By Sandy Wright
Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I believe the best readers already have their own BS radar. You can tell when a writer is winging it. As a reader, you don’t have to believe the story really happened, but you must believe it could have happened.
That’s why I always begin my writing process with research, and continue to research clear through the final draft. It’s fun to find that little detail that gives a scene the ring of verisimilitude—the feeling that the story’s world is absolutely and unquestionably real.
I love to research place, and I do that early on in the research process. For example, the suspense novel I’m writing now involves human smuggling across the Mexican border into Arizona.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol doubled in size to nearly 21,000 agents, most of them stationed along the border with Mexico. That’s roughly nine agents for every mile of border from Texas to California. Couple that with the fences now dividing the border for miles at all the major crossing points, and the Coyote smugglers now have the illegals cross at more remote and dangerous geographic areas. Arizona’s Sonoran desert is one of the busiest and deadliest border crossing routes.
So I’ve been poring over topographic maps and using Google Earth to virtually roam the route my Coyote smuggler will instruct his customers to walk to their meet-up point. It’s a scorching, desolate and arduous route, with summer temperatures topping 115 degrees, so they only travel at night.
Interestingly, I found during my research that the Coyote smugglers outfit the illegals almost as if they used an assembly line: Same brand and style of backpack, same contents, even the same amount of water—and never enough, so the travelers will be dependent upon their guide. In my story, one of the characters in the border crossing is a drug mule for the Sinaloan Mexican cartel, so sentries are posted along the route to track his progress. But they’re not there to assist, only to monitor. Sometimes to ravage. From that fact, came this little jewel of a scene in the first chapter:
They reached the San Pedro River Valley. A slight fork in the trail led to the riverbed, and Alberto could make out coyote and cat tracks heading down to its edge. It would be fruitless for man or beast this time of year, the river was dry until monsoon season next month. But they trudged down the sandy embankment to check anyway.
Instead of water, they found a gnarled sycamore tree with 32 pairs of women’s underwear hanging from its branches. Some of them obviously had been there for a while, they were tattered and rotted into flimsy yellow rags. Others were new. Gut-wrenchingly new.
The old man in the fedora stood next to Alberto, staring at the tree with hard eyes. “Do you have a pistol?” He asked quietly.
Alberto shot him a look, and nodded.
“If anything happens,” the man said, “if you must leave us behind.” He paused, his gaze returning to the tree. “Do us a kindness. Shoot my wife.”
I’m renewing my passport now, and this winter my photographer husband and I will travel south to visit the locations I’m writing about on both sides of the border. The town of Naco is tiny on the Arizona side, but a bustling border crossing site on the Mexican side. And Bisbee, where my main character, Rumor Vargas, has her antiques store, is already one of my favorite places. While I say there will be no paranormal element in this story, after the haunted sites tour in Bisbee, who knows?
It’s the physical location visit that really “seals in” the details—especially sensory details like the way things sound, smell, and look in the actual setting. The hubby will take photographs and I’ll take notes. Believe, me, readers who are familiar with the book’s settings will let the author know if there are any mistakes in reporting the details of their favorite locations!
The hardest part is making sure the research doesn’t take over my writing time, especially with the Internet making the world of research so very assessable. Hours (days!) can go by while I’m happily browsing, and not one word of the book actually gets written. That’s the paradoxical truth about research: The research is absolutely essential, yet it isn’t the story. The story must come from within. Writing fiction requires extended periods of uninterrupted concentration, or wakeful dreaming. It’s not an easy state to enter into and maintain. It must be protected.
To keep from getting lost in research, I set the kitchen time. When the timer goes off, I stop—no matter how enticing that next search link looks. I go back to my blank page, and write. It’s the only way to make a book. It’s simply not possible to do all the research up-front. So, if I come to something I don’t know, I insert square brackets [find out where in the high desert Saguaros quit growing] or [how much does a drug mule get paid per trip]. If I’m stuck with the writing, or just need a break, I’ll research one of the bracket questions, and that often helps me get the writing juices flowing again.
Can you recall something an author researched so effectively that it pulled you into the story? Please comment and share, I’d love to hear your examples.
Sandy Wright moved to Arizona 17 years ago and fell in love with the southwest desert, including its Native American influences. After a trip to Sedona, the germ of a novel was born.
“I love to take ordinary characters and put them in extraordinary situations that change their view of the world.”
Her first novel, Song of the Ancients, introduces witchcraft and shamanism seen through the eyes of an ordinary woman. Readers interested in witchcraft—or just a dark, eerie tale—will enjoy this paranormal suspense, written by a real-life Wiccan High Priestess.
Winner of the Pacific Northwest (fantasy), On the Far Side (paranormal) and Orange Rose (paranormal romance) contests, Song of the Ancients was published in May 2015, and is available in both print and ebook.