As a reader, I love to learn new things when I read fiction. I enjoy experiencing danger vicariously and seeing the world from different perspectives. As an author, I strive to craft that same thrill for my readers. Research is how to nail the details that create that you-are-there insider’s experience.
We’ve all read stories that fail at this. I am an instrument-rated private pilot with a little training in aerobatics. When I encounter blunders in a story about aviation, the magic of being in the story falls apart. I don’t want to be that author who breaks the magic.
Why write what you know when you can write about exciting things you are learning? As a pilot, of course, I’m going to use that knowledge and experience in stories. But I can’t become an expert in everything, so I find experts willing to share their knowledge and experience.
HEROS OF RESEARCH
Authors James A. Michener, Ridley Pearson, David Morrell, and Steve Berry exemplify the serious kind of research that elevates their stories to the bestseller category. Michener’s tome Hawaii presents the geologic formation of the islands to establish the setting for readers. Pearson’s research in his crime stories is revered by detectives for thoroughness. Morrell spent 35 days carrying a 60-lb. backpack through the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Wilderness School to research is book Testament.
Here’s my process.
Where does the story happen? For North of the Killing Hand, I drew on travel experience in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Columbia for the scenes in the Amazon. The photos taken in these remote places reminded me of the density and types of foliage. Journals reminded me of the smells, sounds, oppressive dampness, and dangers.
Beyond personal experience there comes online research and trips to the library for demographics. How many people live there and who are they? What languages do they speak? How do they travel? How do they communicate? What cultural differences stand out? Crime? Education? How do people make a living in the Amazon? What are their religious and ethical beliefs?
For West of Famous, which debuts February 17, 2019, I spent a week on a trawler because a huge portion of the story takes place on such a boat. All the library research in the world cannot capture the smell of diesel, the constant motion of the boat, the sounds of the engines, or how to find compartments large enough to stuff a body. The boat owners, Paul and Caryn Frink, went above and beyond in helping me.
Seeker Hosts Caryn and Paul Frink
They took me to the oh-so-remote site in the Everglades where part of the story takes place and dropped anchor. They let me ride in the engine compartment while the boat was underway. I had to test if screaming could be heard over the sound of the engine.
I took copious notes and photographed everything at various times of day and night to nail the details. Online research cannot compare. Paul, retired navy with a strong engineering background, taught me more about boats and boat engines in a week than I learned from months of other research. Hands-on research beats online research any day! Fun, too! The rocking sensation stopped two days after I returned home.
For each character, major and minor, I want to know who they are. What makes them behave the way they do? What does the character fear? What does the character want? For minor characters, the basic information reads like a police profile: height, weight, age, gender, race, education, and basic history. For major characters, deeper analysis works.
In South of Justice, the main character Dr. Terri Pinehurst-Clayton is a veterinarian. What does it take to become a veterinarian? The info uncovered during research appeared in the book, especially the items that grabbed my attention. Did you know it is tougher to enter veterinarian school than medical school? That tidbit of info led me to find out why. The answer found its way into the book because inquiring minds want to know. At one point in the story, Terri bolsters her courage by reminding herself that she graduated at the top of her class because of her intellectual tenacity. She then decides to begin her own investigation into her husband’s past.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the main characters empowers the author to leverage these traits in the story. I have interviewed experts to gain insight into the how and why of their work.
I suppose such research is similar to method acting. I want to learn so much that I can step inside a character to experience life from a new perspective in a new place under circumstances I pray I never have to experience in real life.
Which authors do you admire for creating stories that make you feel you are there?
This article first appeared on the Not Your Usual Suspects blog October 2, 2017. The president of Americas Great Cruise Loopers Association read my book and loved it. I was invited to their gathering in Norfolk, Virginia to sign books on a boat. I blogged about the Book Signing on a Boat.
Caryn and Paul Frink helped me tremendously during the research phase of my third book. They hosted me on their Nordic Tug and answered hundreds of questions. Their answers and suggestions helped shape the story of West of Famous into a suspenseful tale that involves kidnappers, boats, and Loopers.
They invited me to come sign books on their boat at the AGCLA “Looper” Rendezvous in Norfolk, Virginia. They allowed me to use their names and the name of their boat—SEEKER—in the book. But a book signing on a boat? It sounded fun.
Kimberly Russo, Director of the America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association (AGCLA), had also answered research questions. After she read the book she said, “I would say that the Loopers depicted in West of Famous were very true-to-life. Besides being friendly, most Loopers are super helpful and are generally willing to assist others they meet along the way. It’s a pretty close-knit community so they look out for each other and lend a helping hand whenever they can.”
