Thursday, February 25, 2016

Guest Post: "From Researchphobe to Researchphile: A Writer's Conversion" by Elizabeth Zelvin

I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Zelvin’s work as readers here well know. I am very pleased to welcome Elizabeth to the blog with her first guest post…..

From Researchphobe to Researchphile: A Writer's Conversion
Elizabeth Zelvin

When I first announced I wanted to be a writer, at age seven, I had already had my nose in a book for longer than I can remember. In college, I majored in English because it gave me a free pass to spend four years reading novels. When I realized that a graduate degree would require me to study novels, ie analyze them and read scholars' opinions of them, I decided to skip it and joined the Peace Corps. The first stage of this escape was from literature to genre fiction. My conversion book was Dorothy L. Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, which I read while working at the ad agency it fictionalized, J. Walter Thompson (in New York, not in London), for a few months before leaving for Africa.
Elizabeth Zelvin

Many years passed, and a lot of living intervened. A midlife career as a psychotherapist and alcoholism treatment professional led to the writing of my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober—though not until I left my last day job and was almost old enough for Medicare. I set it in New York, so I was treading familiar ground in terms of setting as well as characters. I hadn't witnessed or committed any murders, but I'd read a helluva lot of mysteries by then. So I was still dodging research when I became a mystery writer.  

I happen to be married to a history buff. We can converse happily for hours about the Tudors or the ancient Greeks, the Civil War or the American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s. The difference is that he gets his information from history books, while I've always gotten mine from novels. It bugged me that he thought that made his knowledge better than mine. It bugged him that I wouldn't even try research, when he knew that if I did, I'd see how much fun it was.

I almost didn't write "The Green Cross," my first mystery story about Diego Mendoza, the young Jewish sailor with Columbus in 1492, because I knew I'd have to look things up. But this character was so insistent on being heard and the information so easily available on the Internet that I had to do it.

Research Lesson #1: You can start with Wikipedia, but don't stop there. It's not reliable. There were no horses on Columbus's first voyage. I fixed it in the e-book.

That story led to two historical novels, Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, with hefty bibliographies. In the process, I've become a devout researcher. And my husband has a free lifetime pass to say, "I told you so."

Here's an example of how research is like a treasure hunt, as my husband kept trying to tell me all these years. The Jews were kicked out of Spain in 1492. Diego and his sister Rachel spent 1493-1495 in Spain and then Hispaniola, but I had to put their family somewhere, so I mentioned they'd gone to Italy. Further research revealed that in 1494, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. The Jews in Italy fled, many of them to the Ottoman Empire, where Sultan Bayezid II offered them refuge.

So now I look for books on the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. I find one written by a professor at my own alma mater and email him. He writes back, saying, My work is not in your period, but you should contact my colleague in Israel. She's the expert in the 16th century.

I take his advice, and tucked away in a single paragraph in this woman's book, I find hidden treasure: the women of the Sultan's harem--not just his concubines, but his mother, his sisters, his daughters, and all their attendants--had one link with the outside world: Jewish women known as kiras who acted as purveyors of goods and services, carrying out commissions, bringing messages back and forth, and acting as the secluded women's eyes on the world. What a perfect job for Rachel! It became a major plot thread in Journey of Strangers.

And now that I do research, do I research mysteries too? Yes, when I need to. While working on a new story in my Bruce Kohler mystery series this week, I've contacted a friend in NYPD to ask which detective squad would catch a homicide in Central Park; emailed the Central Park Conservancy to ask what flowers will bloom at Strawberry Fields in the spring (I can see for myself in a month or two, but I'd like to finish the story before then); and gone online to calculate the radius (of the Imagine sign) from the circumference, read the roster of famous people who've lived in the Dakota, and check what a dead person's face would look like after being strangled with a ligature. My husband was right. Research is fun.

Elizabeth Zelvin ©2016

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series and the historical novels Journey of Strangers and Voyage of Strangers, as well as the cross-genre novella Shifting Is for the Goyim and Breaches & Betrayals: Collected Stories. Her short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha and for the Derringer Award and appeared in EQMM and AHMM.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for having me on the blog, Kevin!

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Thank you!!!!

Maddy said...

Yes, research can make you disappear down a rabbit hole. If I'm short of time, I copy my friend's habit of putting an "X" to go back and fill in later. Thank you.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Maddy, it depends on whether I think it'll be a quick, irresistible google (ha!) or a mile and a half hike up Broadway to the Columbia University library for an afternoon in the stacks (antihistamines for the dust and mold not included. ;)

Patricia Ragan said...

What fun! Research is addictive.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Pat, another challenge for the novelist is the rule of thumb that you're not supposed to use more than 2 to 10 percent of the fascinating facts you've gathered. Otherwise, the research swamps the story. The technical term is "information dump," and most readers find it off-putting. I tend to put everything into the first draft and then cut, cut, cut in the revisions.

Kaye George said...

I almost love the Ice Age research I do better than I do writing about it. I don't think I was ever averse to research, but the more I write, the more I have to do. There's always some little detail I want to tack down. You're right about only using a portion of it--can't bore our readers! Nice post!

margaret mendel said...

Great post Elizabeth! Research is fun and a lot like a historical detective. I enjoyed hearing how you go about developing your stories. Funny about the horses and Columbus.

Earl Staggs said...

An interesting story about how you came to love research, Liz. I rode that same train, so to speak. I'd always avoided research. After all, I wrote fiction, which gave me license to make up stuff. Then, for some reason I don't recall, I began writing a series called "History's Rich With Mysteries" right here on Kevin's Corner. I dig up real-life mysteries from the past and try to reconcile the facts, legends, and inaccuracies. Since I deal with real events, I can't make up stuff. I have to get the facts right, which means research. And you now what? I'm enjoying it. The past, I'm finding, is not a boring and lifeless pit of useless information but a gold mine of fascinating nuggets in need of reexamination and, often, reinterpretation.

lil Gluckstern said...

Love post. I wish I could embark on such a journey!