Being a writer requires a little detective work. We have to get the details right. For the novel I’m working on, a sequel to Up Beaver Creek, I needed to find out a couple things. I kept highlighting the ??? in my manuscript, but finally I had to get some answers.
That led me to City Hall. I had said there was a sculpture of the Yaquina Bay Bridge hanging above the heads of the city councilmembers. I thought there was. Can anybody tell me if that’s what used to be there? I needed to verify it. So one day last week, I tried to peek in the windows of the council chambers, but I couldn’t see anything. The outer door was closed with a combination lock. I went around to the public entrance, climbed the steps into the creaky old building and walked around, looking, looking, looking.
Ah, council chambers. No one was in there. I glanced left and right. I tried the door knob. It turned. I walked into the hallowed chambers and looked at the wall behind the desks. What? That was not the Yaquina Bay Bridge. It was an abstract sculpture, a swirl of gold and silver that I suppose represents the ocean. I snapped a photo, made a note, and skedaddled out of there. Now I have one character asking the other, “What the heck is that?” because I think that’s how they would react. Thank God I didn’t stick with the bridge sculpture.
Here’s the thing that makes me nervous: A few days later, a woman snuck into City Hall using the code “1234” and vandalized the place. That amazes me because the police department is in the same building. Security is being tightened, everyone on high alert. If I went on my fact-finding mission now, I could have been looking up at an officer, stuttering, “I’m just a writer . . .”
On Thursday, a cold drizzly day when I had come once again to the question “What kind of boat does Rick have?” I knew I could no longer put off my nautical research. I know very little about boats. Was this a pleasure boat, fishing boat, cabin cruiser, mini yacht? I started online. Soon my screen was full of boats for sale, but I had no idea which boat was right for Rick, and I did not want to chat with a sales representative. I had to go to the marina and look at actual boats.
Cold. Wet. I had to secure my hood, which obscured my vision as I tiptoed down the ramps to the docks, camera in hand, waiting for some boat owner to shout, “Hey, what the hell are you doing?”
Is that Rick’s boat? No, too small. That one? Too big. That one? He’s not rich. He has to be able to live on it since he doesn’t have his house anymore. A wedding is scheduled to be held there. Where would everybody stand?
I kept snapping pictures, my hands so cold I feared I would drop my cell phone in the bay. That’s the one. No, THAT’s the one. Let’s go home. Oh, wait. THAT ONE. I chose a spiffy white boat with green trim. It was neat and clean, the cabin looked cozy, and there were several levels for the wedding party to stand on. Shivering, I stashed my phone in my pocket and drove home to write ONE SENTENCE about Rick’s boat. It had to be the right one.
Yes, I could have interviewed someone for both these items, but I’d rather freeze my fingers off than call a stranger on the phone, and I had these very specific questions that might sound a little weird. Besides, it got me out of the office for a while.
I once drove all the way to Oceanside, California to do research for a novel I didn’t even finish, but I still remember how pretty it was there and how fun it was to picture my characters in that setting.
I drove to Missoula, Montana for Up Beaver Creek because my character used to live there and went back for a while toward the end of the novel. I ate in the same diner, walked through the hospital where she worked, visited her church, and drove down the street where she used to live. I even chose a house for her. In my mind, I truly believe she lived there and that there were roses in the backyard. Imagination is so fun. We shouldn’t give it up just because we’re grownups.
If you see me sneaking around taking pictures, don’t call the cops. I’m just a writer living in her fantasy world.
Writer friends, what have you done in the interest of research?