by Janis Patterson
I don’t care how hard you research your facts, how meticulously you look things up, you’re going to miss something. And once the book is out someone will call you on it. Sometimes someone will call you on it even if you’re right.
Research is necessary to make your book as true to life as possible – and that is important. Writers who ignore facts show their readers an insulting disrespect.
However, sometimes no amount of research turn up the facts that you need. Until lately I have been working on a mystery set in 1916 New Orleans called A KILLING ON BASIN STREET. Now most of the things I need to know are fairly easy to find – New Orleans history and WWI are well-documented. Some things, though, are not. One of them is whether the 1916 Jordan Sport Marine automobile started with a self-starter (a dashboard button not too different from what we have today) or with a crank. I need it to start with a self-starter, but no one – and I mean NO ONE – seems to know which. I’ve talked to car enthusiasts and classic car clubs and professional organizations both in the US and abroad. No one knows. 1916-17-18 were the years of transition from cranks to self-starters, but I cannot pin down a date for the Jordan Sport Marine.
I’ve been asked why I just don’t change the automobile to something which I can verify, but I don’t want to. The Jordan Sport Marine was a wonderful, ground-breaking car which wouldn’t look bad on today’s highways, and which is the perfect car for my heroine to have, both cost and image-wise. Sigh. Anyway, I have solved the problem and, like many of my betters, will take refuge in obfuscation. I have put in that the car my heroine drives is ‘an advanced experimental model.’ Remember, weasel-words are our friends!
I will admit that I sometimes take research perhaps a mite too far. I said I had been working on A KILLING ON BASIN STREET until recently. It immediately got pushed to the back seat when an opportunity came to visit and actually stay at the dig house on an Egyptian archaeological excavation. Civilians NEVER get invited to stay at a dig house. First of all, the director (my dear friend Dr. Dirk Huyge) had to get permissions for us from two branches of the Egyptian government – the Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo and the Aswan Governate.
Dirk and I had been chatting sporadically about doing a mystery set at the dig house, and I had a plot in mind. So, when he asked, The Husband and I went. (Duh!) Being there made all the difference. I had seen pictures of the house, and read about it, but the reality was totally different than my imaginings. Now when I write on A KILLING AT EL KAB (and I’m over 20,000 words in) in my mind I can actually walk the halls again, sit on the terraces and watch the timeless Nile flow by, and see all the archaeologists hard at work. It’s not as good as actually being there, but it’s still wonderful. And real.
And I don’t have any illusions that there won’t be someone who tells me I am wrong about something. It’s inevitable.