Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Things We Do for Research by Suzanne Adair

Suzanne Adair writes am ystery/suspense series set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Her first book, Paper Woman, won the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society. More recently, Camp Follower was nominated for the 2009 Daphne du Maurier Excellence in Historical Mystery/Suspense Award.
Check her web site or blog for more information.

The Things We Do for Research
by Suzanne Adair

Writers of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers dabble with ligatures, poisons, blades, and firearms. They read up on sociopaths and schizophrenics. They pester cops, hack hard drives, sketch plans on cocktail napkins for invading countries, study how to build bombs and organize cults, and verify procedures for manufacturing street drugs.

What fun! And to think that my ex-husband labeled me weird, obsessed, and admitted that my interests scared him. Poor fellow.

So why do we pursue these activities and risk being labeled odd birds? Well, one of our goals is to suspend our readers' sense of disbelief so they'll buy into our fictional worlds. No getting around the fact that world building requires a chunk of research. You must make sure that things work right, or readers will dismiss you.

On the Guppies discussion list several years ago, a subscriber confessed that she'd had her husband duct-tape her mouth, hands, and ankles, then close her into the trunk of her car so she could determine the difficulty of escape. (Note: That's a fate she'd planned for her protagonist in her manuscript.) My initial thought was, "Wow, I never would have trusted my ex to do that." But as I recall, she rewrote the scene because she learned just how difficult it was for a human being to escape duct tape. Do you think she was weird?

The things we do for research are unique and amazing. In my case, early into the first draft of Paper Woman, I realized that I take modern technology blissfully for granted. You know, stuff like indoor plumbing, central heat and air-conditioning, refrigerators, automobiles, cell phones, even the grocery store. Convenience and accessibility underpin my culture and shape my values and reactions. But during the Revolutionary War more than 225 years ago, very little was convenient or accessible. Danger and scarcity shaped decisions, especially for the middle and lower classes.

How well could a woman of the 21st century comprehend that from reading books and interviewing subject matter experts? Rather poorly, in fact. If I intended to create believable fiction about people who lived a couple of centuries ago, I had to get inside my characters' heads — learn what clothing of the era felt like, which everyday challenges people faced, how their world smelled, tasted, and sounded.

That's why I originally became a Revolutionary War reenactor. My family and I — yes, obsessed as I am, I dragged my family into this hobby — spend a typical reenacting weekend at the site of a historical battle, camped in white canvas army tents with no mosquito screens, dressed in eighteenth-century clothing made of natural fibers such as wool and linen. Our menu is limited by what meals we can prepare over a wood fire. Food sometimes gets eaten scorched; the temperature of an open fire isn't as easy to regulate as the temperature in an oven. Running water? Sometimes available. Flush toilets? If we're lucky. Heat or air-conditioning? Ha ha ha!

This is undoubtedly what prompted one interviewer to tell me, "Honey, you really suffer for your art!" My "suffering" is temporary, a mere forty-eight hour sample of what our foremothers and forefathers dealt with 24/7. My hat's off to them. They were hardy folk.

But the peculiar payoff from hands-on research is the world-broadening effect it has on the researcher. At almost every weekend event I've attended, I've encountered an experience that no one could accurately anticipate from reading a book or interviewing an expert. These experiences have supplied me with a far deeper understanding of the trials faced by eighteenth-century people.

For example, learning to load and fire a musket with powder only, no ball. (Note: Reenactors use only powder. Otherwise, there'd be litigation issues and arrests.). Nothing I'd read prepared me for the noise of the musket, how hot it gets after firing, the weight of it, or how long it takes to reload. One time, I fired a ball in a secluded location, so I could feel the difference in the musket's kick when fully loaded. My smugness over hitting a pine tree at human heart level quickly vanished when I realized the musket ball could have ricocheted and killed someone. How often did that happen in skirmishes 225 years ago?

How about learning to start a fire from flint and steel? (Note: This is an exercise in hyperventilation.) Not until I'd fumbled this feat a few times did I comprehend the impact of natural variables, such as wind and humidity, on establishing a fire when you don't even have the convenience of matches. Try starting a fire with flint and steel on a windy, wintry night.

