Last weekend my sister and I happened into Langley, an artsy little town on Whidbey Island. Tourists scurried about like cockroaches at a crumbfest, only in broad daylight. A cheesy salesman draped with gold chains leaned over the counter of a jewelry store, talking too loudly.
“A bit over the top,” I thought. And then, “This guy can’t be for real.”
Well, he wasn’t. He turned out to be a suspect in an organized murder mystery, with town folk playing the suspects and tourists racing around town in search of clues, for which privilege they paid a lot of money.
I prefer self-directed treasure hunts, only I call it ‘research.’ I’ve always loved travel, but it was in England, searching for the perfect setting for The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, that I truly felt the thrill of the hunt. Research lent a sense of purpose as I absorbed all I could of the Norman Conquest and life in Anglo-Saxon times. At the Weald and Downland Museum, I learned the mechanics of charcoal burning, and which stone originated where throughout England, details I put to good use. At a Dorset heritage breed farm I learned how shepherds were buried clutching a tuft of wool, so when they got to Heaven St. Peter would understand and forgive their long absences from church. Of course our shepherd was buried with a tuft of wool in his hand!
My family has accompanied me to many destinations chosen for research purposes, others for pure pleasure. But what do ancient streets of Pompeii, a grassy square in Prague, a dusty trail in Walnut Canyon, AZ, and the Hanseatic Old Town of Bergen, Norway hold in common?
As my kids and I took in the smells, colors, and unique histories of those places, each inspired group brainstorming that resulted in a rough outline of a novel. Some were merely exercises in creativity, a fun way to internalize information. Others were keepers, and took their place in our Writer’s Egg Chain, where they will gestate until we are ready to return to Prague in search of more hidden story gems to lend light, color, meaning, and authenticity to our embryonic novel.
But your search needn’t involve expensive travel. In fact, I just finished a manuscript and am ready to crack open the next egg on the chain. It’s set in the funky Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, only minutes away. Bea, co-author on this project, and I will explore Fremont’s streets, shops, dives, parks, events and hotspots—like the Fremont Troll, the nude Solstice Parade, and Theo’s chocolate factory. I am sure that some of them will find a place and help breathe life into our story.
We won’t sign up in advance or pay to participate, and there’ll be no checklist of items to collect. This treasure hunt will be of our own invention. We aren’t even quite sure what we are looking for, but we’ll recognize it when we see it. And when we do, I promise it will be the real thing.
Are there things you look for when you are doing your research? Have you had an experience researching a project that you would like to share?
See what Bea’s blog post says about research and “Writing what you know.”