by Pari Noskin Taichert
Near the southern edge of New Mexico sits the state’s second largest city. Las Cruces — "The Crosses" — is a solid four hours from Albuquerque even if your foot hits the acclerator too hard for most of the time.
I went down there a few weeks ago with my two school-age children to do more research for my fourth book in the Sasha Solomon series. I’d been in the area earlier in the year to attend an international chile pepper conference, but that trip had been limited to sessions about plant DNA, pesticides and fertilizers, and how the local industry was faring against competitors in South America and China.
This time, I didn’t expect to accomplish much with kids in tow. I wouldn’t have the freedom of spontaneity.
It just goes to show how wrong a person can be.
My trip was one of those blessed adventures when everything comes together. I met the right people — the ones who read mysteries, who work at the library, who offered to be my eyes and ears in the town after I left. They told me about great restaurants and marvelous blue highways. I went to the farmers’ market and talked with an old woman who grew and sold medicinal herbs. I met a food processor who allowed me to come back to his business and see how his family makes their products (highly proprietary information). His wife opened their business files so that I could see what the EPA and FDA demand during their annual inspections. For more than an hour, his wife answered every one of my questions.
I love doing on-site research. I adore having an excuse to be an observer in a different location, to be able to take notes and veer off the road well traveled. It’s part of the joy of writing my New Mexico series.
But what am I going to do for my new series? How will I reconcile myself with being forced to depend on the internet and my imagination rather than on-site visits? It’s going to be frustrating as hell. Believe me, if I could spend weeks away from home in places like Malibu, Tahiti and Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat, I would.
I keep telling myself that it’s going to be all right. For my first book in series #2, I’ve met some people who live in Houston and who are sending me pictures of River Oaks detailing the plants and animals a person might find there. They’re and telling me about restaurants and stores that the wealthy residents of that area might patronize, what they might wear on a July day there.
Still, a part of me screams. How will I get the details that I notice — the smells, the exact color of the heavy humid sky, my first sighting of a palmetto bug — when I’m not there to experience them myself? What if I don’t ask these people the right questions? Will I ever be able to make the places believable to my readers?
So here’s what I want to know from writers: How do you handle putting your books in locations away from home? Have you ever completed a manuscript without visiting the places you mention? How do you get the feel and details that make these descriptive sections real?
And, for readers, what interests you most about the locations where mysteries are set? Of course, I’m talking about real places — not made up towns or villages — the ones you might actually visit some day.