Welcome Wednesday guests for September:
9/03 Beach-Read novelist, Mary Hogan (Two Sisters);
9/10 Fast-track Guppy Annette Dashofy (Lost Legacy);
9/17 Florida Coast author, Terrie Farley Moran (Well Read, Then Dead);
9/24 Cozy Confection author, Kathy Aarons (Death Is Like A Box Of Chocolates).


Gloria Alden's latest publication is nonfiction. Boys Will Be Boys: The Joys and Terrors of Raising Boys. Edited by Cher'ley Grogg was recently released and available on Amazon. Gloria wrote three essays and two poems in her chapter included in the book.


Don't miss next month's release of Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays on October 7th, in which WWK bloggers Shari Randall ("Disco Donna") and E. B. Davis ("Compromised Circumstances") have short stories.


KM Rockwood's short stories will appear in two anthologies released in October. They are: "The Lure of the Owl" in Swamp Mansion and Other Dark Stories, to be released as a ebook, and "Aunt Olga and the Werewolf" will be included in the third Creatures, Crimes and Creativity anthology release by Intrigue Publishing. at their conference in October.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Suzanne Adair and Research

Bio: Suzanne Adair writes a mystery/suspense series set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Her first book, Paper Woman, won the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society. More recently, Camp Follower was nominated for the 2009 Daphne du Maurier Excellence in Historical Mystery/Suspense Award. Check her web site www.suzanneadair.com or blog www.suzanneadair.typepad.com for more information.

Writers of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers dabble with ligatures, poisons, blades, and firearms. They read up on sociopaths and schizophrenics. They pester cops, hack hard drives, sketch plans on cocktail napkins for invading countries, study how to build bombs and organize cults, and verify procedures for manufacturing street drugs. What fun! And to think that my ex-husband labeled me weird, obsessed, and admitted that my interests scared him. Poor fellow.

So why do we pursue these activities and risk being labeled odd birds? Well, one of our goals is to suspend our readers' sense of disbelief so they'll buy into our fictional worlds. No getting around the fact that world building requires a chunk of research. You must make sure that things work right, or readers will dismiss you.

On the Guppies www.sinc-guppies.org. discussion list several years ago, a subscriber confessed that she'd had her husband duct-tape her mouth, hands, and ankles, then close her into the trunk of her car so she could determine the difficulty of escape. (Note: That's a fate she'd planned for her protagonist in her manuscript.) My initial thought was, "Wow, I never would have trusted my ex to do that." But as I recall, she rewrote the scene because she learned just how difficult it was for a human being to escape duct tape. Do you think she was weird?

The things we do for research are unique and amazing. In my case, early into the first draft ofPaper Woman, I realized that I take modern technology blissfully for granted. You know, stuff like indoor plumbing, central heat and air-conditioning, refrigerators, automobiles, cell phones, even the grocery store. Convenience and accessibility underpin my culture and shape my values and reactions. But during the Revolutionary War more than 225 years ago, very little was convenient or accessible. Danger and scarcity shaped decisions, especially for the middle and lower classes.

How well could a woman of the 21st century comprehend that from reading books and interviewing subject matter experts? Rather poorly, in fact. If I intended to create believable fiction about people who lived a couple of centuries ago, I had to get inside my characters' heads — learn what clothing of the era felt like, which everyday challenges people faced, how their world smelled, tasted, and sounded.

That's why I originally became a Revolutionary War reenactor. My family and I — yes, obsessed as I am, I dragged my family into this hobby — spend a typical reenacting weekend at the site of a historical battle, camped in white canvas army tents with no mosquito screens, dressed in eighteenth-century clothing made of natural fibers such as wool and linen. Our menu is limited by what meals we can prepare over a wood fire. Food sometimes gets eaten scorched; the temperature of an open fire isn't as easy to regulate as the temperature in an oven. Running water? Sometimes available. Flush toilets? If we're lucky. Heat or air-conditioning? Ha ha ha!

This is undoubtedly what prompted one interviewer to tell me, "Honey, you really suffer for your art!" My "suffering" is temporary, a mere forty-eight hour sample of what our foremothers and forefathers dealt with 24/7. My hat's off to them. They were hardy folk.

But the peculiar payoff from hands-on research is the world-broadening effect it has on the researcher. At almost every weekend event I've attended, I've encountered an experience that no one could accurately anticipate from reading a book or interviewing an expert. These experiences have supplied me with a far deeper understanding of the trials faced by eighteenth-century people.

For example, learning to load and fire a musket with powder only, no ball. (Note: Reenactors use only powder. Otherwise, there'd be litigation issues and arrests.). Nothing I'd read prepared me for the noise of the musket, how hot it gets after firing, the weight of it, or how long it takes to reload. One time, I fired a ball in a secluded location, so I could feel the difference in the musket's kick when fully loaded. My smugness over hitting a pine tree at human heart level quickly vanished when I realized the musket ball could have ricocheted and killed someone. How often did that happen in skirmishes 225 years ago?

