This is from a conversation about location research for novels I had with Mandy Mikulencak. Mandy and I met at this year’s Dallas-Fort Worth Writers’ Conference. We both recently spent about a week doing location research for our next novels and decided to talk about it by email with an eye to crafting it into a joint blog. That’s exactly what we did.
I know you just returned from Opelika, Alabama, to do research for your next novel. How in the world did you latch onto Opelika as a location?
Opelika latched onto me! About 18 months ago, two lovely ‘suthun’ lady friends invited me for a long weekend at a lake house in Salem, AL. I was working on my first book and loved being treated to their laughter, their comforting drawls and Southern hospitality. They mentioned the nearby town of Opelika but we never left the house so I put it out of my mind. Tried to put it out of my mind.
Then, on my flight home, I couldn’t stop thinking about Opelika. The word itself wouldn’t leave my thoughts. I scribbled a few book titles and before I knew it, I had the title of my next book: The Opelika Ladies Murder Society. I said to myself, I don’t want to write a murder mystery. And those ‘voices’ said “OH, YES YOU DO!”
Over the next year, I finished up the first book and a second book I had in progress. Then, out of the blue, my husband suggested we make a quick trip to Opelika, AL, for on-the-ground research. I think he wanted to go there because of the world-class golf in that area of the country! And I said, “oh why the hell not.”
Don’t you wonder sometimes whether we’re truly the writers — or whether there’s a secret galactic box somewhere that just uses us to tell stories?
I know what you mean by stories latching on to us. I’d doggedly hiked nearly every trail in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southern Colorado (near you in Durango), but I’d avoided all the ancient Anasazi ruins in that part of the world because I thought they’d be boring.
Then on a trip with my son to the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area between Durango and Pagosa Springs, this boy ran across our path. I put my hand out to keep my son from running into him. The boy was a figment of my imagination, of course. A figment I couldn’t shake. Hence my surrender to the grip of the galactic box that wanted me to write Anasazi historical fiction.
I just returned from Pagosa Springs on a book research trip. I took a class in making authentic Anasazi pottery (see more here: Ancient Arts Chimney Rock Workshop). I find myself looking mostly for experiences, sensual input I guess. Do you do that as well? Do you intentionally seek out a place, perhaps at a certain time or date, just to see what it feels like?
I absolutely believe in something like that secret galactic box ‘choosing’ us to be the vessel for the story that needs to be told. I had titles for all three books come to me in a very out-of-body woo-woo way, and I just had to say, “Okay. I’ll get started…”
I love the idea of ‘sensual input’ in regards to research. That’s exactly how it felt in Opelika. The story takes place in July and I visited in July so I experienced first-hand how very uncomfortable the heat and humidity are — for me and my characters. I ate the food — Southern, deep-fried, comforting, artery-clogging, digestion-challenging. I drank sweet tea and sat in neighborhoods, looking at houses where I thought my characters might live. I made sure I noted when the sun set, when the mosquitoes and crickets came out, how hot it was at 9 p.m. or 6 a.m., the driving distance between different places. I listened to that lilting, captivating accent of the region.
By the end I was exhausted from being so hyper-vigilant. I might have tried to absorb too much in a three-day trip. But the book will be different, better because of this trip.
I’m wondering if anything surprising came from your research? Something that stopped you short, something you knew had to be part of your book.
Oh, yeah. Slapped me into a dead stop for a few seconds: Shining White Greathouse at Chimney Rock. I’ve been on the tours maybe a dozen times, but somehow the mental image escaped me until this trip. You know that beautiful stonework we associate with the Anasazi? Those stones the sizes of loaves of bread with smaller stones shoved between them in courses? The Anasazi covered that up with white plaster. Imagine walking from Chaco Canyon (90 miles as a crow flies) to Chimney Rock and seeing that shining white building high on the tilted mesa.
I know exactly what you mean by the exhaustion of hyper-vigilance in doing site reconnaissance. I climbed Pagosa Peak’s southwestern face to see if a bunch of boys in my novel could build and light a bonfire there that could be seen from Chimney Rock. It’s a rugged place. Building a bonfire wouldn’t be easy, but could definitely be done. Imagining my characters there wore me out as much as the hike and climb.
I love the details you describe and that you captured. I tried taking notes, but that seemed to fail me. I took lots of snapshots. Otherwise, I just rely on memory to tell me the things I need to remember — such as how people exhausted by their pot-making labor in relentless sunshine tend to stand with their arms crossed and back slowly into the thin shadows of scrub trees. The ancient ones must have done the same thing.
Did you set up any interviews? If so, how did you find the people and how did they react to your request?
I did set up one interview and that was with a police sergeant to discuss what exactly would happen if people started showing up murdered in Opelika on the same day each month. Because of his busy schedule, we didn’t meet in person but exchanged emails over the course of a week. He was immediately receptive to sharing law enforcement expertise. I gleaned information on police investigations, why the county sheriff’s department might get involved, why the FBI might get involved, etc. We also talked about the ruckus it would cause for my protag to insert herself into the investigations. (Oh, and she will!)
I’ve had numerous conversations with friends from Georgia and Alabama about the area. While not ‘interviews’ per se, the talks are rich in detail about the people and personality of the deep south.
As an aside, there’s a new show on the History Channel called “You Don’t Know Dixie.” It’s a hoot. Talk about fodder for the book. I took copious notes last night.
What kind of research have you done online or through libraries? Do you have a system for cataloging research? Right now, mine is a jumbled mess of notes and photos.
Seems to me if you went to a police sergeant of any small town and started talking about dead people showing up there, they might come and haul you downtown. How’d you get your point across without appearing to be, oh, maybe just a little threatening?
As for research. Psssht. I’m an Anasazi historical fiction guy. I’ve got more archaeological data than I can stuff into my head. I have a master Excel spreadsheet with 359 entries, each linked to its source, each shown in its relevant time span and place for my story. I have the birth and death dates, places, and circumstances of my main characters, and some secondary ones in the spreadsheet. I have enough maps and books to make a fire hazard (don’t tell your police sergeant).
And that doesn’t even include the flash scenes I can’t get out of my head. What would this place feel like to my people (my characters)? How would the context of their lives affect their choices?
I love daydreaming that kind of stuff while I’m hiking around a place.
Now answer my question. Didn’t you feel a little weird asking a police officer about murder?
I sent a generic request to the police department public information officer. I spelled out very quickly that I was a writer (and gave links to web site and blog). I asked for a very brief meeting to discuss law enforcement specifics to ensure legitimacy of what the book portrayed. I also gave him an idea of the type of mystery (Agatha Christie). But I admit to feeling weird and wondering what a PD would think of a woman asking about murder!
At this point, Mandy and I agreed to shut our mouths and countdown our Top Three Pieces of Advice on Novel Location Research.
Jeff: Don’t forget your binoculars.
Mandy: Don’t go in with preconceived notions about the area.
Jeff: Refuse to hurry. Linger. As long as you can. A place is an organic, changing thing, with rhythms and patterns and endless surprises. Be big-eyed and walk very slowly.
Mandy: Stop by the tourism office and sit for a spell to chat with who’s on duty — ask questions that can’t be answered by the literature in the racks.
Jeff: Eavesdrop. Local people have local conversations. Visitors have completely different kinds of conversations. Steal snatches of their dialog, the cadence of their speech, their body language. It’s all yours, right out there in public. You just have to lean a little close sometimes to grab it.
Mandy: Don’t pick a location out of a hat (or because it’s a place you’d like to visit). Make sure the location is central to the STORY. I think of Opelika as one of the main characters.