The nickname Looper comes from the path the boats take. They loop around the eastern U.S. by cruising up the eastern coast, traveling in rivers and canals and lakes inland and then down rivers and canals and waterways to the Gulf of Mexico. They tend to winter along the southern coastline and Florida.
They live on boats of many kinds. The smallest was a personal watercraft.
Sailboats and tugboats dominated the marina. Each afternoon at the Rendezvous, they held a crawl. Hosts allowed other Loopers and Loopers-to-be to crawl through their homes. The variety of floor plans and sizes of the boats amazed me. People looking for boats probably became overwhelmed.
Norfolk, Virginia adopted the mermaid as its signature icon. Mermaids showed up in metal, wood, ceramic, and glass.
Most of the Loopers I met lived full-time on their boats. Some owned “dirt” homes and cruised seasonally. The Rendezvous brought together seasoned Loopers, new Loopers, and hopefuls to learn about weather, route planning, marine electronics, and the joys of using Amazon Prime.
Two families with young children gave a seminar on how they manage schooling, doctor’s appointments, and other issues. I’d have to say I was shocked to see a blind man with a guide dog get off a boat. He and his wife are Loopers.
After a morning and afternoon of workshops and seminars, the Loopers enjoyed the crawls at the Westside Marina in Norfolk and Tidewater Yacht Marina across the river in Portsmouth. Caryn and Paul docked Seeker at the Westside Marina.
During a crowded time on Seeker, I ended up telling guests about the features of the 37-foot Nordic Tug and Caryn talked about my book. Caryn also managed to get my 30-second book trailer to loop on her laptop. Of course, a Looper knows how to loop…
What a wonderful few days! Caryn and Paul hosted me and introduced me to sunsets on the fly-bridge over ‘docktails.’ I’d forgotten how wonderful it felt to be rocked to sleep on a boat. Thank you again, Caryn and Paul, for your friendship!
Thank you, Greg and Sue, for the champagne and the tour of Lucky Me. Cheers to the anchoring experts, Scott and Karen DeVoll.
Kimberly Russo is the Director of America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association.
Meet Kim Russo. She’s the Director of America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGCLA). I called her out of the blue over two years ago to ask questions about the AGCLA, or Loopers. The questions could not be answered by browsing their website. I needed to know more about the spirit, the camaraderie, and the collective nature of the Loopers. I knew one couple. Were they the norm? Who are these people who live on boats?
You see, I hit a snag in the plot of my third novel.
As a plotter, I had planned out certain events in the story to happen a certain way. Inspired by movies like The Guardian (2006) and Finest Hours (2016), I wanted to feature the Coast Guard in my book. In my mind, the nearest Coast Guard station in the story was supposed to be involved in the search for a kidnap victim. I had planned for them to gear up, arm themselves, and launch a search mission.
Then I visited the actual station mentioned in the story.
It was an Auxiliary Coast Guard station manned by retirees who taught boating safety classes and did boat inspections. They weren’t allowed to carry weapons.
Egad. I needed boaters willing to risk their own safety to help FBI agents find someone being held hostage on a boat in the 10,000 Islands of South Florida.
On 9/11, an untold number of men and women launched boats toward Manhattan to rescue strangers. This unplanned flotilla sprang up because boaters saw a need and were willing to risk themselves to save others. A poignant video tells about this. “Boatlift, An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience” is narrated by Tom Hanks.
I needed to know the group character of the Loopers. As the Director of a huge boating group, Kim would know the character of her group. She told me about their website and newsletter and the Great Loop Radio Podcasts. She told me about Harbor Hosts and the kinds of activities that happen when Loopers find one another in the same harbor. The Loopers can track one another through their own mobile app “America’s Great Loop Cruisers.”
The popular image of people who live on houseboats comes from TV shows like “Miami Vice,” and movies like African Queen. In books, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series features a womanizing private investigator who lives on a houseboat. Other Florida authors have written crime stories set on boats, such as Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight and James W. Hall’s Off the Chart. Charles Martin’s 2013 novel, Unwritten, features a loner who lives on a houseboat. In all these stories, houseboat dwellers come off as loners, con men, pirates, outcasts, and people who live on the fringes of society.
