When I first began writing mysteries I was told to write what I knew. I soon found out that what I knew was limited. I had retired from academe after many years of serving as a professor and as a university administrator, both awfully boring stuff for mysteries unless a writer can spice them up a bit. I was discouraged early in my writing career when agents and publishers showed no interested in my manuscripts set on a college campus.
I moved on to looking for a more engaging protagonist and a setting that was unusual. To do this, I decided what I knew was certainly not enough to craft a mystery series. I decided to learn about craft beers, so I read as much as I could, but most importantly, I went on brewery tours and interviewed brewers. My first excursion into the brewing life was on a tour at a nearby brewery where fermenting was accomplished in a small room holding an open fermenting tank. We were told we couldn’t go into the room because of all the carbon dioxide being given off in fermentation, so of course I had to ask, “Could you kill someone by locking them in there?” The tour guide and others on the tour were a bit put off by the question, and my explanation that I was doing research for a murder mystery did little to make them feel better. I’ve never gone back to that brewery. I don’t think I’d be welcome.
The experience of researching something I knew nothing about for a mystery taught me to respect the use of research in my work. What I discovered was that some of what I did for entertainment constituted research for my writing. For example, my husband and I attend yard sales on the weekends and frequent second hand shops as well as church bazaars. It struck me that I had accrued a lot of knowledge about the secondhand business, information I could use to create a new character who ran a consignment shop in rural Florida, land of alligators, cowboys, and cattle. The Eve Appel mystery series was born.
To make Eve’s life more genuine, I have attended rodeos, gone on air boat rides, researched the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes in Florida, studied poisons, read about the invasion of Florida by Burmese pythons, discovered that many Floridians love mud bog racing and learned about hunting reserves. Internet research, library research, but particularly onsite work made the books more interesting to write, and readers say learning about rural Florida makes them appreciate a part of Florida not many tourists or native Floridians visit. It’s been fun for me. And then I hit a snag. I need to talk about a distant aunt to explain the problem. So I digress here.
It seems to me that a lot of my relatives died off when I was a kid. I remember attending funerals where I ran into a lot of other relatives. One stuck in my mind, and I can’t even remember her name. She was a tiny woman with fuzzy white hair. I envision her wearing an apron, but I doubt that’s correct, at least not to a funeral. At every funeral where she was present, whether she was a close relative or distant, she cried. I don’t mean tears fell and she dabbed at the wetness. I mean she bawled for hours. I don’t have any idea what color her eyes were other than red. I have the impression that her flood of tears was embarrassing to others, but I can’t say for certain. What I do know is that I was horrified by all that crying. And this thought was foremost in my mind: please, please don’t let me grow up to be a crier. And guess what. I’m a crier. I cry when I’m sad. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when others are sad or happy. Movies with tragic endings make me cry. Movies that end happily make me cry. It doesn’t take a huge tragedy or a joyous event to get me going. As someone said: you’d cry at a supermarket opening. But I’m also lucky. My husband is a crier also. He’s much worse than I am, if that’s possible.
Now that you know my secret (I‘ve tried to keep this hidden because I’m so embarrassed about it), here’s how it figures into research for my books. I’ve always approached every piece of research with a kind of joy. I get to learn something new. For one of my Eve Appel books, I decided I should insert a horse rescue facility into the plot. There is one in Plant City, Florida not far from where I spend my winters. I first went on line to find out more about the organization. About an hour later my husband came into my office and found me crying at the computer.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Look.” I pointed to picture of a horse.
“That’s a good looking animal. What’s the problem?”
“He’s a rescue. He didn’t always look like that,” I replied.
His eyes filled with tears.
And so I learned something important about myself. There are some things I cannot write about even in a fictional story. If I was overwhelmed by tears at my computer, think what I would be like visiting the horse rescue farm. I was raised on a farm, so it’s not as if I don’t understand many difficult issues. I know my beef, chicken and pork were once living animals. Our cats are rescue cats, and my husband and I helped in the cat rescue efforts in the Florida Keys.
Yet I don’t look at pets in pet stores because I think I should take all of them home with me. I still remember a cat I saw in a pet store in Cape Cod. His name was Gilbert and I still wonder if he found a home. Hubby and I change channels when we see the animal rescue ads on TV. We don’t simply avoid the issue. We do give money to a favorite cat rescue group, and a rescue group is in my will. So I’m not turning my back on this pain, but I do know I cannot write about it in my books. (Excuse me while I get a tissue, really.)
In my story as I now am plotting it, horses are being stolen from a ranch, and Eve Appel, newly minted PI, is out to find out who is responsible. No animals will be harmed in the telling of this story, not even the writer, whose eyes will remain dry.
For all of you criers out there I recently discovered that there may be a genetic component in profuse weeping. Don’t blame yourselves. It’s that durn DNA from a crying great aunt.
Happy July 4 to all you criers and noncriers. Yes, I will be sobbing my eyes out at the beautiful sight of fireworks and the sounds of marching bands. Join me.