My wife Janet Lynn, and I have been writing together for several years and are just completing our fourth co-written murder mystery novel. Since our stories are set in the 1950s, we have to research many of the locations that have either changed or no longer exist. And because our storylines take us to distant places, we travel to many of those sites in order to get it right. Google Earth is great, and the web is invaluable, but there is only so much you can learn from these resources. Nothing beats being there in person. This works out great because we both love to travel.
For our first Skylar Drake Mystery, SLIVERS OF GLASS, we traveled to the northern California wine country, including Sonoma County, Bodega Bay and Santa Rosa.
STRANGE MARKINGS took us to Molokai where we researched pre-statehood Hawaii. This was the only Hawaiian island that wasn’t overly developed and gave us an idea of Hawaii before all the high-rise buildings.
Las Vegas in the mid-1950s was the setting for DESERT ICE. Most of our time was spent in the Special Collections at the UNLV Library, the Clark County Library and the Nevada State Museum. The Mob Museum to really give us the flavor of Vegas in 1955. We also had the opportunity to interview a Las Vegas Dancer and the daughter a notorious mobster who lived there in the 1950s.
When we tell friends and family about our trips, they turn green with envy and mistakenly think we are on a vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth, although we do learn things a “normal” tourist wouldn’t. We are entertained by the people we meet and the historical tidbits that come to light during our research.
Success in our research may stem from the questions Janet asks hotel staff, restaurant wait staff and sometimes random residents we meet on the street. She’ll ask, “If you needed to dump a dead body around here… where would you put it?” The result is one of two different reactions. First: The person will take a couple of steps back and look around for an escape route. Or Second: They’ll provide specific locations of abandoned buildings, intersections, cemetery names, coves, cliffs or other places. This can seem a bit disconcerting, because that response means they’ve thought about this in depth. There are times I’ve felt like taking a couple of steps back myself.
Our most recent book is a prime example. SLICK DEAL is set in 1956 on Santa Catalina Island. (only twenty-something miles off the coast of southern California.) We did exhaustive online research before consulting the Long Beach Main Library. We happened to be on Catalina Island for other reasons a few months ago and stopped in at the Visitors Center. They also referred us to the Avalon branch of the L.A. County Library , which happened to be closed at the time we visited. We next visited the Chamber of Commerce, who, once again, referred us to the Library. This wasn’t going to work, so we visited the Catalina Conservancy. Guess where they referred us. Yes, the Library. We thought we had it solved when we went to the Catalina Island Museum. Again, they said, to try the Library. This prompted another visit to the Island when the Library was open. We scheduled it during the month our story took place and many questions were answered. The staff was helpful and even provided white cotton gloves so we could rummage through their archives.
Some of the most interesting facts came from the guide at the Avalon Casino “Frankie of Avalon,” who grew up on Catalina. There was also a fellow at the golf-cart rental shop, and a couple of waiters. Does that sound like a relaxing vacation?
Once we visited these locations, we were struck with inspiration and appreciation for the locales.
Online research is great, but physically visiting the places where your story takes place can supply all your senses with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and the personality of the people you meet. As a couple writing together, we have a great time and, after four books, we’re still married.