By Susan Coryell
Author of new-release
BENEATH THE STONES
I suspect that every writer must do some sort of research. I have friends in my writers’ group who craft murder mysteries. You’d think that would be something not requiring much in the way of research, right? Wrong! One friend spent days trying to see if a dead body could be stuffed whole into the toilet of a porta-potty. She even went to the PP store and tried it herself. Another writer needed to know how long a body would stay “fresh” in an abandoned deep freezer. And there’s a huge research trail on poisons that are hard to detect in a corpse.
Well, I write cozy mystery/Southern Gothic cross-genre and, let me tell you, I am always up to my ears in research. My Overhome Trilogy is set at fictional Moore Mountain Lake, based on the real lake where I reside in Southern Virginia. For A Red, Red Rose, the first book in the series, I did extensive research on the flooding of several river valleys to create a hydraulic dam. I learned how officials handled removal of the graves buried in its path, as this was important to my plot. Files of newspaper stories on this topic provided vital facts, as the flooding and dam-building progressed over a number of years. In keeping with my theme of Southern opposition to modern ideas because of long-held and hard-felt beliefs, I scoured museums for information on the local effects of the Civil War, attended lectures and queried university professors re slavery practices and slave rituals. My fellow writers actually dragged me (kicking and screaming) to a horse farm and made me ride a horse so that I could provide sensory details about my protagonist’s riding lessons.
Why do I work so hard to authenticate my history background and contemporary setting? Because I am writing about the very place in which I myself live. Though I call it by a fictional place name, local readers know quickly that the setting is based on the same real place where we live. If I am going to build a following, I have to do my homework. If I know nothing about farms and actually fear horses, I have to make up for my void of knowledge and surplus of unhelpful emotions. Believe me, my readers here would be the first to let me know where I have erred.
Now, I am working on the third book in the series. Because one main character is a large-animal veterinarian—a field about which I know exactly zero—I am reading up on the profession. Never Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow, by Dr. Pol, is both helpful and humorous. I have names of two vets I am going to interview for personal vignettes I can use in the book. I have browsed through about a dozen books on the topic so that I feel comfortable writing about the warp and woof of farm animal vets.
I’ve researched a nearby chapel built by and for slaves which is currently standing but not in use. How to get such a structure on the National Registry of Historic Places, and, thus, preserve it, is an aspect I have to further pursue for purposes of plot.
Another area for research has been truly difficult as there is a dearth of information on the topic. I want to incorporate what actually happened to the freed slaves from the end of the Civil War to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.
Though information is scant, what I have learned is both gripping and horrifying. Many Southern states adopted black codes, which allowed police to arrest and fine “vagrant” free black men, forcing them into prison with trumped-up charges and charging exorbitant fines, knowing the poor blacks would be unable to pay. Rich plantation owners and big businesses, many founded in the North, would pay a pittance for work release for these men, treating them horribly and literally working them to death. The term “peonage” has been applied to these practices. There is much more to the story, of course, and I am having one tough time finding information about the practices that virtually re-enslaved the freedmen. How much peonage took place here in Virginia where my novels are set? Were the work gangs employed for building railroads and bridges? Tobacco fields? I need this information to authenticate the situation of my characters, and I am still looking, as we speak.
At a recent signing I was asked, “Does writing get easier the more you do it?” I answered the question with a resounding, “Heavens no! Every subsequent book I write becomes more difficult because my standards climb higher with every publication.” And so, I will persevere until I know enough to base my fiction on fact. In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on ways to craft the plot and flesh out the characters. Hard work? Yes, but it’s what we writers all do. At least, for now, I do not have to worry about stuffing a body into anything.
Thanks to T. W. Fendley for asking me to participate on her informative and fun blog “The Writers Lens,” a great vehicle for writers who want to connect with other writers and readers.
About Susan Coryell
A career educator, Susan has taught students from 7th grade through college-level. She earned a BA degree in English from Carson-Newman College and a Masters from George Mason University. She is listed in several different volumes of Who’s Who in Education and Who’s Who in Teaching. Susan belongs to Author’s Guild, Virginia Writers, and Lake Writers. She loves to talk with budding writers at schools, writers’ conferences and workshops. Her young adult anti-bully novel EAGLEBAIT is in its third edition for print and e-book, updated with cyber-bullying. EAGLEBAIT won the NY Public Library's "Books for the Teen Age," and the International Reading Association's "Young Adult Choice."
A RED, RED ROSE, first in a cozy mystery/Southern Gothic series, won a literary award with the Library of Virginia. BENEATH THE STONES, the sequel, was released in April of 2015.
The author has long been interested in concerns about culture and society in the South, where hard-felt, long-held feelings battle with modern ideas. The ghosts slipped in, to her surprise.
When not writing, Susan enjoys boating, kayaking, golf and yoga. She and her husband, Ned, love to travel, especially when any of their seven grandchildren are involved.
- Please visit Susan Coryell’s website: www.susancoryellauthor.com and her blog: www.susancoryellauthor.blogspot.com or contact her on Facebook and Twitter.
