Sunday, August 2, 2009

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

Although I didn’t plan to become a fiction writer, I was already making stuff up during my school days. Any time I had to do a paper that required research—which I hated—I always wrote from my imagination and hoped it sounded realistic enough to fool the teacher. I made up stuff on everything from visiting historic California Missions to interviewing experts on the importance of Atomic Energy. And back then I didn’t even have the Internet for help.

Now that I’ve morphed into a fiction writer, I’ve come to love research. In fact, I’d much rather research a person, place or topic than actually write the book. I’m currently writing the second book in my mystery series and it requires a lot of research to make the story sound authentic. For example, last weekend I spent the day just doing research. First, I sat inside one of those teeny toy Smart Cars to see if my broad-shouldered love interest could fit. I found the car amazingly roomy inside, great for making U-turns on one-lane mountain roads, and perfect for a car chase on the sidewalk. I almost bought one but they were out of yellow.

Next I went to the San Francisco County Jail to see what it would be like to visit a prisoner, just as my protagonist must do in order to save her BFF. Sure, there’s plenty of information on the Internet about visiting the jail, like “No cell phones, weapons or gang colors.” And good thing, since I’d planned to wear something colorful. But I wanted to know more. Such as, what color are the walls? (Somewhere between Shenandoah Taupe and Caramel Apple) and what does it smell like? (A cross between a hospital hallway and high school locker room). Those are details you just can’t get from the Internet.

The characters in my books like to eat between action scenes and romantic interludes, so I had to check out San Francisco cafes, diners, and bars that would make interesting backdrops for their clue-filled conversations. I discovered a wonderful French café hidden in San Francisco’s trendy South Park, filled with pony-tailed hippies and spike-haired hipsters, computer techs in logo t-shirts and bike riders in colorful Spandex, all gobbling blueberry crepes and croquet-monsieurs. They’d be perfect for an appearance in my latest mystery. While sipping a café au lait, I eavesdropped on conversations that ran from dramatic break-ups to outlandish adventures. And I took notes.

On the way home I swung by Treasure Island, the primary location for my book, to see how I could make that unique setting become a character in the story. That meant attending a wine tasting (I bought a bottle of Treasure Island Wine because the label featured a pirate flag), talking with the security guard (who filled me in on the new TV show “Trauma” being filmed there), and chatting up the Commodore at the T.I. Yacht Club (he tipped me to the best garlic fries on the Island).

Although I’ll probably use only a small per cent of the things I’d learned, it was those “telling details” that I hoped would make the book come alive.

You just can’t make that stuff up.

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