Monday, August 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on In-Person Research: Guest Post by Mark Pryor

Mark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, The Reluctant Matador, and The Paris Librarian, as well as the novels Hollow Man and Dominic. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children. 

Mark Pryor:
Some Thoughts on In-Person Research 

I initially titled this article, “The Importance of In-Person Research,” but I am always wary of writers who lay out their practices and procedures and suggest every author needs to adopt them. In fact, when asked the only good piece of writing advice I give is: do what works best for you. Also, the original title doesn’t really work if you’re writing about Mars or Atlantis, or 17th century Belgium, since you’re not doing much in-person research. I assume…

So, maybe this should really be called: Why in-person research is important to me, and why it might be good for you to do it, but please don’t feel obliged. Hmm, accurate enough if not all that snappy…


I go to the places that I write about for several reasons. The first is that I like to travel, and so do my wife and kids. Setting a book in a new place, then, is the equivalent of packing a bag—once I’ve done it, we’re going! (I have friends who set their books in east Texas and rural New York. Truly wonderful books, but hardly the most exotic research jaunts!)

Another reason is that for my series, I try to make the place another character: it throws up obstacles to my detectives, and provides flavor and atmosphere for the reader to enjoy. Now it’s true, I can find locations and street names online, I can be geographically accurate that way but, if I did all my research that way, I’d miss this (true story):

I was walking in Paris to meet my mum at the train station. A fairly drab part of Paris, nothing for the tourists to enjoy really. But then I turned the corner into a short but wide pedestrian street that sloped gently uphill. The tarmac gave way to cobbles, and on either side the street was lined with small stores. A cheese shop to my right, and beside it a bakery. Across the way the proprietor stood in the doorway to his little restaurant smoking a cigarette, perhaps waiting for customers or maybe just someone to chat with. I looked ahead, past the flower stalls, as a pretty girl on a bicycle free-wheeled towards me, her hair, scarf and coat fluttering in the wind behind her, a smile plastered across her face as she and the rolling suitcase she was pulling bounced across the cobbles and past me.

It was a perfect moment, and one that went straight into a book, a moment I’d never get from Google maps.

Another one: in the old town of Barcelona the small, winding streets are lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. Most of them are roughly the same size and fronted with large, square windows that are protected during closing hours by metal shutters that are pulled down to the ground. When they’re down, you have absolutely no idea what the business is behind them, it could be a toy shop, a perfumery, or a hat store. Those shutters are very often covered in graffiti, but more often than not quite beautifully, delightfully expressive artwork of all colors and styles.

And so one October morning, as I walked through Barcelona’s narrow and ancient streets, I had the sensation that I was strolling through an advent calendar, these colorful square shutters scrolling up and open to reveal some new delight I couldn’t have guessed at. Again, that’s something you can’t get from the kind of moment-in-time snapshot an internet map would give you.

To me, it’s not just Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower that give Paris its unique ambience. It’s also these little moments, a glimpse into someone’s day or a passing mail van with a message stenciled on its side: Smile. There could be a love letter for you inside! I mean, could that be anywhere but Paris? And how would I know about it, how would I see it if I don’t go there in person?

Ah, yes. You’re right. I do have a trip to plan. Merci beaucoup!

Mark Pryor’s The Sorbonne Affair (Seventh Street Books) hit the shelves last week.


James Ziskin said...

Great post, Mark! Sounds like you've got the right plan. Paris, Barcelona... Love your books, too!

Anne Louise Bannon said...

I was thinking about the importance of going to the archives and looking at the primary documents yourself. But as you noted, it's not always practical. The nice thing about going places to research is that even if you're writing a historical mystery set in, say, New York City, there are bits and pieces of that city's history that you can still look at.