Sunday, February 16, 2014

Great Uncle Bulgaria

However great the internet is for research—and I speak as someone who’s watched the World Wide Web develop from its first faltering ‘very-novel-but-what-use-is-it?’ steps—I still feel there’s no substitute for the real thing. And by that I mean seeing, smelling, touching and hearing whatever it is you’re trying to write about. Particularly when it comes to creating a sense of place.

I appreciate that as scribblers of fiction our fundamental job is to Make Stuff Up but, even so, adding just a tinge of authenticity to a piece of work can make all the difference between the whole setting of the book ringing false or true.

Knowing that when they leave port to cross the Irish Sea in the fast catamaran ferries, anybody standing on the narrow rear deck tends to disappear in a cloud of diesel smoke is, to me, a nice little titbit of information. I used it in ROAD KILL: Charlie Fox book five. A throwaway line, as was mention of the rooster tail rainbows that sparkled behind each hull at full throttle.

For every book there is something similar, but different. Like discovering that the open-plan café near the entrance to the New England Aquarium fills the immediate vicinity with the smell of fried fish. Or that the Boston Harbor Hotel has padded wallpaper in the lobby. That came into SECOND SHOT: book six.

Until I was actually shown around the giant scrapyard in New Orleans, known locally as Southern Scrap, I would never have thought to set one of the pivotal scenes of DIE EASY: book ten there.

Next best thing to seeing and experiencing for yourself is talking to someone who’s been there, done that—preferably an expert in their field rather than merely a keyboard hero.

For ABSENCE OF LIGHT: a Charlie Fox novella I was lucky enough to spend some time with a leading Home Office pathologist who headed up various Disaster Victim Identification teams after major earthquakes. The snippet there was the symbols painted on the outside of buildings to indicate they’d been cleared or if there was a body left inside. Of course, I took this information and ran with it in my own direction, but the basis of truth is there.

And now I’m on with the next in the Charlie Fox series, tentatively titled FOX HUNTER. The book is partly set in Jordan, which I visited last year, and in Bulgaria, from whence I have just returned almost in one piece—long story. And there I learned not only about the area, but some little bits of info that I doubt I would have found out without actually going myself.

One was what it feels like to ride a skidoo through the forest at night. Amazing, is the first thing, and like riding a big cruiser motorcycle with a rear puncture, is the second.

And one of the other remarkable discoveries was what is freely available to buy in the tourist stores on the main street—knives, extendible batons, CS gas and tasers. Exactly the kind of info I needed …

So, my question this week is, what’s the most fascinating bit of information you’ve either set out to discover—or stumbled upon by accident and had one of those “Eureka!” moments—while either reading a book or researching one? How do you do most of your research? And what was your best or worst research experience? Have you ever wondered, when reading a book, how much is made up about a location, how much is gleaned from the internet, and how much is taken from real life?

This week’s Word of the Week, is eureka, which is most commonly recognised as the exclamation made by Greek scholar Archimedes when he stepped into his bath and realised that the amount of water displaced by his body meant that the volume of irregular shaped objects could now be measured with precision. It comes from the Greek heúrēka, meaning “I have found (it)”


  1. Agreed, Zoe. We try to visit every place we write about - to get the feel, the smell, the taste. We take photos and copious notes - and much of that never actually gets in a book, but we believe the feel does.

    1. Hi Stan.

      Yup. I always do heaps of research, then aim to leave about 90% of it out ...

  2. My worst research experience was proving beyond all doubt that a woman in high heels and stilettos cannot climb out a skip..... I haven't tested if a man so dressed could manage it... Stan? Jeff? Michael?

    1. I believe Stiletto Jeff *IS* the man to mythbust this one!

    2. I always saw Jeff more as a kitten heels kind of a guy Everett ...

    3. Erm, not sure I could climb out of a skip wearing both high heels AND stilettos, Caro.

      I once got locked into an office building and had to climb out of an upper-storey window and then make my way to safety over the rooftops, though. Does that count? :))

    4. Personally, folks, I find it far easier when rousting myself out of a dumpster in the mornings to toss my Jimmy Choos out first, then kick myself up and over the side much as I would into a zodiac from the sea. As for kitten heels, I prefer them only on patent leather black boots accessorized by an appropriate cat-o-nine-tails ala Pussy Galore.

      That should give you some idea of my research methods:).

    5. Now THAT is a mental image I simply cannot get out of my head, Jeff. Thanks for putting it there ...

      PS - post pictures.

  3. Will you be demonstrating this method at Bouchercon? Can I sell the video at specialist outlets?