- Contact info: website: www.susancoryellauthor.com
- FB Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Susan-Coryell-Author/149075331807592?ref=bookmarks
Where you can find her books:
- Beneath the Stones: http://www.amazon.com/Beneath-Stones-Susan-Coryell/dp/1628308524/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432903749&sr=8-1&keywords=beneath+the+stones
- A Red, Red Rose: http://www.amazon.com/Red-Rose-Susan-Coryell-ebook/dp/B00GVKMG0K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432903846&sr=8-1&keywords=a+red+red+rose
Thanks for being our guest, Susan! I also love research. Enjoyed learning how you've done yours.ReplyDelete
An honor to write for your excellent blog, T.W. Thanks for the opportunity!ReplyDelete
Awesome post - Thanks for sharing!!!ReplyDelete
My Girl: My pleasure!Delete
Susan and T.W.,ReplyDelete
A great blog! Really interesting. I think we still have serious problems in this country that started with slavery and have never been fully solved.
Jaceuie: Glad you found the blog interesting. My research shows you are exactly right and I am beginning to understand the underlying culture for some of the current clashes with law enforcement that have been in the media. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Interesting blog, Susan. Research is an integral and necessary part of writing. To me, it is one of the most rewarding elements.ReplyDelete
Betty: I so agree. Without research my writing would lack depth and theme. Thanks for your comment.Delete
I enjoyed learning about all the work you put in to your stories. Plus I learned some new facts - always happy when that happens!ReplyDelete
Ashantay: I appreciate your comments. Learning is what writing is all about.Delete
A truly excellent blog, Susan. And I can see how much you love to research and what wonders it reveals. This is the first I've heard the word "peonage." Intriguing! I've been immersed in the 18th-century for a number of years, and share your enthusiasm with the "past."ReplyDelete
Yes, Nancy. Research takes a hold on us writers who "live" in the past. Thanks for your support and good luck with your own digging!ReplyDelete
I read A Red, Red Rose and loved it. i recommend it and the sequel for a good read.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Barbara. I hope you will read and review BENEATH THE STONES as well. You are an excellent writer and reviewer yourself.ReplyDelete
Sounds like you definitely do your homework! I use places I'm very familiar with for many of my settings, simply because you can add those little details that can't be found on line. It really does add a dimension to our writing.ReplyDelete
Jannine: Because I am relatively new to Southern VA, I've had to do more research to authenticate my stories. As for where I grew up--things have changed SO much in my lifetime--I'd have to write about ancient history there! Thanks for your comment.Delete
Wish I had your talent for research. It sounds fascinating and gives your books such depth. I've had to contact the FBI with questions. The most common answer is, "That information is proprietary." Translated: You don't get to know. I take that as permission to make it up as I want.ReplyDelete
Marissa: That's why I love writing fiction! I admire your facility with crime--another area totally foreign to me! Thanks for reading and commenting.Delete
Excellent post. Wow, you really do go above and beyond on your research. It pays off though, in the authenticity of your stories. I am one of those suspense writers who has had to research some odd/disturbing things in my time. :)ReplyDelete
Alicia: Your books are frighteningly realistic. You must do a good bit of research to achieve that. I appreciate your comments!ReplyDelete
Sorry I'm so late to respond, Susan. I had an endoscopy yesterday which went well although I can't talk today (to many people's relief). Loved this article. People are always amazed how much work goes into researching our books to make sure every detail is accurate. But don't we love doing it! Keep those wonderful books coming.ReplyDelete
Cindy: In fact, at my last signing a woman said, "I had no idea you authors had to do research. I thought you just sat down and the words flowed." Ha! Little does she know, eh? Thanks for comment and may your throat be nice to you.Delete
Nice description of the various aspects of the research. And I agree, to keep readers, authenticity is a must.ReplyDelete
Yes, Helen, we all work "behind the scenes" to produce the best work possible. Thanks for joining us.Delete
Great post! Loved how you ended it by saying you haven't needed to learn about stuffing a body anywhere yet. I haven't done nearly the research that you have, although I've done a bit here and there even for my contemporaries set in my hometown. I know people who live in those areas love to be able to identify with the details you provide. I think it's cool that you've written a YA book about bullying and books that delve into the Civil War area. Quite a difference between the two! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.ReplyDelete
Yes, M.J., I haven't figured out what kind of writer I want to be yet. (LOL). And you are right: when you live in the place you write about there's a critic hanging from every tree (hackneyed metaphor?) Good luck with your own impressive writing and thanks for commenting.Delete
Wow, Susan, you do a ton of research for your books. I'm very impress. How long does it take you to research a subject? Do you give yourself a time limit? Or simply list the things you wish to know and stick to those aspects of the research? How do you collate all the subject knowledge you obtain so it's easy to find?ReplyDelete
Monique: I usually research for 6 months or so, saving notes on a computer file. Once I have my facts in order, I work them into my fiction outline. I never begin to write until I know the beginning, middle and end of my book. I am NOT a pantser! Thanks for commenting.ReplyDelete
Susan, I agree. No wonder I felt so grounded in A Rdd, Red Rose: the spaistaking research gave the story a very real quality. I highly recommned this book. As to preserving historic buildings and places, the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) is the place to start, at your state capital.She cooridinates all federal applications for National Register of Historic Places, endorses them and may even create a state historic designation for a site, which is easier to get.ReplyDelete
Peter: I appreciate your review of A Red, Red Rose. It was one of my all-time best!. Thanks for the SHPO tip and good luck with your own writing.ReplyDelete