And learning to move in a petticoat. Imagine the difficulty of doing so when sweat plasters your shift to your upper thighs beneath the petticoat, or a brisk wind provides the "Flying Nun" effect while you carry firewood, or your petticoat becomes soaked with rain. No reference book could have prepared me for how quickly a sudden breeze whipped my petticoat into the campfire at one event. Did you know that being burned was one of the top causes of death for women in the eighteenth century? (Note: Every year, a few reenactor women have to be extinguished after their petticoats catch fire.)

Not all my moments of enlightenment have been so blatant or instantaneous.

My family and I reenact on the Crown forces side. For every battle, I watch the three most important guys in my life don scarlet coats and line up on the battlefield with their weapons. Across the field from them is a swarm of guys in blue coats. So I get asked the inevitable questions at booksignings and reenacting events, sometimes shyly, sometimes with indignation. Why have I chosen to portray a loyalist, rather than a patriot? A loser, rather than a winner? A villain, rather than a hero?

Initially, I sought the Crown forces camp because the protagonists of my first two books are neutrals. Since school age, I'd had the patriot point of view drilled into me, and I felt I needed the other point of view to create balanced, believable neutrals on the page. But I remained in the Crown forces camp because I absorbed another truth while there. Soldiers who fought for King George the Third in the colonies didn't see themselves as villains or losers. Neither did many colonists see them as such. History is, indeed, written by the victors, and there are two sides to every conflict. I don't forget that when I develop my characters. The pièce de résistance from my research has been raising two sons who have learned to pause and value the other side of an argument.

Research gives me a panoramic, three-dimensional perspective. It enables me to texture my stories differently from those set in contemporary times — and those stories should be different. How believable are fictional worlds in which historical characters are, beneath their period clothing, merely people with their hearts and heads in the 21st century?

My blessings upon you the next time you unroll the duct tape, take fencing lessons, leave another message on the answering machine of an elusive crime reporter, or read up on Charles Manson or Jim Jones.

Thanks for stopping by Meanderings and Muses today, and a big thanks to Kaye for having me as her guest.

What's the wildest thing you've done for your own research?


Vicki Lane said...

Great post, Suzanne! I really enjoyed hearing about your re-enacting experiences. Perfect for your books!

The wildest thing I've ever done? In a way, my entire life as a back-to-the lander complete with milking cows, butchering pigs, has been research for my books -- I just didn't realize it at the time. I did get a concealed carry permit and that experience turned into a chapter.

The petticoat thing -- my dear, you have indeed suffered for your art.

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Vicki! Great to hear from you.

I knew you "roughed it" for a few years, and I've caught and cleaned *fish*, but I dunno if I could butcher *pigs*. Ewwww.

Is your experience with the concealed carry permit in one of your books?

Petticoats: I sooooo appreciate that women don't wear them anymore. :-)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You know, I think my kids would enjoy going to a reenactment camp...initially. :) Then they'd be using their insider-knowledge of poison against me (yes, I tend to babble about poisons at home.)

I think my recent 10.5 hour car trip to Memphis for my Berkley Prime Crime series research--with both kids and husband in tow--would qualify as crazed research.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Vicki Lane said...

Suzanne -- the concealed carry class turned into Ch.26 of OLD WOUNDS.

Joyce Lavene said...

Love the pictures, Suzanne. Good blog.

The craziest thing Jim and I have ever done is going to visit the morgue with SinC. That was wild and creepy, especially when there were dead people with toe tags there. Couldn't believe they really had a pot to boil skulls in!

We've always enjoyed going to reenactments which is why we started writing the Ren Faire mysteries. Not quite historical but a lot of fun!

J & J Lavene
Ghastly Glass
September 1

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for stopping by. How old are your kids? My sons were age 7 and 5 for their first reenactment, and they chattered about it for weeks afterward, they had so much fun. Cannons booming, muskets discharging, Indians and guys in red and blue running everywhere...highly recommended. I did have to correct my younger son's pronunciation of the town of Camden, SC. He called it "Condom." :-) The secret to traveling long hours in a vehicle with the whole family: bring games and lots of snacks, and rent a van so you can stretch cramped muscles.

