As I keyed in more of the Alpha rewrite I felt I had to stop and write this week’s entry. The scene I’m writing deals with Mallory meeting with her informant, Willy Washington, in a downtown Des Moines coffee house. This scene reminded me of some of the research I’ve had to do for my stories. The people I’ve spoken with, the places I’ve visited.
I love doing research. I envy those authors who can create whole cities from scratch, place the avenues and landmarks in such a way that the reader can envision them. I site the late Ed McBain and the gotham-like city of Isola. Sure, it’s based on New York, but he had the city laid out in his mind and could show it to us through details, humor, and, of course, violence.
I cannot do that. In any of my novels or short stories, even if the city’s name is fictional, the streets and landmarks are laid out based on an actuality. Mallory Petersen lives in a suburb of Des Moines and her adventures take her all over the city. Living in Oskaloosa for many years, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to explore the streets and alleys of the capital city. I need to see the real streets, buildings, parks and such, scribble some descriptions, then fictionalize them later. The locals will know what places I’m writing about and hopefully it will be fun for them to recognize a certain business or building. Mallory’s Beta story takes her to the Quad Cities, where I lived until the fifth grade. I spent an entire day driving around the Iowa/Illinois metro, seeking out businesses, talking with people and making sure my map was accurate.
One of the reasons I love research is because I get to speak with a lot of different people and see more things than I would have thought. When taking notes I’ll write down a lot of details; whether those get included doesn’t matter. Sometimes, to write the scene I’ll have to create an alley or a building or move entrances and sometimes change the landscape, but not so much that it’s unrealistic. I’ve been to a trucking company where I added a warehouse; a publishing company where I’ve had to create the interior (because I wasn’t allowed past the front desk); a meat processing plant whose secretary was so flustered she didn’t know what to do next; a wholesaler where I had to create an entire basement level. For Night Shadows, I loved visiting a particular insurance company to view their art exhibits and I also thank the lighting company representatives who took time out of their day to show me their wares.
Unfortunately, the landscape changed during my years of writing. The building containing the art studio and Mallory’s office doesn’t exist any longer, as well as the building in Oskaloosa where the kidnapped girl was taken. But that’s okay; my city still has them.
Looking back upon my research, I was frustrated with some of the people I encountered. Along with the flustered secretary I ran into a very resistant secretary who wouldn’t give me the time of day; another border guard receptionist who along with the PR man barely and reluctantly assisted me; and a very nice office worker who was more than happy to talk with me about her business. I thank each and every one of those people because they all helped write my stories. They all are included, in one fashion or another in the various scenes.
I’m constantly meeting interesting people and writing notes because somewhere those people will show up in my stories either as prominent or passing characters. Working for a couple of motels I’ve met scores of…different…people and I remember all of them and someday, they’ll get fictionalized. I’ve used real life experiences and anecdotes told to me by friends.
Writing is fun, but research is essential. To be able to insert that research into the story is very satisfying, because I have created something ‘real’, people and places others can recognize or associate with.