Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nick to my Nora, Dagwood to my Blondie, Jonathan to my Jennifer Hart...

Rochelle Staab

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.


Cassy Pickard said...

Rochelle! How great to have you with M&M. I love your descriptions of doing research. We've talked about research here before, but never included voodoo shops, prostitutes, or Korean Mexican restaurants! Great, great, great.

Am I going to see you at Crime Bake again?? Hope. Hope.

Kari Lee Townsend said...

LOL you crack me up, Rochelle! I love this post :-) I only wish I had the nerve you do. I am a closet researcher at home on the Internet. Way too chicken to go in person, especially alone. I'll be your partner in crime, though...at least for a day :-))

I cannot WAIT for this book to come out, and what a fabulous cover!

Good luck to you.

Rochelle Staab said...

Thank you Kari and the rest of the fab ladies on M&M for inviting me today. I had a blast with this post. Researching novels made me a braver person. I highly recommend local council meetings for character and conflict research and men in uniform!

Rochelle Staab said...

Cassy I'll be at Crime Bake - this year we dance!
And Kari - I'll take you up on your offer. I have a feeling you're an excellent partner in crime!

Kari Lee Townsend said...

LOL I bet we'd have a whole lot of fun, Rochelle :-)

And, yay, I'll be at Crime Bake this year, too!!!!

Cassy Pickard said...

Kari, you'll be at C too? Fantastic. Liz was there last year. This year, Liz? And, yes, yes, yes we'll be dancing. I'm leaving my cane home. But, Liz, can we stay off the tables?

Great piece, Rochelle. I love your descriptions! Got room in the back of that research car for another?

Lindsay said...

Alas, alack, I have to do all my own research. Thank goodness for the internet. But oh I'd love to take the Concorde to England so I can research my current WIP. Two things prevent me-one the Concorde is no more and two the cash went the way of the Concorde for the time being.
I'm not saying the Concorde will return but hopefully the money will.

Donna Cummings said...

Rochelle, I don't know if you've convinced me of the need for a permanent DH. It sounds WAY more fun chatting up the firemen and the policemen you encounter. :) In fact, I'm feeling the need to do some research today now. . .LOL

My fave research was when I went to a shooting range to learn how to shoot a gun, because my MC needed to learn, and I got so much authentic stuff that made it into the scene. I usually do internet research, but this wouldn't have been the same, so I'm glad I did it.

Hope to see all you gals at Crimebake (it's practically in my backyard. LOL) I'm planning on getitng books autographed by all of you!

VR Barkowski said...

Excellent post, but frankly, Rochelle, while there might some fringe benefits, a DH would cramp your research style. My background is in research too, but somehow handing a fireman or cop a questionnaire doesn't seem to net the same result. May I sign up for a lesson?

Love you, love your book, CP. Congratulations!

Rochelle Staab said...

Kari, Cassy, Viva, and Donna - next time we're together we should pile into a rental car and take a field trip. Men in uniform (most who are young enough to be the son I never had) relax and will reveal almost anything to me. It's the grey-hair. Makes me look so innocent. They chuckle until I ask them how to murder someone. Then I get to chuckle.

Lindsay - I flew on the Concorde in the 70s. So small you had to duck to walk through the aisle. I flew London to NY on the Concorde, then NY to LA regular. With the time changes, I arrived in LA an hour after I left London. Amazing. I hope your airship comes in so you can have your London adventure.

Donna - awesome that you took shooting lessons! I don't anticipate toting the fictional gun but I'm considering a stunt driving lesson. My novel is set in LA; my characters are constantly in a car. Might as well make one of the trips exciting?

It's hard to rev up the nerve to go on field trips but sooo worth it.

Heather Snow said...

Hi Rochelle! I LOVE the cover!

As for me, the internet is my friend...as much as I might love to travel 200 years back to Regency England. Oh, the things I might see! Alas... :)

Still, I have had to talk to live people here to research weaponry of the time, etc. Luckily, there are many historical experts out there who are willing to share their knowledge.

Can't wait for November :)

Rochelle Staab said...

Heather - thank you for stopping by! I'm proud of my cover and so eager for release. I can't wait to see the cover for SWEET ENEMY too - are you getting excited?

