Friday, November 16, 2012
Researching a Mystery Novel
One of the comments I get from time to time about my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, is that I must have done a lot of research for the book. That’s a compliment, of course, because it means that readers — or at any rate the ones who are talking to me — found the book real, at some level anyway.
Generally, my response is to shrug and make a vague, noncommittal comment. The real answer, as they say, is that it’s complicated, but the accurate short answer would be that there wasn’t that much book research but a lot of field research.
Because the book is set only a few years in the past, in a time that will be remembered by even the youngest readers, there wasn’t any need to research it, in the way that the author of a book set half a century or a century ago would have to do. At most I had to do a quick double-check on whether a couple of specific things would have been around then (anybody remember CompuServe?) or whether my memory was off by a couple of years.
How to Challenge a Will
A key element in the story, as you might guess from the book’s title, involves a challenge to a will that was changed at the last minute and cut out one of the adult heirs to a substantial estate. That, I had to research, but it was pleasant going.
I simply called up Bill Locke-Paddon, who is the pre-eminent estate attorney in our county and invited him out to lunch so I could pick his brain about how to mount an effective challenge to a will. He was gracious and highly informative, discoursing at length not only about how a will could be broken, but also about how a good attorney, anticipating a challenge, could take steps to create a will that would be more bulletproof in court.
Bill’s expertise helped me frame a realistic situation in which the precautions weren’t taken and the appearance of undue influence would rear its ugly head in court, as it does in the book’s first chapter. If anything in that chapter is wrong, legally speaking, the fault is mine for misunderstanding Bill’s clear explanations.
Paying Attention on Vacation
As for the rest of the book — the sense of place, the fishing material, etc. — most of it came from observation and memory.
Earlier in this life I spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. It’s one of those professions (police work is another) where you never really get away from thinking as you do on the job, even when you’re on vacation. In practical terms that means eavesdropping, asking questions, and paying close attention to what you see and hear.
When I go to the mountains on a fishing trip, I love to go to breakfast at the local café (there’s always a joint like Mom’s in my book), newspaper in hand, and listen while I’m looking at the paper. Nobody pays any attention to a solitary reader and you can generally monitor several conversations in the immediate vicinity. If you know a piquant detail when you encounter it, there are plenty to be found in such a place.
I also talk to store clerks, law enforcement officers, park rangers, basically anyone I meet. And when it comes to describing the fishing, that’s easy. A fly fisherman has to pay close attention to the water and to what he’s doing, so that’s all between my ears. And fishing a stream is the pleasantest research of all.