In the winter of 2017, I heard two words that were to change my life: cozy mystery. After years of protesting that I was strictly a non-fiction writer, within half an hour, I was persuaded that here was the fantasy-related genre for me.
I was given guidelines, but soon I was off finding lists and explanations of the ‘formula’ for a successful cozy, in my case, cozy paranormal mystery. Yes, it was easy for me, research comes naturally. Nevertheless, there is a difference between fact-checking for informational accuracy and world-building. The question new writers often ask is, do you research first, “look it up” or dive into the creative activity by “getting it down”?
Ways and Means
The answer is that you select from a variety of possibilities to find what works for you. For example, with the first novel I wrote, Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth, most of the nitty-gritty research was left until an editing pass later in the process. Whenever I hit something that needed investigation, I would simply lay down a group of asterisks: ***.
With the fifth book in the series, which I’m writing now, having got a rough outline and a few completed chapters, I’m enjoying stopping whenever I come to one of the “fill in here” bits and going off on an internet research trip.
Broadly speaking, you can delve into the setting of your action and master every detail first and then write your story, or you can follow your nose through a mixture of both. However, I would recommend nose-following. Why? Because research can be a vital part of the creative process.
The Dream Team
Here’s an example. Following the pattern of Agatha Christie, arguably queen of the cozy mystery with her Miss Marple stories, I decided to set my books in a village. “Write what you know,” they say. Problem: I have never lived in one. I read about English villages on the internet and in The Book of British Villages. I watch Youtubes of Village of the Year. A voice here, a figure there became part of my story. A solution emerged: a hamlet on the edge of London.
Next, I moved to my trusty laptop and my dearest research fellow: Wikipedia. From there, I found local history sites and learned Monken Hadley was not only historic, but had once possessed a pub, tea shop and post office. Furthermore, it was gated.
On the next fine day, I took to my vehicle and set out to investigate. Up a side road under trees and beside ponds, the way wound to the left, and it came into sight.
There was the medieval church, the horse chestnut tree, the row of cottages and, a little way on, a large version of the green. I had found my dream village. The words in which I would describe it began to come to me.
Of course, I had to change the name. Let’s see … transposing the first letters: Honken Madley? Sounded like a therapy centre for geese. Finally, I settled on Sunken Madley.
Once I had the basics in mind, I began the scribbling and typing. Details were researched, added as I wrote the book and inspired new material.
Admiring From Afar
On the other hand, if you live in the United States and your chosen setting is Paris, it’ll be rather more than an afternoon jaunt. Much of the action in the Amanda Cadabra series takes place in Cornwall. That is more than an afternoon jaunt for me. It’s also many years since I’ve been there.
How do you remotely get to know somewhere you haven’t been? I start with Google Maps to get an overview. You can use the satellite view to see the landscape and the buildings. Google images give you, naturally, snapshots. YouTube travelogues bring it to life, I looked up the history of various fishing villages. I listened to recordings of local accents.
As I watched and read and heard, pictures, phrases, sentences, snatches of conversation began to come to me. Soon they found their way into the book. However, you don’t have to have a complete picture of your setting, your plot or your characters before you begin story-writing. All you’re looking for is a little momentum. Here is something that built mine.
Before I could decode letters and words for myself, my brother read me the Narnia books, and I fell in love with maps. I studied the terrain of Narnia. I knew it better than the terrain of England or the area where I grew up. I knew the route from Calormen to Ettinsmore before I ever knew where any of my local roads went. Later I came to know and love the cartography of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Consequently, it was a foregone conclusion that my village would have its own map, positioned in the front of each book in the series.
To draw the first map of “my” village, Sunken Madley, I had the help of TJ Brown, author, my mentor, and as fortune had it, illustrator. We used the standard village forking road. The green would nestle in the cup of the Y. Where did I want the pub? As I chose the sites for the corner shop, the school, the doctors, the library, the Manor and the church, it began to form. By the time Tim had done a more precise sketch, I could see my characters walking on those streets, in those lanes, coming and going and gossiping and laughing. With each book, new features or improvement have been added to the map.
None of this research has been in the least arduous. I have done it without feeling or realizing I was hard at the archaeological dig into the strata of “fact” so essential to making a story believable.
That’s the point. Follow your curiosity. Some warn about getting lost down the rabbit hole of research. But nothing is wasted. Everything you learn while reading that, apparently, off-topic article goes into your mental archives ready for pulling out at a future date. Look at all of the things Alice saw down there. It led her to a Wonderland and the story of a lifetime.
There will be other times when you simply want to write your story. Leave your asterisks. Later you’ll enjoy going off on your exploratory tours, which will enrich your tale.
You are the set director and costumier of your own literary movie. You are the creator of the film that will play before your readers’ eyes as they immerse themselves in the world that you are building for them.
If you get all of your facts correct, the chances are no one will notice. If you get something wrong, it will distract the reader. Someone will know if your character would be using a mobile phone in 1982 in London, a toaster in New York in 1920 or be tapping away at a home computer in Toronto 1974.
Like to hazard some guesses or are you eager to find out… to look it up?
Research is no bugbear, it is part of everyday life. Every time you go shopping online, check the news, find a weather report, you are researching. You are looking for accurate information that makes your life story flow smoothly.
Research is inhaling, writing is exhaling, You cannot have one without the other, so relax about it. Just breathe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cat adorer and chocolate lover, British author Holly Bell is a photographer and video maker when not creating novels. She had long experience of non-fiction writing before being told she could write cozy mysteries.
Holly devoured all of the Agatha Christie books long before she knew that Miss Marple was the godmother of the Cozy Mystery. Her devotion to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings meant that her first literary creation in this area would have to be a cozy paranormal.
Having derived immense delight from the adventure of writing Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole and its sequels, Holly has more in the pipeline.