Suzanne Adair said...

Vicki, I haven't read OLD WOUNDS yet, but I'll get to it!

Suzanne Adair said...

Hey Joyce, nice to see you! I also visited a morgue with a SinC group and saw a couple of "guests" with toe tags. Yeah, that's creepy.

Did you see the area where they do autopsies? Whew, on my tour, that place stank like formaldehyde. And one of the writers almost passed out when our guide showed off the containers with organ samples in them.

Ren Faires are loads of fun. Do you and Jim get dressed in period clothing to visit the Ren Faire?

RhondaL said...

What a great article! Thank goodness, you didn't hate your initial experience. Did you ever have the "OMG - what have I gotten myself into??" feeling.

I like to do on-location research. although I'm glad that my protagonist only has Iraq in her backstory. But I have gone to horse shows in a clannish equestrian subculture only to be met with hard "we don't know you" stares. Just like in the western movies when the stranger walks into the saloon only to have all the action stop while everyone stares.

But probably the oddest research activity I've done was taking a helicopter tour of Manhattan with my eyes closed for a while to get a feel for it being up there in the dark and out-of-control.

Unknown said...

Fun topic! As research for my upcoming novel about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming, I traveled 7,000 miles to visit Chaiten Volcano, in Northern Patagonia, Chile. The volcano is on Red Alert since it's been erupting continuously for the past year, and the town at its base is officially evacuated since it's under threat of another lahar similar to the one that ruined it during the initial eruption.

Nevertheless, I found an English-speaking guide who arranged lodging for me in the town, even thought it's without city services like electricity and running water, and took me to within one mile of the lava dome, where I saw steam vents, heard explosions coming from the caldera, and felt a small earthquake.

It was an incredible, amazing trip which is REALLY going to inform the new novel. Who says a writer's life is boring? :)

Pictures and video at the Boiling Point blog if anyone's interested.

Suzanne Adair said...

Rhonda, thanks for your post!

"OMG, what have I gotten myself into?" usually happens after I've returned to the 21st century. When you're out there doing it/being it, your senses are engaged and immersed in the different world. You feel like you've been beamed into the past.

I hope you spent *some* time with your eyes open during your helicopter tour of Manhattan. That must be a spectacular sight. :-) When you took your tour, did the thought of a mid-air collision like that recent tragic accident cross your mind?

Years ago, when I was writing SF, I attended Adult Space Academy for a weekend and spent a minute on the machine that simulates an uncontrolled spin. The nausea generated by the experience was lessened slightly when I closed my eyes. But astronauts don't have that luxury, and neither do helicopter pilots.

Suzanne Adair said...

Wow, Karen, a trip to Chile and a cantankerous volcano -- awesome! Must have been rotten-egg stinky near that caldera. You give us a good idea of the research extremes for thriller writers. Thanks so much for your post, and good luck with BOILING POINT.

Daryl a.k.a. Avery said...

Suzanne, love the photos! How great that you do reenactments. For The Cheese Shop Mysteries, I'm having to research cheese, cheesemakers, and wineries. No danger there. Just yummy food, great folks. I'm planning a visit to Ohio in October. It's all fun!
Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

Suzanne Adair said...

Daryl, so nice of you to drop by! Hmm...cheese, cheesemakers, wineries. Twist my arm a little, will ya? I'll think of you the next time I'm freezing in my 18th-c clothing or coughing at wood smoke. :-) Is Ohio a "cheesier" state than Wisconsin?

Carol Murdock said...

Suzanne, this was really fascinating! I will have to get your books! Patrick D. Smith is one of my favorites as he is actually from Mississippi, a few miles from where I live! I've always thought Vicki Lane would love his "A Land Remembered" and his "Forever Island" !

Suzanne Adair said...

Welcome, Carol. I didn't realize that Patrick D. Smith was from Mississippi. I'm a native of Florida; when I read A LAND REMEMBERED, I thought, "Wow, this guy really knows Florida." No doubt about it, his research was thorough. Thanks for your post!

Colleen Collins said...

I didn't travel to a volcano, but it was almost as hot. Ten years ago, I began visiting a gentleman's club to research a character. I went so often, they let me hang out backstage to learn more about the biz. By the time I left, they gave me a VIP pass.

Fun blog. Enjoyed everybody else's stories, too.

RhondaL said...

I did keep my eyes open for quite a while during the Manhattan helicopter ride. Remembering to close them for the research was tough -- as was picking a spot to do so. The views are just too spectacular.

Also, the protagonist I was researching for would only be a passenger, although I do have flight manuals for helicopters around here somewhere.

Suzanne Adair said...

Oooh, Colleen, a gentleman's club. I'm impressed that you got a VIP pass out of your excursions. How far backstage did they allow you? :-) 'Scuse me, I might need to take a cold shower. :-) What were you writing that necessitated this adventure? Thanks for your post!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, ladies. Suzanne, since you sent me the link to this, I decided to post it at my Win a Book blog. One day, we'll meet up in person. I'm looking forward to it.

Suzanne Adair said...

Susan, thanks for the link to Win a Book! I'm glad you enjoyed my guest post on Meanderings and Muses, and I'd be delighted to meet you. Check the calendar on my blog ( to see whether you'll be in the neighborhood for any of those Q3 appearances. If you email me, I'll tell you about the Q4 2009 and 2010 events I have scheduled. Cheers!

Suzanne Adair said...

Kaye, thanks again. What fun! Did you know that writers went to such lengths for their fiction?

Mary Buckham said...

Suzanne ~~ Wonderful post - as exciting as your stories are and no wonder they come so alive! I took a boat across the Mekong River into Laos a few years back - strickly to see if it was possible - thinking the whole time the experience would end up in a book some day. All experiences are fodder for a writer's mind.
Thanks for sharing ~~ Mary B

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Mary, and thanks for stopping by. I know you're so busy these days! Considering recent political events, your story about the boat trip across the Mekong River is creepy. You gotta tell me what happened after your boat arrived in Laos.

Earl Staggs said...

Extremely interesting, Suzanne, the lengths you go to in your research. The most interesting thing I've done was to meet and talk with real-life psychics for the development of my protagonist with psychic abilities. I sought out those who assisted law enforcement agencies in crime solving, which is what my protag does. I enjoyed meeting them, gained a great respect for legitimate psychics, and feel the time spent with them helped me get it right. Getting it right is crucial to what we write, and that's what research is all about.

Mary Amanda Axford said...

Great post, Suzanne, I love how much you've learned from your experiences.

The part about women burning to death from their clothes catching fire reminds me of something I just read. It was in the second of Gyles Brandreth's historical mystery series about Oscar Wilde (called, I think, Oscar Wilde and a Game of Murder). In it, a character dies seemingly from just this cause, and part of the book was set in a party held by Constance Wilde, Oscar's wife, to raise money for the Rational Dress society that Amelia Bloomer started. One of the goals was to stop the deaths of women from just this cause. Brandreth seems to use historical events as much as possible, so this detail about Constance Wilde might be true.

Anyway, great post!



Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Earl, nice of you to drop by! Every now and then, a crime-writers group to which I belong invites a real-life psychic for a guest speaker. One thing I've learned -- and you may have discovered this in your interviews -- is that psychics have such different, individual styles in how they handle their investigations.

Suzanne Adair said...

A big hello to Mary Axford! That information about the Rational Dress Society is fascinating, and I can see it happening. Another reader who emailed me yesterday said that ballerinas a century ago would sometimes get too close to lanterns on the stage, and their skirts would catch fire! Yes, indeed, it's such a relief that clothing styles have changed.

Amber said...

I really appreciate all the research that goes into historical books all the more now. Thank you for the detailed post and the photos! I've never personally done research for a book, but it looks like sometimes the research is the best part!
Thank you for the giveaway :)

Suzanne Adair said...

Welcome, Amber. Glad you enjoyed my post. Many writers admit that the research becomes so enjoyable -- almost addictive, in fact -- that it's difficult for them to stop researching and start writing!