I was a research pundit in past careers but the footwork required to write mysteries turned out to be the best fact-finding adventure ever. Too bad a serious lack of foresight in youth resulted in my complete failure to anticipate my need for a partner in crime.
Plotting a novel for an amateur sleuth is fun, especially the early stages: have the protagonist discover a crime, create a compelling reason for her to be involved, then give her the smarts to unravel the puzzle. All fine and dandy until I wrote my first murder scene and--hey!--the police appeared on the page. Suddenly I had an urgent need to talk with a homicide detective about procedure. Tiny little things you don't learn on TV like - who arrives on the crime scene when? I needed an expert. My local LAPD Captain was amazingly gracious and arranged for me to interview a homicide detective at the police station at 6am while crime and everyone else slept. One of my coolest interviews ever, so helpful. Nevertheless, I couldn't just pick up the phone and call my new-friend-in-homicide to ask additional questions in the middle of the night if I got stuck for info in a scene.
That was the first time I thought, ah, but if I were married to a homicide detective...
Then came writing the rescue scene. A new need: quiz an EMT for details. I found myself shamelessly interviewing firemen on their break at Studio Yogurt. "Hi, I'm a mystery writer. Can you tell me how to rescue someone from the side of a cliff?" The LAFD guys were friendly, funny, and gave me solid details over soft frozen vanilla yogurt. My cousin's daughter Marci, an EMT in Milwaukee, added her brilliant insight over the telephone. But if I had married a fireman years ago I could have grilled now-retired hubby during a commercial break of the whatever game instead of stalking handsome men in uniform or phoning relatives long distance.
A supernatural element stirred my plot. I was fine with my solo jaunts to The Psychic Eye and occult boutiques--simple and safe to do during daylight. No problem touring the back room of a New Orleans French Quarter voodoo shop with a voodoo priestess surrounded by skulls. But it sure would have been nice to have a sidekick along to split a plate of beignets at Cafe DuMonde.
My interest in a bodyguard-expert-buddy came to a peak as I researched my second novel. The story is set near MacArthur Park. In the early 1900s the streets bordering the park were dubbed the Champs-Elysees of Los Angeles, rife with grand hotels populated by wealthy tourists. 2011 MacArthur Park remains a gorgeous landmark, but the grand hotels were destroyed long ago and replaced by colorful, multicultural businesses like the Korean Mexican BBQ Shack. A few of the locals speak English: the friendly staff at Langer's Deli does. The drug dealers and prostitutes loitering near the park do. The gang members don't want to. Most everyone else speaks Spanish. (Note to self: why did I drop Spanish II for Latin?) And drive alone around MacArthur Park late at night to get the feel for atmosphere? Put a Rob Me sign in my car window and call me Stupid. My fantasy Dear Husband could at least drive fast while I snapped photos.
I have the how-to books that guide writers through the specifics of procedure. And I live on the Internet - an amazing resource (how did writers research way back in the 1980s without Google Maps?) But there's nothing like getting the facts from the veritable horse's mouth complete with anecdotes and trade secrets, or visiting perfect setting locations with a personal bodyguard, you know, just in case. And I'm not talking about your best friend Ethel whose defense tactic is her blood-curdling scream. Yep. Could really use that cooperative DH. The honey we-have-to-go-here-today guy. That's how it works, right? The Better Half offers deep insight and follows directions, right? Hey, I'd even dedicate the book to him. Which reminds me, I think I'll call my brother and berate him for not going to law school.
What about you? Do you have a partner in crime that's willing to take up an adventure and scour dark alleys with you?
WHO DO, VOODOO? The first novel in Rochelle Staab's A Mind for Murder mystery series will be released November 1, 2011 on Berkley Prime Crime.