Wednesday, November 5, 2014
The Things You Hear at Breakfast
When you publish a book, the reactions you get from people can be one of the positive, and sometimes surprising, benefits. After my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, came out, some of the remarks people made were a test of my well known ability to maintain a poker face.
One of the comments I got from a couple of people was something along the lines of “You must have done a lot of research on this.” The first time I heard that, I had the Tony Soprano reaction (WTF?) but I quickly realized that it was intended as a compliment. It was a way of saying the book felt real to them as they were reading it, and that’s high praise indeed.
The reason for channeling my inner Tony when I first heard the remark was that I was thinking of research as diligently looking into specific issues through authoritative sources — something I did very little of. But there’s another type of research, of which I had done quite a bit, and I suspect that’s what people were responding to.
I’m speaking of research through observation. Well before I wrote the book, I had made many visits to the mountains, going to places similar to the fictitious setting of the book. While there, I’d paid attention to, and mentally filed away, details about those areas. To the extent that the small town, the cattle ranch, the streams and meadows in the book seemed real, it was largely owing to my recall of that prior observation.
Nora Ephron once said that one of the great lessons her parents had taught her is that everything’s copy. In other words, everything you see, everything you hear contains details and information that can be put to some good use in future creative work. A good writer creates a large storage locker within his or her brain in which all that information is safely preserved until an occasion comes up for using it. A great writer knows precisely when and where to use it.
In addition to just looking, there’s a lot to be learned from casual conversations. In the mountains I’ve talked to store clerks, bartenders, sheriff’s deputies, campground hosts and many others. A brief exchange can yield a fine nugget, and most people like being asked about what they do, which can yield multiple nuggets.
Get Out of the Hotel
On a more passive level, good old-fashioned eavesdropping can produce a bonanza, and the best place to do it is in a local café. If you keep your eyes on your food or your coffee cup, no one pays the least bit of attention to you, and you can listen in on other conversations with total impunity.
Recently, Linda and I were in the mountains, and one night we stayed at a chain motel. Breakfast was included, but if you’re a writer, having breakfast in the motel is like looking for gold in the dog food section of the supermarket. We went to a local coffee shop, and as fate would have it, the people at the next table were talking about a local character. In considerable lurid detail.
That local character is going to end up in the next Quill Gordon novel, even if I have to stop the forward progress of the story to get him in. The detour will be worth it, and I could never have made up what I heard at the café that morning. We spent $25 more on breakfast than if we’d eaten at the motel, but it was worth every penny.