Thursday, May 3, 2018


  Last week,I was at Malice Domestic, the large and lively annual fan convention devoted to the traditional mystery. I was on a panel about research. It was great fun, moderated by the always intelligent and good-natured Cathy Pickens. We didn’t come close to discussing all the astute questions she had sent us beforehand but they have kept me thinking.  So here are a few more stories from the mystery writing trenches.

Do you have an example of how research informed or altered the course of your story?  Why, yes, as it happens I do. Brooklyn Secrets is about Brownsville, one of the lowest income and highest crime-rate neighborhoods in New York. It is about hard times growing up there now, in the days of gangs and drugs, and hard times growing up in the 1920/30s when it was famously the home of the brutal mob enforcers nicknamed Murder Inc. As I was reading up on the bad old days, I stumbled across an article by the grandson of Meyer Lansky, one of the founders and bosses of the whole organized crime system. The author maintained his grandad was a fine gentlemen who admired Lincoln and Gandhi, quoted his take on various actors who had portrayed him, and called his gangster colleagues "the boys.” It would have been funny if it had not been so bizarre. A new fictional character, somewhat comical and definitely strange, became part of my story.

Has anyone ever called you on an error? Yes,embarrassingly. I wrote a description of what my heroine sees as she is driving across of the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. It is a breathtaking sight: skyscrapers, boats, other bridges, the whole harbor all the way to the ocean.  

 Only someone wrote to tell me you can’t see the ocean from that bridge! I checked. I had combined that view with the one from the Verrazano Bridge somewhat to the south. There you see the Atlantic spread out in all its majesty

 Have you ever encountered a fact that you knew you couldn’t use because it sounded too unbelievable? Why? Well, I haven’t found a way to use it yet. Mystery Writers of America local chapter arranged a private tour of Woodlawn, a beautiful historic cemetery in the Bronx. Having recently published Brooklyn Graves, partly about Green-Wood, a similar landmark in Brooklyn, naturally I went along. Do you think cremation ashes are always kept in a dignified urn or scattered at a scenic spot special to the deceased?

 We learned that they can also be incorporated into jewelry that a mourner can wear (Keeping the loved one close?) and into bullets. Yes. Bullets. Seriously. There has to be a way to get that into a story, right?

I have also encountered facts that were fascinating but would not fit into the book I was then writing. (I tried) Yet they were too good to ignore: did you know selling the Brooklyn Bridge actually happened? Many times? So they became short stories. You can find “Legends of Brooklyn” in the anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder NY Style #4,  and “Girls With Tools” in the Stories tab of my webpage or the anthology Bound by Mystery. And I’m holding onto a few more good ones. For someday.