Kim said, “The typical Looper is nothing like the impression you might get of those who choose to live aboard a boat from movies, TV, or a lot of novels. AGLCA members tend to be very social and lifelong friendships often form among them because they all share a common interest…The Great Loop. And because cruising the Loop is seasonal (you want to be on the Great Lakes in the summer when it’s warm and Florida in the winter when the northern part of the route is frozen), there are several boats cruising in the same direction at roughly the same pace, so you tend to run into the same people repeatedly, making it even more likely that you socialize with others along the way.”
I asked about the demographics of the AGCLA membership.
Kim said, “My guess would be that 90% or more of the boats out there cruising the Loop are retired couples. But we are seeing more and more Loopers who don’t fit that ‘typical’ demographic. Over the past few years we’ve had about ten different families cruising the Loop, and technology is making it easier for folks to do the Loop while still working. It’s also become more common for people to single-hand all or parts of the Loop if they don’t have a friend or family member willing to serve as their crew for all 6,000 miles of the route.”
Do they come from military or civilian backgrounds?
Kim said, “I would say that we have a higher percentage of military members than other groups our size. We also seem to have a higher percentage of people from technical occupations, like pilots and engineers. However, we have school teachers, nurses, firefighters, politicians, yoga instructors, you name it. The Loop has been called ‘the great equalizer’ because once you’re out there cruising, it doesn’t matter what you did before, how old you are, or how big your boat is. Everyone has the same challenges and triumphs.”
I met Kim Russo in Stuart Florida.
I sent Kim an eBook version of West of Famous for her opinion. She read it and I got to catch up with her in Stuart, Florida on March 5th when she was on her way to Trawler Fest. I asked what she thought of how the Looper community was depicted in the book.
Kim said, “I would say that the Loopers depicted in West of Famous were very true-to-life. Besides being friendly, most Loopers are super helpful and are generally willing to assist others they meet along the way. It’s a pretty close-knit community so they look out for each other and lend a helping hand whenever they can.”
Paul and Caryn Frink hosted me during my research. They earned their gold burgee after finishing their first loop in 2018. Kim will get to meet them at the The AGCLA Spring Rendezvous in Norfolk Virginia from May 5 to 9.
“I have not met Paul and Caryn Frink,” Kim said, “but I’m really excited because they volunteered to speak at our upcoming Spring Rendezvous, so they’ll be sharing their knowledge of the inland rivers with our attendees. They’re covering the details of the route from Chicago to the Tennessee River, including things to see, places to go, hazards to navigation, and more.”
“We have two Rendezvous each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Each are about four days long and include two seminar tracks: the route sessions (like the one Paul & Karen are presenting) and a Looping 101 track that covers topics like weather, marine electronics, handling emergencies aboard and provisioning. In the afternoons, the action moves out to the docks where there are typically 50 to 60 Loopers boats tied up. Many of the owners will allow other attendees to board their boats, which gives those so are still planning for the Great Loop some wonderful ideas on the type of boat they might like to purchase, and to ask questions of the owners. It’s also a very social time with many enjoying ‘docktails’ as they tour the boats in the marina. Meals are also included, so the event offers a lot of time to socialize as well as a large amount of educational content.
Kim said more about the Looper community.
“They are honestly the most kind and fun group I’ve people I’ve ever had the privilege to spend time with,” Kim said. “I find them to be a ‘self-selecting group of really nice people.’ I say that, because the Great Loop is not for everyone. Someone who is very high-strung or ‘type A’ may not enjoy it as much as those who are laid-back and easy going. It doesn’t take long on a boat to realize that mother nature will determine when you travel and when you don’t, and you have no control over mechanical issues that might arise, for example. So those who are intent on keeping a schedule or maintaining control of every aspect of their life may quickly weed themselves out. So overall, the AGLCA community is group of really fun-loving people who are out there enjoying the adventure of a lifetime!”
If you go, look for SEEKER, a lovely Nordic Tug, docked at the Waterside Marina. She’s the boat in West of Famous and her owners are Paul and Caryn Frink.
Once the urge strikes to compose a novel, I draft a rough outline and launch into research. For my third novel this meant learning about boats–specifically Trawlers. Part of the story takes place on a trawler, so I needed to understand how they operate, navigate, smell, sound, look, and where to hide a body on one.
Using online research helps only up to a certain point. Cost, size, models, speed, and other performance facts about boats are readily available online. To fully capture the experience of being on such a boat, my BFF and her husband invited me to ride along. Meet hosts Caryn and Paul Frink. (South of Justice, book 1 of the Compass Crimes series, is dedicated in part to my BFF.)