How about learning to start a fire from flint and steel? (Note: This is an exercise in hyperventilation.) Not until I'd fumbled this feat a few times did I comprehend the impact of natural variables, such as wind and humidity, on establishing a fire when you don't even have the convenience of matches. Try starting a fire with flint and steel on a windy, wintry night.

My family and I reenact on the Crown forces side. For every battle, I watch the three most important guys in my life don scarlet coats and line up on the battlefield with their weapons. Across the field from them is a swarm of guys in blue coats. So I get asked the inevitable questions at booksignings and reenacting events, sometimes shyly, sometimes with indignation. Why have I chosen to portray a loyalist, rather than a patriot? A loser, rather than a winner? A villain, rather than a hero?

Initially, I sought the Crown forces camp because the protagonists of my first two books are neutrals. Since school age, I'd had the patriot point of view drilled into me, and I felt I needed the other point of view to create balanced, believable neutrals on the page. But I remained in the Crown forces camp because I absorbed another truth while there. Soldiers who fought for King George the Third in the colonies didn't see themselves as villains or losers. Neither did many colonists see them as such. History is, indeed, written by the victors, and there are two sides to every conflict. I don't forget that when I develop my characters. The pièce de résistancefrom my research has been raising two sons who have learned to pause and value the other side of an argument.

Research gives me a panoramic, three-dimensional perspective. It enables me to texture my stories differently from those set in contemporary times — and those stories should be different. How believable are fictional worlds in which historical characters are, beneath their period clothing, merely people with their hearts and heads in the 21st century?

My blessings upon you the next time you unroll the duct tape, take fencing lessons, leave another message on the answering machine of an elusive crime reporter, or read up on Charles Manson or Jim Jones. Thanks for stopping by Writers Who Kill blogspot today, and a big thanks to Warren Bull for having me as his guest.

What's the wildest thing you've done for your own research?

13 comments:

Warren Bull said...

Suzanne,

Thanks for sharing today on our blog. Meanwhile I am on your bog discussing: Was Abraham Lincoln a racist

www.suzanneadair.typepad.com

Suzanne said...

Warren, I appreciate the opportunity to post on Writers Who Kill, and I look forward to your post on my blog tomorrow, 7 April.

Suzanne Adair

Pauline Alldred said...

Fascinating blog, Suzanne and Warren. I love the idea of recreating history. As a teenager I was fascinated by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians and amazed at how little fundamental human emotions change even as technology does.

True, our ancestors were a hardy lot. Can you imagine being nine months pregnant in a cover wagon?

I haven't been as thorough as you in my research. I have played out both sides in a hand to hand fight more than once.

Warren Bull said...

Suzanne,

You're right. Tomorrow I blog on your blog.

Suzanne said...

Nine months pregnant and traveling by covered wagon -- ack! No, no, no! The only thing that could make that scenario worse is July or August. At least the ancient Greek, Romans, and Egyptians didn't shove their women into stays or corsets.

Suzanne Adair

J. R. Tomlin said...

Well, if you want to jerk me RIGHT out of a story say that men had zippers in their trousers in 1922, that the medieval Irish ate potatoes, or that an Englishwoman used a spinning wheel in 1220.

I'm finicky as hell.

The roughest thing I ever did for research: traveled to Moidart in the midst of a Scottish winter. Brrrr...

Judy said...

Very interesting blog. What's the weirdest thing I've done for research? Helped prepare a body for burial.

Warren Bull said...

Perhaps the most frequent example of poor research is the frequently used "Smell of cordite" to indicate a weapon has been fired. I've seen that for black powder weapons (pre-cordite) and modern weapons (post-cordite).

Suzanne said...

J.R.: A Scottish winter -- brrr is right.

Judy: That's dedication. Did you help with embalming?

Warren: Gunpowder at Revolutionary War battle reenactments has a characteristic rotten egg smell when it's fired.

Suzanne Adair

Jillian said...

This was a marvelous, interesting post. Lots of great info and I admire you for the re-enacting weekends.

Kaye George said...

I guess going through the Citizen's Police Academy in Austin (and ride-outs in other cities) had taken me the closest to where I need to be for some of my fiction. The guy peeing in the back of the cruiser while he was sitting there cuffed. Me alone in the car with him while the policeman searched his house. Very authentic smell!

I don't do historicals--that would be so hard! Although, if I did something set a couple of decades ago (3? 4?) some would consider that history, but I did my own research for those decades, living through them. :)

Thanks for a fascinating post, which is what I always expect here.

Suzanne said...

Jillian: you're welcome!

Kaye: I did a Citizens Police Academy ride-along, too. Got involved in one of those high-speed chases that pulls G forces. The perp escaped. LOL Funny how they don't tell you that happens on "COPS."

Thanks for stopping by.

Suzanne Adair

morganalyx said...

Very cool post, Suzanne! I haven't done many "crazy" things for research, but I like the idea of putting oneself in the thick of it. I'm definitely interested in trying the ride along, & even being locked in a trunk.

Thanks!