Please welcome SMFS list member Andrew Welsh-Huggins to our blog today…
Fiction Writing As Time Travel
Nailing the details of real-life police investigation is a no-brainer when it comes to writing crime fiction. Anyone who’s read the procedural mysteries of Alafair Burke or Michael Connelly knows the pleasure of encountering accurate information about how detectives do their jobs intermixed with compelling fictional tales. Conversely, everyone has experienced the sinking feeling when a writer confuses a revolver for a semi-automatic or sentences a heartless killer to thirty years in jail, not prison.
As a reporter by day and a mystery writer by earlier in the day, I’m accustomed to tapping experts to ensure my imagination has its facts straight. I interviewed both an arson investigator and a retired state geologist for my novel Slow Burn, took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ohio Statehouse for Capitol Punishment, and talked to experts on human trafficking as well as ex-trafficking victims for The Hunt. Recently, I took on a new research challenge with two short stories set three decades ago in Providence, Rhode Island. Not only did I need to learn about police and court procedure in those bygone days, I enlisted another important source: my own memory of living there in the mid-1980s.
Despite fond recollections of my wife’s and my sojourn in Providence, I had only been back once—early in the 1990s—before I started my first story last year. That lone return visit was well before the city’s downtown underwent a transformation that included the unearthing of the long-buried Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers, which meant the city was more or less unchanged in my mind. Though a negative for my inner tourist, this time away turned out to be a good thing for my fiction writing, since the era was frozen in place for me.
I had my temporal landscape; now I needed experts to fill in the blanks. Upping the ante, I wanted information not just on the Providence police homicide division, but on that division three decades ago. Initially, this proved almost as difficult as resurrecting old memories. Providence in the 1980s was still living down its reputation as the seat of the New England mob, a standing that didn’t always stop at the doors to the police station. Locating people who were in law enforcement at the time and who were willing to talk to an out-of-state reporter-slash-mystery writer proved as easy as coaxing brown bears from dens during hunting season. Weeks passed and my multiple emails and phone calls to retired Providence detectives whom I’d located on the Web met with silence. Finally, with just a few days before my deadline, a retired investigator answered an email with an out-of-the-blue call. Soon I was wondering how I would ever get him off the phone as he explained the types of cars detectives drove (Plymouth Furys), the layout of the homicide bureau (“a mish mash of desks”), and the bar that detectives hung out at after work (Christopher’s). The story that emerged from that research, The Murderous Type, appeared last year inSnowbound, an anthology of short New England crime fiction.
I faced similar challenges locating sources for a follow-up, this time trying to find a defense attorney familiar with legal practices and court layouts in the 1980s. Again, patience paid off as after several weeks I found a lawyer willing to fill in the details, and even offer me his own spin on a possible plot twist. That story, Nice Grammar, That Guy, was published in the December issue of Mystery MagazineWeekly.
In summary, I used three tools for researching and writing these stories from long in my past:
_ The Internet. This ‘no duh’ helper prodded my memory by providing everything from the location of the city’s paste jewelry manufacturers (in and around Grosvenor Avenue) to the names of long-gone eateries like Winkler’s steakhouse. It also helped me show, not tell, the era, as I researched ways to inform the reader we were in the 1980s, including a reference to the 1986 Bangles tune “Walk Like An Egyptian” and details of the decade’s savings and loan scandal.
_ Experts. The Web helped me find the aforementioned defense attorney and retired detective, but it was calls and emails with them that garnered the kinds of time-traveling details necessary for the story, such as the lawyer’s description of a municipal courtroom at the time: “not traditional looking at all, like a basement rumpus room.” Individuals, not the Internet, almost always provide the best details for a fiction writer.
_ Myself. One of the final lines I added to The Murderous Type came not from anyone I spoke with or online research, but from my own memory of a street we used to live on and the oceanic look of the closely placed houses, so different from the homes where I grew up in a western New York State village. I wrote: The bright red house was a triple-decker, like all the houses on the street, homes tall and solid and honestly built as nineteenth-century sailing ships. An observation that had stayed with me over three decades turned out to be one of the final pieces of my fictional puzzle.
Of course, my task would have been easier if it had occurred to me back then that I might be writing police procedurals about Providence someday. But that’s one of the fun things about fiction writing. You never know which direction, in space or in time, it may take you.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins ©2018
Writer, reader, owner of too many pets. Recently asked for pancakes at Waffle House. Author of the Andy Hayes private eye mystery series, including The Third Brother. Winner, 2017 Al Blanchard Award for The Murderous Type, available in Snowbound anthology from Level Best Books.