On Saturday, July 28, I spoke at the Phoenix-area Sisters in Crime annual writer’s conference, Write Now. It went very well. The audience was very responsive and I only forgot what I was saying once. I don’t know why I think that I must memorize my talks. Several of the other speakers used notes and were very effective and entertaining. For some reason, I like to pretend that I’m just reeling off these pearls of wisdom from the top of my head, when in fact I’ve used all kinds of mnemonics to remember what I’m supposed to say next. I suppose I like the spontaneity of notelessness, and I really like to keep in continual eye-contact with the audience. And usually it’s no problem, unless it’s an hour-long talk, like this one was.
I digress, as usual. The other speakers were the lovely Susan Cummins Miller (Quarry, Death Assemblage, and Hoodoo, among others), Laurie Schnebly Campbell (Ten Minutes to Glory: Your Editor/Agent Pitch), Kris Neri (Revenge of the Gypsy Queen and Dem Bones’ Revenge, and owner of the Well Read Coyote Bookstore in Sedona, AZ), and the amazing Stella Pope Duarte (Let Their Spirits Dance) I was asked to speak on “The Fact In Fiction”. I talked about the way details add authenticity to a story, and about research techniques, especially techniques for researching the mores and attitudes of the time or place or culture that you’re writing about. Because finding facts is easy, but creating an authentic world is hard.
In the end, I had to say a word about one of my favorite research resources, and that is newspapers. For the book I’m writing on now, the fourth in the Alafair Tucker series, which is set in Enid, OK, I studied the microfilm rolls of the Enid Daily Eagle for the week the story is set in 1915. I was able to find out about the weather for those days, and what was showing at the movies. I found out from letters to the editor and editorials what people were thinking about what was going on in town and the war in Europe. I saw the price of a bushel of wheat, a barrel of oil, a lady’s hat, and an automobile. That paper became primary research material for me.
But it’s not only papers from the era that are useful. Last year, one of my cousins gave me a subcription to the Haskell News, which is a weekly paper from Haskell, OK. Haskell is a little town near Boynton. The News tells me about the school lunch menu and who’s visiting from Chicago, but there is a historian who lives around there who writes occasional priceless articles on local history. A few months ago he wrote a full page article on the 1918 flu epidemic in Muskogee County. If you think I didn’t cut that out and save it for later use, then you have made an incorrect assumption.
There is no telling what you can find in the paper. Many years ago, I saw in my local paper an article about two women, a grown daughter and her elderly mother, who were out shopping together when a crazy person ran up and attacked the daughter. The old mother jumped on the crazy man’s back and generally beat the crap out of him. That article made a big impression on me, and I never forgot it. In The Drop Edge of Yonder, which is coming out in October, I finally used that image that has been rattling around in my head for the last twenty-five years.
Speaking of Book 4, I have to spend the next two weeks with my nose to the grindstone getting the first 100 pages ready to send to my editor. I have 100 pages written, but they ain’t pretty. When next I post, I hope to report that I’ve whipped them into shape.
My next event is at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on August 16. (Check the Events page). I’ll be doing a panel on mystery writing. Hope to see you Arizonans there.
And Happy Happy Scary Birthday to my friend Carolyn in Chico.