You may not be able to time travel to Regency England but , girl, you write Romance. My heart flutters imagining some of the research YOU get to do. And I don't mean costumes or weaponry.

Liz Lipperman said...

Great blog, Rochelle and welcome to M & M. I just got home from a day at an animal reserve with my grandkids. Having the animals come up and eat food out of our hands was the bomb!!

Like someone mentioned, I do all my research via the web. I am absolutely positive I am on the watch list for Homeland Security somewhere. If I need specific answers, I email someone directly, although I did have a vineyard owner in northern California give me a private tour and tasting for my ghost story,

I love how adventurous you are, Rochelle. For my next book, I need to take a cruise (tax write-off!!)I hate to do it, but I gotta!!!

As for Crime Bake, the only reason I danced on the table was on a dare. I had consumed maybe three sips of a Baileys on the rocks. Imagine if I had drunk the whole thing!!!

Rochelle Staab said...

But Liz, you DID dance on the table - and on the dance floor for most of the night as I recall. You're the gutsiest light drinker I know. And we "researched" a live séance for you the night before. This writing gig provides more fun than high school.

There must be a department at Homeland Security dedicated for us:
"Hey Al, there's a lady in Dallas researching guns."
"Is that Liz? Mystery writer."
"Hey Al, there's a woman in LA researching arson."
"Named Rochelle? Mystery writer."
...and on and on. Hmm, could be a movie in there somewhere.

My heart goes out to you, forced to take a cruise. Ah, what we do for the craft. Buck up. Someone has to do it.

Cassy Pickard said...

Think you gals are right about the HomeLand Security bit. I think I've mentioned before my kids have begged me to stop seeking out certain bits of information- guns, poison, bombs. My husband spends a fair amount of time in the Middle East. Get the concern my are convinced is warranted?

Rochelle Staab said...

Great question to ask a security expert or agent at a conference someday, Cassy! Maybe our backgrounds don't fit the profile? I hope not.

Fiction! We research and write fiction! (just in case Homeland Al is reading this.)

bookdout said...

Great article, and I look forward to your book, its right up my (dark) alley!

Rochelle Staab said...

Thank you, book'd out!

Anita Clenney said...

I'm so looking forward to your book, Rochelle. I do most of my research at home. I don't know what I'd do without Google. I think I need to dedicate one of my books to Google.

Rochelle Staab said...

Oh, Anita, you're adorable! I'm laughing. You'd get bonus press with a Google dedication - it's too clever to ignore.

If I can't get the real thing in person, Google is my go-to but I have a secret crush on Wikipedia. And You Tube. (Actually, I'm a bit of an info slut.)

I got a great tip from Lee Child at Bouchercon - when he's stuck for setting description, he rents movies and studies the backgrounds. Cool, right?

Lynn Sheene said...


Loved your description of fieldwork and laughed through your description of DH's use as a trusty yet muscley sidekick. Though my DH did go into the Paris catacombs amongst all the thousands of skeletons and then on the Paris sewer tour amongst the thousands of unmentionables to take photos for my research. I needed to know where the French Resistance hid underground and where my characters might also hide and DH came through with flying colors when clausterphobia did not.

Can't wait for Who do, Voodoo to come out!

petemorin said...

In the two years, I've interviewed two FBI agents (public corruption and drugs), a U.S. Marshal, a retired homicide detective (okay, he's my client), an international financial private investigator (also a client, and the model for Rex Barkley in Small Fish), an EMT, a paramedic and an expert in legal ethics (not a non sequitur).

And yeah, google maps sort of makes it not a fair fight. When you can zoom in on the Northern California seaside highway turn-offs and examine the Pacific Ocean vistas, it sure does aid your descriptive ability!

Rochelle Staab said...

Lynn - someday I'll create a European plot for Liz & Nick so I can dig in catacombs, too. Wow. I'm impressed with your treks through Paris and your skill in convincing DH to do the dirty footwork. Your writing reflects your adventurous spirit. Can't wait to see THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS on the bookshelves - 7 more weeks!

Pete - I covet a phone book and colorful client list like yours. Aren't personal interviews the best? How about a bite of SMALL FISH on your website for your fans (like me)?