Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Researching Your Settings: the Fun Part of Writing


Mr. Clucky with owner.


Crime fiction novelist Elmore Leonard hates to do research. Leonard has finally made enough money writing to hire a full time research assistant. His researcher was down in Harlan County, Kentucky and ran across a local recipe for baked possum. The researcher said, “I knew Leonard would get a kick out of it.”
This quotation is from Leonard’s story, “Fire in the Hole.” Note that he doesn’t mention the recipe.

A U.S. Marshall is speaking to a woman charged with killing an abusive husband..
“He’d get on me for the least thing. Like if he found a hair in his baked possum. Or I didn’t get out all the scent glands. He’d have a fit, throw his supper at me, the plate, the whole mess.”

Every novel has a setting, and the author needs to bring setting alive with vivid description and sharp details. The more specific and even bizarre the details, the better the author can immerse her reader in the story.

The first half of my current suspense novel is set in South Florida. Over the years I’ve visited this area often, over twenty trips, but I had never thought of writing about it.

Until now.

I don’t have the luxury of a research assistant, and I used my memory and the web to fill in most of the blanks. After I had completed the first draft of the Florida section, I still needed some details and to confirm some facts.

I made a list, called a friend and fellow writer, a native-Floridian and asked if she wanted to spend a few days helping me do some research. Joan was game, and I booked a cheap flight on Jet Blue. My novel is set in June, and I wanted to visit Florida in June.

The devil is in the details. You better get it right.

Joan drove me to the neighborhood in Boca Raton where my character lived. I had written an exciting scene where the character swims across a canal to get away from some bad guys. She swims and swims and even dives deep to avoid a boat propeller. We drove to the canal and stopped. Ooops!

I could have swum the canal in a few stokes. There was barely enough room for two boats to pass each other. My heart sank. Was my exciting scene toast? I was glum until we drove a block and behold the Inland Waterway! Boats galore, and the perfect distance for the character to swim. An easy fix. Sure glad we checked that out.

You better get it right.

The next day we traveled to Key West where I had only been once, and I needed to confirm my memories of the Keys. While Joan drove, I made notes of everything that caught my eye:

the color of the water
the way the cormorants sat on the power lines
everything that caught my eye
a slew of adult video stores
Joan identified the Royal Poinciana trees in bloom
Have you hugged a dolphin today?
Hog’s Breath Beer
Fish Murals
All good stuff. But what would my character notice?

Maybe too much good stuff.


After you have spent time and money on research, you want to put every little detail into your manuscript. But a novel is not a travelogue. The writer must choose. Leonard chose baked possum.

I had forgotten how close the houses are to each other in Key West. I had forgotten how hot it is in Key West.

To find shade, Joan and I took a trolley tour and the trolley passed a beach where my character parks and makes a phone call. She waits for a call back. What does she see while she’s waiting? A long pier, old rotten pilings sticking out of the water, beach barbecues, blue umbrellas, an orange kayak. My character notices everything because there’s nothing to do but wait and look at the water. Ten a.m. and it’s hot already. The icing on the cherry Danish she’s eating begins to melt.

I want to put you, the reader, on that beach with that character.

Another characters is a Colombian drug lord, a big stretch for a Massachusetts suburban housewife. But I’m pretty far into his head, and trying like the dickens not to make him a cliché. He always has lunch at a deli in Miami. Joan and I have lunch at the deli, too. There are tables of young men in suits. They all place their cell phones or Blackberrys on the table in front of them. Black cell phones on gray tables. A cell phone is a huge plot point in the deli. The image of a black phone on the gray table.

From Homer to J.K. Rowling, a writer creates a sense of place with authentic details
Joan and I drive to the Lincoln Road Mall in South Beach where I’ve set another scene. We’re sipping iced coffee at a sidewalk café. I was looking for a Cuban restaurant, but I found something better, a rooster who rides on his owner’s bicycle handlebars, crowing, a common sight at Lincoln Road Mall. Later, Joan sends me a newspaper article about Mr. Clucky, so now I even know his name.

Lotto, my drug lord and his sidekick Enrique are sitting outside at a café in the Mall. Here’s what I wrote.

Nearby a rooster crowed. Enrique’s smile became a wide-eyed stare of astonishment.
Lotto followed Enrique’s gaze. A man on a bicycle whipped through the crowd with a brazen white gallo clutching the handlebars, wattles erect and trumpeting like it was resurrection day.
“Man, did you see that?” asked Enrique. “What kind of loco place is this?”
Lotto debated whether to tell Enrique that everybody around the Lincoln Road Mall knew Mr. Clucky, the rooster. He decided not to. Enrique would never shut up about it.


Baked Possum and Mr. Clucky: researching your settings is the fun part of writing

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