๐˜ฟ๐™š๐™ฅ๐™–๐™ง๐™ฉ๐™ข๐™š๐™ฃ๐™ฉ ๐™ค๐™› ๐˜ฟ๐™š๐™–๐™ฉ๐™: Research Can Be Murder

Inย Department of Death,ย the latest Nick Hoffman mystery set in the wilds of academia, Nick has become chair of his university’s English Department–but nobody reading the series could have predicted that would ever happen. It’s definitely not something that Nick ever wanted.

I introduced him to mystery readers in Let’s Get Criminal as an English professor who wasn’t respected in his Midwestern department for way too many reasons. To start with, he was a “spousal hire,” which meant he got his position only because the university wanted to hire his partner.

Spousal hires at a university can arouse a lot of animosity in their new colleagues even when they’re well-qualified, because they’re basically just part of a package deal. In most cases, they would never have been hired on their own at that point in time. Other professors will feel they’re intruders, unworthy of joining the rarefied club whose membership they guard so zealously. And it doesn’t take much to anger highly combustible professors anyway in an environment where grudges flourish like feral hogs, walking catfish, Burmese pythons, and other invasive species that are ruining the Everglades.

Nick was also looked down upon because he enjoyed teaching the most basic course the department offered: composition. His peers would do anything to avoid being stuck with it. That kind of course put him at the level of graduate assistants and adjuncts, and liking the hard work involved in helping students strengthen their writing skills created suspicion and even contempt: who was he trying to kid?

And then there was his scholarship: Nick is a bibliographer. A bibliographer of Edith Wharton. That means that he’s not only read every single book, story, review, and essay that Wharton wrote, he’s read everything that’s ever been writtenย aboutย her. In every language. The project took him four solid years. He’s annotated each item and created multiple indexes for the bibliography which is a splendid guide for anyone doing research about the American author who was the first women to win a Pulitzer for Literature.

That might sound significant, but to his new colleagues, it’s grunt work, uninspiring–and worse than that, his book isย useful. Unlike their own books which are written in abstruse critical jargon that only appeals to minuscule audiences.

I chose this focus for Nick’s scholarship because my college writing mentor was a Wharton bibliographer and I wanted to honor her years of research. And it appalled me how that book did not get her promoted to full professor when she should have been.

Nick has had a different path, pockmarked by murders of course. He did get promoted to full professor; a visiting authors’ fellowship was established in his name by a grateful student who struck it rich; and through a bizarre twist of fate in the 10thย book of the series, he’s heading up a department filled with people who loathe him more now than ever.

He regrets having agreed to become chair before the first week in his new position is over. What happens? Nick is unexpectedly privy to a bribery scandal that threatens to blacken the name of the university. Nick himself is the object of intense administrative harassment and spying. And of course, he becomes involved in yet another murder.

Can his research skills and his love of crime fiction help him out of this tangle of problems? They always have, no matter how little respect they’ve earned him from his colleagues.

In classic mystery form, the murderer and motive are revealed at the very end of the book amid a scene of crazy academic chaos unlike anything Nick has ever witnessed or dealt with before.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer at the Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books in a wide range of genres.ย  He coaches and mentors writers at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.ย  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.ย  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.ย  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.ย  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.ย  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.ย  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.ย  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.ย  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.ย  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.ย  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.ย  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.ย  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.ย  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.ย  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Why Writers Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters clustered around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

We have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more.ย  Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to.ย  There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are somewhat more insidious.ย  These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t.ย  And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

I’ve got a full file drawer for just one novel alone that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about.ย  Every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability.ย  It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy material about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been.ย  The further away from it I get, the less inviting the whole project becomes.

I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.ย  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

My Bastille Day Faux Pas in France

Edith WhartonYears ago when I was researching a book on Edith Wharton’s psychology and fiction, I visited her home north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forรชt.ย  It was less than an hour north of the city and I’d written ahead long in advance to get permission to explore it and take pictures.ย  I didn’t realize my clueless publisher would have no interest in the photos, not even an author photo of me in her garden. The ways of publishing have always been mysterious….

Arriving in that small town of fewer than 15,000 citizens, and fluent in French, I was puzzled that nobody I asked on the street seemed to know where Rue Edith Wharton was.ย  I kept getting responses of “Desolรฉ, M’sieu, connais pas.”ย  Sorry, don’t know. Finally I resorted to the Town Hall for a map to find the home Wharton called Pavillon Colombe, which was built in the late 18th century for an actress.ย  I later learned that the street had only recently been renamed for Wharton, which was probably why citizens couldn’t help me.

Though the facade of her home is aloof and impersonal, it opened into a cool, dark hall, beyond which, through French doors, stretched a sunny parterre. A shy maid showed me into a gorgeous salon filled with beautiful paintings, tables, books, and bibelots. A bell rang somewhere and the maid said, Madame la Princesse vienne. I stood there trying to figure out why she was using the subjunctive tense to tell me that the princess was coming (what was wrong with the regular present?), and I felt that I was in way over my head.

But I couldn’t help relishing the elegant rooms opening onto each other and onto the parterre.ย  This was my first time ever in a French home of such grace and beauty.

Princess Isabelle von und zu Liechtenstein, the wife of Pavillon Colombe’s owner, strode up through the garden.ย  She was drop-dead chic in black and grey with a colorful Chanel scarf at her throat, her hair in a chignon. As she passed wailing peacocks, she called out to two bounding white borzois in a high piping voice.ย  It was an entrance like something out of a stage play, dramatic and somewhat intimidating.

Madame la Princesse gave me a brisk but exceedingly gracious tour through the house that bore no trace of Wharton’s former presence.ย  On my own I toured the garden which also had changed since Wharton’s day, but still showed signs of her planning.ย  In the Italian style, it was a tranquil, inviting progression of orderly spaces, light giving way to shadow, square spaces to round, grass to fountains.

Upon leaving and thanking my host, I struck the absolute wrong note.ย  Bastille Day was coming up and I made some reference to it, because I’d never been in France before on July14th and was looking forward to the fireworks.

Without thinking, I asked if the Princess had any special plans.ย  “Je porte toujours le deuil,” she said with no change of expression: “I always wear mourning.”ย  She added that her husband was a descendent of Queen Marie Antoinette. My French failed me.ย  My English failed me. Had I spoken German at the time, that would have failed me, too.ย  Luckily, I was on my way out.ย  It does make a good story, though, something Wharton herself might have enjoyed.ย  I suppose the Princess’s version might be even more entertaining–if she’s ever deigned to tell it, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in many genres.ย  This anecdote is taken from his study Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame.