Saturday, November 2, 2013


by Velda Brotherton

 I remember going to a lecture by Lawrence Block, the mystery writer, once when he told a story about doing so much research for a book he thought he had everything down pat, then he had a scene where the heroine complained because the dog (I don't remember the breed) left hairs in her favorite chair. A disturbed reader wrote him and said that particular breed of dog did not shed, and he should do more research. Who would think that writing a mystery would mean that kind of research? But it does.

My genre has been Western historical romances for many years. Writing western has always called for a definitive kind of research, and sometimes it takes several weeks or months to find all the information about a certain era in a certain locale. Characters speak in a different way from one place to another, yet that's not the most important part of writing historicals. Readers today don't want to read dialogue that is too stilted, even though that may have been the way people spoke back then. So the trick is to balance a bit of their true dialogue with something more suited to today's readers. They rarely used contractions, but to write that way is difficult and reading it is even more difficult for.

Writing my first mystery took a long while, and then it languished until Oak Tree Press wanted it for their Dark Oak line. So one more read through, polish everything and send it in. Shifting genres wasn't as easy as I expected it to be, even though I'm an avid mystery reader.

It takes a bit of doing to shift from writing one genre to writing another.  For so long my language had been that of the West, and my characters lived that lifestyle. When tackling this mystery, I chose to set it in my own home state. That took care of dialogue and much of the research, though there is always a bit of that, no matter the genre, setting or era. Remember the hairy dog.

Going into the book, I realized that, even though I based my story and people on my long experience working for a rural weekly newspaper, writing features, a column and news stories as well as eventually serving as city editor. You would think I wouldn't need to do much research. But often, in the editing, I would realize that a particular statement could not be made without checking it out. Especially when the crime scene investigator and two forensic specialists recovered bones from a 28 year-old grave.

When the forensics came into play, a ton of research had to be done. Don't count on television shows to give you the real scoop on this, either. Bones tell the forensics investigator gender, height, sometimes DNA if they aren't too old, teeth help out in identifying, if they are there. But just because teeth are found or DNA is available, doesn't mean an identification can be made, like they do it on television. Comparisons must be available before these help. I did a ton of research on DNA and other forensics, checking my sources. Just because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's true. In the newspaper business we were told to find three sources which did not all use the same primary source for their information, and I try to stick to that in my writing. Even more so in contemporary mysteries.

When we write history, there's only so much truth we can uncover. The rest must become a part of our fiction, because so much is lost in history, so much is stretched or altered. But that's not so true with contemporary mysteries. It may be fiction, but don't make it all up, 'cause someone will catch you putting hairs in a chair where they don't belong.

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