Saturday, February 20, 2021

When Research and Plot Align by E. B. Davis

I was writing a short story to the theme of holidays, specifically Homicidal Holidays, one of SinC Chesapeake Chapter’s anthologies. The plot was formulated in my mind. Perhaps there was a bit of nostalgia in setting the story during the historical time of my college days, in the late seventies, in Washington, D. C., where I went to school. But another part of that decision was due to my intimate knowledge of the place and time.


During college, I experienced a mystical morning. I’d awoken early in my dorm room. It was snowing, and for some reason, I wanted to drive to Georgetown. Inexplicable. But as I was from Pennsylvania and had snow tires on my car, the weather wasn’t a deterrent, especially at the age of nineteen when there are no barriers. As I made my way down Wisconsin Avenue at the top of Georgetown, I realized that no cars had traveled before me. The street was serenely quiet. I pulled over into a rare parking spot that on no other occasion would have been available. I got out. No footsteps, car tracks, or even bird tracks marred the snow’s surface. No one opened a door or popped their head out of a window. I may be one of the few in the world who have ever beheld Georgetown unpopulated without human interference. Georgetown was mine.


Perhaps because of that experience, I decided that I wanted snow in my short story, and could think of no better holiday to illustrate the Washingtonian experience than Presidents’ Day. So, I began to research. It didn’t have to be authentic. But I asked myself, had there been any snowstorms in the late seventies over Presidents’ Day weekend? I found there was one in 1978, which was actually a year after I graduated, but no matter. The year was set.


I had already determined the murder would take place on the C & O Canal running parallel to the Potomac River in Georgetown. It was a secluded area with few businesses along it—a perfect place for a snowy evening murder. (And yes, the motive was revenge, and yes, it was cold.) My characters were much like myself at that age. From Pennsylvania having a car with snow tires and few deterrents. But what would draw my characters there, at night in the middle of a snowstorm?


During the seventies, there was a bar/band venue called The Cellar Door, on “M” Street, which also parallels the C & O Canal and Potomac River, close by to where my murder would occur— how convenient—the scene prior to the murder would be held there. I wondered, on the off chance, if a band was booked for that weekend. I researched The Cellar Door’s schedule. Yes—George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers played there on the Saturday before Presidents’ Day in 1978. The performance review said George dragged a long cord from the amp to his guitar, went out into the middle of “M” Street during the snowstorm and played in the deserted street. Knowing of George, I didn’t doubt the review’s claim. Had I but known, I would have been there, too!


The research and my plot aligned. I began to write.


Needless to say, my short story made it into the anthology, which was published in 2014. There have been a few times when the research I’ve done aligned and enhanced a plot. When it does, my writing is stronger. I have confidence in my story. That’s wonderful, like a story that needed to be told.


As a writer, have you experienced the beautiful marriage of research and plot?


  1. That's a great story of how little details can enhance our fiction, and when we actually live it we can more easily bring it to life. That real knowledge is why I enjoy using real settings in my novels, mostly ones where I spent a lot of time.

  2. I'm contemplating a novel set in Hatteras. My problem with that is this is a small place where everyone knows each other. It may be too close for comfort since I live here. I'm trying not to base characters on anyone I know, but the truth is so much fun. Who would have thought that Gallen would work for Waylon? Try to have a conversation using both their names, which must occur if you buy from Waylon but schedule installation with Gallen.

  3. I layer sensory details into a setting. The C&O canal is the perfect place for a murder.

    Elaine, your setting could be a thinly-disguised Hatteras, similar to what Carolyn Hart did in her death on demand series.

  4. Wow! I know that setting, Elaine. I must confess I have also set murders in places that are familiar to me, but often the places have been fictionalized.

  5. I’ve not had the happy serendipity of research supporting my plot. I’ve occasionally had to make plot adjustments to support the research, and once was forced to scrap a storyline when my setting was razed during the writing!

  6. What a delightful story!

    As Jim says, when we are very familiar with the setting and mood, we can put little details in our writing that evokes the entire scene.