Trawler Hosts Caryn and Paul Frink
For five days and four nights, I bunked in their guest cabin. The perfect hosts, they introduced me to life aboard the Seeker, a 37-foot, 22,600 pound, diesel-powered Nordic Tug 37. Aboard the Seeker, I learned the difference between seawater, fresh water, grey water, and black water (eeew). Captain Paul also explained the navigation equipment, maps, and the basic systems that keep the boat running smoothly whether powered by the engine or powered by the giant yellow power cable used while docked.
There are many key differences between piloting a boat and piloting an aircraft. The boating maps are huuuuge and very detailed. Navigating canals and waterways means watching for red and green signs with numbers, called markers. The markers guide boats through the deeper areas so boats don’t run aground. “Red, right, return,” became my mantra. Binoculars in hand, I tried to help find the markers as the horizon pitched up and down. The Seeker chugged along at a top speed of 8 knots. The Cessna 210 I fly cruises at about 175 knots, so yeah, boating is slower. More leisurely.
The trip began in Naples, Florida at the city dock made of wood. At lunch in Tin City, we saw a pelican try to swallow a beer can. Other pelicans even tried to steal it from him. Not the brightest creatures. I think they’ve become accustomed to human handouts. We traveled an inner passage of waterways south to Marco Island which had a floating cement dock. From there we headed into the Ten Thousand Islands between Marco Island and Everglades City.
The constant rocking meant learning how to walk differently. At first, I staggered like a drunk, but by the end of the week walking around became easier and less bruising. Paul and Caryn helped me resolve a few key issues with the plot of my next book. It involves a kidnapping, a trawler, and a navy brat who refuses to be a victim.
Not only did my hosts help me find the perfect spot to use in my book, but they took me there and we anchored overnight. The term ‘dead calm’ has new meaning for me. We found a remote spot that turned pitch black at night. The only sound at night was the glub-blub of water against the hull. Creepy quiet. It would have been peaceful if I had not been thinking about the book. Eventually, the boat rocked me to sleep.
Since we “crossed our own wake” on a mini loop, Caryn dubbed me a mini-looper. There is an entire society of Loopers, complete with a newsletter, blogs, and harbor hosts. They too, will play a part in the third book in the Compass Crimes–West of Famous.
The best part of the trip was spending time with Caryn, my dearest childhood friend. Thank you, Caryn and Paul, for putting up with a pesky stowaway who asked lots of questions and took notes and photos of all kinds of places. West of Famous is richer for this research.
Hubby calls it a vacation. I’m still calling it research. Ignore my tan.
“North of the Killing Hand is another brilliant entry in the Compass Crimes Series by Joni M Fisher, a compelling and intricately woven story for fans of crime fiction. The plot centers on Nefi Jenkins, whose experience of murder will shape her future in unimaginable ways. She is just fourteen when she witnesses the murder of her parents. Rescued from Brazil and brought to the US, she learns a new way of life, and connects deeply with those who have stood by her. As she grows up, the desire to join the law enforcement service becomes an obsession for her. But is it for the sheer desire to serve her new country or the thirst for revenge? The answer will surprise readers and it’s worth finding out. Joni M Fisher’s work reminded me powerfully of the movie Colombiana, but there is nothing that makes the 2011 film close to this well-imagined and masterfully executed story. Witnessing one’s parents being murdered is a powerful premise for a psychologically absorbing story and the author has used this premise as a springboard to create a character that is rock-solid and with great psychological depth. The international setting is equally fascinating and readers will enjoy the way the author establishes the contrast between two worlds, building a powerful conflict around it as the protagonist adjusts and evolves. The themes are well explored, including crime, love and devotion, the sense of justice and revenge. North of the Killing Hand is a beautifully paced, absorbing story that keeps readers’ eyes on its pages.” —Reviewed by Ruffina Oserio for Readers’ Favorite 5-stars
Many thanks to the reviewer for this wonderful review! Thank you to all my readers for your support.
I am hard at work on the next novel which will be the West part of the Compass Crimes Series. Next week, I will be living on a boat named Seeker off the west coast of Florida. My hosts are Paul and my BFF Caryn “Cookie” Frink. This is their boat:
Caryn is an avid reader, one of my BETA readers, and South of Justice is dedicated to her. I am researching a group known as Loopers, who live on their boats and loop the eastern U.S. via rivers, canals, and lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The lively Looper community features a role in the next book. As a pilot, I am well out of my depth on a boat. Still learning my port from my aft. Anchors away!