Thank you Lisa for being here today!!
When Novel Research Becomes Unsavory, Guest Post by Lisa Alber
When I chose to set my debut novel, KILMOON, in Ireland, I also chose to travel for novel research. There was no getting around that fact. In fact, I relished the chance to re-visit a country I love. For me, research involves putzing around and absorbing the environment with my senses. The peculiar mechanical smell of peat smoke. The way you can almost turn your ankle on cobblestoned streets. The sound of a tin whistle in a traditional Irish band.
Since we’re talking Ireland here, you’ll often find me bellied up to the bar to eavesdrop on the locals—to get a sense for their brand of English. For example, instead of saying, “I just ordered a pint,” they’re more likely to say, “I’m after ordering a pint.”
There’s also the specific research topics. Stuff I actually need to know. Kilmoon is the story of Californian Merrit Chase, who travels to County Clare to meet her long-lost father. Only, he’s not just any old Irishman—he’s the celebrated Matchmaker of Lisfenora. Here’s the tagline used on my novel postcard, which sums up the novel nicely: “Family secrets, betrayal, and vengeance from beyond the grave … Merrit Chase has just discovered her long-lost father.”
For Kilmoon, I needed to gather information about the police because along with Merrit, I created Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern as the second protagonist. I found the Gardaí (Irish police) very accommodating. I arrived with a list of questions because I’d already written the first draft. For example, what evidence do the Gardaí need to make an arrest versus just bring someone in for official questioning? And how long are they allowed to hold a “person of interest”?
I toured the local Garda station, sat in an interview room, peeked into the holding cells. Now that’s fun research!
In addition to police stuff, I wanted to get a look at an Irish hospital. This is where the research got tricky. You don’t just putz around inside hospitals, and you don’t just walk in, bat your eyes, and say, “Can you give me a tour?” A police station is one thing, a hospital quite another. I felt vaguely unsavory as I waltzed intoMid-Western Regional Hospital Ennis as if I were visiting a sick relative.
The main problem was that I was carrying a notebook and camera, which didn’t help me achieve the bereaved looked I was hoping for. I took a few sneaky pictures but quickly shelved photography. Instead, I prowled the hallways looking confused and lost—if stopped, which I was, I asked for the loo—and then I retreated to a waiting room to write copious notes.
In fact, one of my hospital scenes takes place in a waiting room, complete with the Pepto Bismol-colored walls.
My day at the hospital, though nerve-wracking, proved fruitful. I’d have made the mistake of describing the waiting room as an open, airy space rather than a cubbyhole. I’d have missed the crucifixes on the walls (which surprised me). I’d have missed the “Women’s Ward” and “Men’s Ward” signs, and the locked doors with buttons you push to gain access.
Mostly, I would have missed those Pepto Bismol-colored walls!
You know what I plan to do the next time I go to Ireland? Check out a morgue. I get shivers just thinking about it … but it must be done. Ah, novel research. The fun never ends!
Whether you write or not, if you could go somewhere for research, where would you go? How comfortable would you be “infiltrating” locations you probably shouldn’t be?
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Lisa Alber is the author of Kilmoon, the first in the County Clare mystery series, set in Ireland. Lisa received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on Kilmoon. Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa lives in Portland, Oregon, where she’s currently working on her second novel.
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