. The least we can do is check out facts to make sure we have has much right as possible. The worst we can do is to put so much in a story that the story gets lost in the endless details.

Any writer knows it is rather embarrassing to write about our hero driving south on a street (in a city where we have obviously never been) only to learn later that the street is one-way going north. It happens. Google Maps makes it a lot easier to find out about streets in towns we have never seen. If all else fails, make up the town and the street and do what you want.

There is technical stuff that some writers drop into their tomes to make it more interesting. Hopefully they check with people who actually know about the activity so they get it right. That research is great. I do a lot of it. Often I learn way more than is necessary for the tale I am telling. I edit out much of the knowledge lest I turn the story into a How To book.

But what about stuff you actually know? When you get to be a certain age, you should have done things in life like have a few jobs or a few hobbies. I have had my share of jobs and lived quite a few places and have hobbies up the wazoo. So, you ask, how have I used my knowledge in my books?

Got a minute?
ralphmbartosprintlarge    My father was in the Air Force. We traveled a lot. I lived on Okinawa and in France as well as in Memphis (near Elvis) and here in California. There were a few other military bases along the way and many of these places turn up in my SPYGAME Trilogy. I used some of my father’s experiences as a pilot during World War II and afterwards, as well as my imagination, to concoct an intriguing set of stories. The first one, The Odd Man, deals mostly with WWII and the Bay of Pigs. I went to a boarding school in France and that place finds a home in book two, Dry Bones. Book three, Star Power, wraps up the trilogy by bringing back characters from books one and two for a climax ending up in Southern California with some Hollywood stars tossed in for fun, though some are positively deadly.

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There is a lot of history plus my own experiences in those books. I actually use a few pictures my mother and I took while living in these places in the book. As one of my characters and I say: “The facts are true. I made up the rest.”

But I mentioned my own jobs as being hands-on research for my books. Let me tell you a story. I wrote my three spy novels and tried to get them published many years ago. I wasn’t having any luck. By then I had moved to California, married, and was writing yet another book that didn’t get published until later. My wonderful husband noticed my frustration and said this: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a detective novel?”

I had been a detective about a dozen years earlier. I actually went undercover in a variety of places looking for bad guys. Maybe…

I started thinking about a detective series. Then I got on a jury. I thought this might be a perfect segue into a plot. The jury thing ended when the case was settled out of court and I went home. Then Richard got on a case. He was to appear the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were to be picked. He wasn’t in that cattle call, but he saw the media circus downtown with the television cameras and helicopters and reporters. He came back with a vivid view of the proceedings. Then the ad nauseam media coverage ensued.
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But that case wasn’t the first or last to hyperventilate on TV. Experts came out of the woodwork and threw out their “wisdom” and opinion long before a jury was even seated. THAT was going to be my story. What happens when the media orchestrates the justice? My book, Media Justice, was the first in the Ginger Caulfield P.I. series.

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Speaking of jobs, I worked over a decade in a bank dealing with stocks and bonds. That’s where I met Richard. (Do I have to say that was the best job I ever had?) I dealt with millions and millions of dollars daily. Then one day we got free tickets to the Santa Anita Racetrack. Richard and I went. I explored. I found a terrific place to find a body… I combined horse racing and hedge funds and got Hedge Bet out of it.

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The third book in the series was the result of my fellow writer and friend, Jackie Houchin, doing an article about the local dam up here in the Foothills where I live. She took a terrific picture of the dam before the retrofitting took place. It was so ominous. It reeked of mystery. It ended up as the cover shot on Damning Evidence. Jackie wrote a great interview of the guy who lived up at the dam. I knew I was going to use that character someway, somehow. And I did.

caverns-cover-only-updated-smallHere’s another story. When I was on assignment in Chicago as a P.I., I lived in an apartment near Lake Michigan. It was February. A brutal winter. I had to take the subway and a bus to the job at night. I worked from 5 p.m. until 2 in the morning. I survived Chicago. Years later I heard a story from a co-worker in California about a police officer in New York City who ran across something rummaging around in garbage cans down an alley. He shot it. It was a rat. It weighed in at 105 pounds. I moved the rat and his friends to snowy Chicago and I have them eating away the garbage on which a large area of The Windy City was built after the Great Fire. This was near the lake. Huge caverns have been carved out under the condos around the lake. Disaster looms. That book is Caverns.

All of these prior books have a connection to my actual life. But so do my Christmas books. This is where my hobbies come in. I collect Santas. I have around 4000. I have made some, bought many. And I used to work in a miniature store called Miniature World. We sold dollhouses. Ibookcoverpreviewcropped started making my own and making vignettes. I had an idea for a Christmas castle that I designed. I still have the sketch. I decided to write a story to go along with the idea of this castle. Then I decided to build the castle and make the figures that went with the story. Then I published the book. The first one was Bearnard’s Christmas.

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I say first because there is a second book coming out this Christmas called The Santa Claus Machine. I am currently working on the third, Every Castle Needs a Dragon.

Now you might say there is no research in fantasies. Well, I added pictures to these books. I had to have things to photograph that fit the story. My Christmas collection is vast. I have reindeer and animals and sleighs and miniature toys that fit my stories. I must have been saving them just for these books.

The third book needed fairies and a dragon and a miniature diving helmet… I just happened to have this stuff tucked away. I guess I have been researching this story even before I got the idea for it.

But we all have stuff to bring to the party. What do you have in your imagination closet that you can pull out to enhance a character or plot? Maybe there is somebody in the family who influenced you. Or a place you lived that aches to be part of a story. Be an archaeologist of your own life and dig for those relics that will set your story apart. Let the party begin.