As writers we get a lot of advice. A phrase that we are all too familiar with is, of course, “write what you know.” We hear it often enough that it can become something we don’t think critically about. In this week’s guest blog, author Caroline Fardig offers us her insight on how to familiarize yourself with a location that you would like to be a focal point of your writing. If you paint the picture of the world around you well enough, it can become as integral to the story as the characters themselves.
By Caroline Fardig
Write what you know.
As writers, we hear that advice over and over again. It’s good advice, because if you’re well versed in your subject matter, you’re less likely to provide incorrect facts, or worse, be compelled to make things up. However, even when we’re firmly inside our comfort zone, we still need to do some research. I find it’s especially important to research and get to know the setting of your story. (That is, unless your story is set on the planet Nebular, in which case you CAN in fact make up ridiculous things.) If written well, the setting can come to life and become as much a part of your story as your characters.
In preparing to write my latest series, the Java Jive Mysteries (Death Before Decaf, Mug Shot, and the upcoming A Whole Latte Murder), I’ve had to do some pretty intense research on my setting. And by intense, I mean serious hands-on, in the trenches, in depth VACATIONING in Nashville, Tennessee. A writer’s life can be tough sometimes.
My Java Jive series is a cozy mystery series following failed musician turned coffeehouse manager Juliet Langley. It’s set in a fictional coffeehouse in the Midtown area of Nashville. Midtown is just southwest of downtown, in and around the lovely Vanderbilt and Belmont University campuses. Whereas downtown can be glittery and rowdy at one end of Broadway, the campus/residential area at the other end is anything but. The area boasts dozens of mom and pop shops, from bars to boutiques, many of which are run out of restored old houses. That’s where I got the idea for the Java Jive coffeehouse.
I love coffee, so of course I had to visit every coffeehouse in the area—for the sake of research, of course. All coffeehouses have their own signature concoctions, my favorite being The Frothy Monkey’s White Monkey Mocha, an espresso drink flavored with white chocolate and banana syrups, which I recreate every morning at home. (In trying to learn about the life of a barista I also bought an espresso machine and learned to craft drinks and pour latte art.) At the coffeehouses, I researched their food and bakery offerings and their processes of serving and delivering the food to their customers. Again, a rough job. I paid attention to their hours of operation and employee work schedules. I drank in the atmosphere. Ultimately, I was able to glean a wealth of ideas to make Java Jive believable enough as a functioning coffeehouse.
Like Café Coco, Java Jive offers an open mic night for area musicians to perform. That was the only actual serious research I did. Each book in the series includes an original song I wrote, and I decided the best way to fully be immersed in the open mic experience was to perform myself. Talk about nerve-wracking! A forty-something mom of two getting up and performing in front of a bunch of young, talented Nashville musicians was almost more than I could handle. (I do have a music degree, so I’m not a total hack.) I never felt more empathy for my heroine, Juliet, and her crippling stage fright than in those few minutes I was up on that little stage.
Speaking of music, you can’t set your series in Nashville and ignore the unending supply of live music pouring out of the many bars and clubs downtown. My friend Karen (a Nashville area resident) was the perfect tour guide and partner in crime for a couple of unforgettable visits to the heart of Music City. Tin Roof is my favorite bar, and it made its way into A Whole Latte Murder. And speaking of “writing what you know,” the scene in A Whole Latte Murder where a bird defecates on Juliet on Second Avenue really happened to me the last time I was there. True story.
For outdoor locales, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Centennial Park. It became the setting for the death scene in Mug Shot. To research for the scene, I walked the beautiful grounds of the park, scouting out where everything would take place, from where actual benches are to what my characters would see when they sat on the steps of the Parthenon facing Lake Watauga. As for other outdoor landmarks, in one particular scene in Death Before Decaf, my heroine follows someone from the Vanderbilt Library lawn past sorority row to the Office Depot on West End. I dragged my husband along on the exact route my characters took, making sure I had all the details right. I also found the perfect semi-secluded area behind the library to have my heroine narrowly escape being kidnapped.
Thanks to the Killer Nashville Conference, I was introduced to the Omni Hotel downtown. The whole place is gorgeous, especially the library in the lobby, a reader’s dream full of books, overstuffed chairs, and a fireplace to die for. In Mug Shot, Juliet ends up at the Omni while spying on one of her suspects. She hides in the library, pretending to read. Of course I had to recreate the scene when I was there for last year’s conference.
Research doesn’t always have to happen in front of a computer or at the library. Venture out. Look at the world around you, even if you’re simply people-watching. And if you come for August’s Killer Nashville conference (which is moving to suburban Cool Springs/Franklin, about 20 minutes south), make sure to take advantage of what Music City has to offer. You might find Nashville becoming your new favorite vacation spot or the setting for your next novel.
Caroline Fardig is the author of the Java Jive Mysteries series and the Lizzie Hart Mysteries series. Suspense Magazine recently named Fardig’s Bad Medicine as one of the Best Books of 2015. She worked as a schoolteacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom before she realized that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Born and raised in a small town in Indiana, Fardig still lives in that same town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat. Find Caroline on the web at www.carolinefardig.com
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