Stand back, I’m researching!
Some time ago I posted about the perils of doing first-hand research. I recently undertook the weekend of research I wrote about and lived to tell the tale, so I shall.
The little river town I’m using as a template for the town in my novel is about two hours east of my home in Kansas City. Had it not been for the absolute requirement that we endure a night in a bed and breakfast, we could have easily made a day trip out of it. But this shows the level of my commitment to getting the facts right. Maybe others don’t feel as strongly about this as I do, but I had to follow through.
We arrived in the town at about lunch time and drove to the winery restaurant where my protagonists will have a sunset dinner. Because we arrived on Sunday (we had prior obligations on Saturday or we would have come then) we had to have lunch at the restaurant instead of dinner since it closes at 3:00 p.m. on Sundays. The restaurant is set atop a limestone bluff that soars several hundred feet above the Missouri River valley. The place has floor-to-three-story-ceiling windows that give spectacular views of the valley, the rolling river, the changing fall foliage across a half dozen miles of river valley, and the occasional eagles that floated on the air outside the restaurant. We arrived for brunch and had quiche with side Caesar salads. We also had the sausage and cheese appetizer plate. Plus we each sampled the local wine. It’s all the kind of things my characters do, so we felt obliged to do the same thing as closely as we could. (One of my characters has Cornish hen for dinner, but while that is on the restaurant’s dinner menu, it wasn’t on the brunch menu. Perhaps we’ll have to go back.) As part of my research I bought four bottles of the local wine: two red varieties and two whites. (They wait in my refrigerator for further considered investigation.)
Since we couldn’t check in to our bed and breakfast until 4:00 p.m. we spent several hours wandering the tiny town’s tiny commercial district. There were several antique shops, several art galleries, a general store with a lunch bar (including ice cream that we felt we had to sample), many homes nearly as old as the state itself, more changing fall foliage, and, it turned out, several opportunities to spend several hundred dollars on several gifts for ourselves and others. My characters don’t do that latter business, so I don’t know if my research rigor failed there or not. I suppose I should feel guilty about that lapse, but somehow I don’t.
We eventually checked in to our bed and breakfast, a delightful old bungalow filled with a stocked refrigerator, very good furniture, books, general comforts, and chocolates. What were we to do but sample it all? (My protagonists have an unsatisfactory stay at the fictional B&B I’ve set them in, so I felt a little bad enjoying myself — thoroughly.) The B&B overlooks the famous Katy Trail, a hiking and biking rail-to-trails conversion that is the longest in the country and apparently famed worldwide. My characters rent bikes to ride this trail, but more on that below.
Among the features of the bike trail as it passes through this town is that the only tunnel along the entire route appears there. It was even used when a movie was made of a novel by a famous horror writer. This fact comes up in my novel, and several characters make a wine-soaked visit to the tunnel after dark to look it over. We had other after-dark plans (also more below), so we hiked the trail from our B&B to the tunnel in the early evening, which didn’t amount to a half mile round trip. The tunnel is short, but it is spectacular, and I can see how it would make it into a movie. Along the way we met two cyclists (the little town is full of them) who had just completed a 50+ mile trek on the trail and desperately wanted to find a place to eat. We gave them directions to a diner/bike shop on the other side of “town” (you could see it from where we were standing before the tunnel), and they were grateful.
Our plans (yes, further research) involved being at the winery’s patio just before sunset so we could watch the sun go down across the broad river valley. The winery patio is set atop the bluff (as the winery’s restaurant is), so we drove up there (rather than hike the 1.3 mile trail up there), ordered a bottle of semi-sweet red and a snack basket of cheese and sausage, then settled in and waited for the sun to set as we listened to the live jazz and watched the eagles float by again. While this seems like hedonistic self indulgence, let me assure you it was rigorous, obligatory research. My characters have dinner (Cornish hen) in the fictional restaurant just at sunset. Since we couldn’t do the same, we did the next best thing. The sunset was very nice, though I will doll it up considerably in my story, and when the wine was gone, so were we, heading back to that chocolate-laden bed and breakfast to begin our in-depth pillow research there.
To our surprise, one of the other couples sharing the bungalow with us that evening were the two people we’d met on the bike trail who were ravenous. They had since recovered, having found a double cheeseburger (he) and a wrap (she) at the bike shop diner. One of the things we especially like about staying at a bed and breakfast is visiting with people you’ll never see again. (My protagonists like this too.) You can have rambling conversations about nearly anything at all and not have to worry about it coming back to you in the grocery store or at work. Since we returned to the B&B after dark, I never really saw the husband’s face. (He had hurried by us on the bike trail, and what reason would I have to study his face then? Our earlier conversation was with his wife.) He was outside on the patio, in the dark, drinking some wine (that he had packed those 50+ miles on the trail) and smoking a cigar. I was soon invited to join him, and since my protagonists experience these kinds of random friendships at the B&Bs where they stay, I knew I had to do the same. So he and I sat in the dark under the starry sky, sipping wine and smoking cigars, solving all of the worlds problems and bragging about our children. It’s research, folks. Research.
When the wine ran out and the cigars were finished, we went into the house and retired to our rooms. (Note to self and totally unrelated to novel research: if you’re going to smoke a cigar in the evening, Paul, be sure to brush your teeth before going to bed.) In my experience, the beds in B&Bs are consistently wonderful. I slept well, as will my protagonists, though, for some hateful reason, I awoke at 3:18 and could not fall back to sleep. But the bungalow was quiet then, and I had my iced tea, so I got busy with some rewrites that weren’t going to get themselves done. I think I got three hours of work done before the house awoke. I finally got to see the face of the man who shared his wine and cigars with me. He’s an avid cyclist, retired, and full of a lifetime of stories. The four of us chatted away during breakfast, but they had another 30 miles to cover before their next stop, so they were eager to get on the trail, and we soon parted, likely never to meet again (though it would be nice if we did — and one of my characters does attempt something of this sort, but let me remain vague about that).
We puttered about the house, getting ourselves packed and ready to leave. We still had one more bit of research to get done in town before heading home, but we had to wait until 9:00 a.m. to begin, so we were in no hurry. The time eventually came, so we checked out and drove to the bike shop near the trail head. There we rented two bikes and set out on the trail for an hour’s ride. This is something my characters do as well. I’ve ridden on this trail before, but it was years before, and I wanted a fresh experience of it so it could inform my writing. I think I got it, heading out on the trail for a half hour or so, and then returning. I doubt we covered even five miles round trip, but my protagonists are not cyclists to speak of, so their little adventure would be about the equivalent of that. The mighty Missouri River roils past the trail on this stretch. The bluffs soar overhead. The leaves of late October turn and fall and whisper in the wind. Other cyclists come and go with smiles and cheery greetings. The gravel of the trail crunches under the bicycle tires. The sun feels warm, perhaps for the last time of the season. Life is good and research is rewarding.
Once this was accomplished, we had achieved all I had set out to do. It was hard work, researching in real life like that, but it will make for better story telling. We took two-lane back roads home that afternoon, which tripled the time it took, but interstates are soulless and don’t lend themselves to the kind of reflection a fellow needs.