Sunday, February 19, 2012

Guest Blogger Betty Webb

As a journalist, Betty Webb interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The dark Lena Jones mysteries, based on stories she covered as a reporter, include this year's "Desert Wind," given a starred review by Publishers Weekly; "Desert Lost" ("One of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009," Library Journal); "Desert Noir" ("A mystery with a social conscience," Publishers Weekly); and "Desert Wives," ("Eye-popping," New York Times). Betty’s humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted with the prize-winning "The Anteater of Death," followed by "The Koala of Death." A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, Women Writing the West, and the National Organization of Zoo Keepers.

Falling in Love with Research

By Betty Webb

I’ve written at length about my years of research for DESERT WIND, a murder mystery which contrasts the contemporary uranium mining controversy at the Grand Canyon, and the decades-long testing of nuclear bombs in Nevada.

In short,the research entailed trips tospectacular Snow Canyon, Utah; watching a marathon of John Wayne movies (his ghost turns up in the book); reading stacks of dry government and academic papers and books; and a visit to the very weird Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.

What I haven’t written about was how difficult it was to stop researching.

Historians and historical novelists of all genres know how easy it is to fall in love with research. For instance, if I wanted to write a book about an Englishwoman living in 1064 AD (which I once attempted to do), I’d need to research pre-Conquest Anglo Saxon culture. Among those areas would be: the complexities of town life versus agrarian life; women’s role in Saxon England; the slow emergence of Christianity within a heretofore pagan populace; the installation of educational institutions; Saxon metalworking and coinage; the last days of Edward the Confessor… Et cetera, et cetera.

Each of these categories (and dozens I didn’t even mention) have their own sub-categories and sub-sub categories. Take King Edward the Confessor, for instance. Edward fathered no children -- he was said to be a religious celibate -- which made the handing down of the crown after his death such a monumental matter. And researching that sub-category led me to a statement in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles, that “Edward surrounded himself with young and beautiful Norman men,” well, what a delicious sub-sub research category: the possibility that Edward the Confessor was gay. Come to think of it, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles alone would be good for several years-worth of research. Considering the numerous sub-sub-sub and sub-sub-sub-sub categories there, it could easily take a lifetime.

Get my point? Now back to DESERT WIND.

Ostensibly, the only thing I had to do for WIND was steep myself in governmental policies regarding uranium mining and nuclear testing between 1953 and 2012, and maybe read a John Wayne biography or two. But, oh, those pesky sub-categories.

I soon found myself engrossed by Paiute tribal life, the complexities of yellowcake, Navajo uranium miners, hit songs of the Fifties, Genghis Khan (yes, that Genghis Khan), the geologic strata of the Grand Canyon, the Cold War, Doris Day, water rights vis a vis Southwestern desert communities, the possibility of environmental links to certain forms of cancer… Et cetera, et cetera.

Three years after beginning my research, I had to forcibly pull myself away from the research in order to begin DESERT WIND. The actual writing process took a year. How much of my three years’ of research did I wind up using? Probably less than five percent. Do I regret spending so much time on that unused ninety-five percent?

Heck, no.

I’m already looking forward to not using ninety-five percent of my current research for DESERT REGRET.

To read the first chapter of DESERT WIND log onto

Follow Betty on Twitter @bettywebb


Gwyn Ramsey said...

What a great write-up on research. As a historical writer, I totally understand how one can get so engrossed into the research. It's very hard to say when, but sometimes one has to do so in order to get the writing finished. Keep going Betty. You never know when you will go back to your previous material for data.

Warren Bull said...

Sometimes you can tell the fiction from the actual history, When events are fascinating and hard to believe they're probably historically correct. In an earlier version of Beecher's Bibles I wrote about a rifle with so much detail that a reader could have built one. I had to take some of the detail out.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I enjoy your novels, so I'm not surprised you sometimes disappear into the research. (I tend to do the same thing!) I look forward to your newest.

Lori said...

As Gwyn said, a great write-up on research. And oh, I so understand! My published book was to be a simple collection of ghost stories from across North Dakota. After learning that my title was NOT going to be "Haunted North Dakota," I took the liberty to include three fascinating old murder cases (spooky? Maybe. Creepy? Definitely). I spent time in the ND State Archives. Time? I spent MONTHS in the archives. And hmm, a missing sister? I have no idea how much time I spent on, with help from two other ancestry devotees, to learn everything about one family whose tragedy I wrote about. Like you, I used maybe 5% of what I found in my little book. And I don't regret it at all. Besides finding everything I did and found absolutely fascinating, I also found plotlines for at least 2 murder mysteries; maybe 3. And when I started looking at my own family tree, some surprising skeletons fell out! Research is a must, even for fiction (which a few writers I could name need to learn), but it's also a joy in and of itself!

OldBroad said...

Research always informs the writing whether it's part of the story or behind the scenes. Almost any story requires some sort of research. Those atmospheric details bring it to life.

Arletta Dawdy said...

Betty, Your research is reflected in books filled with much passion and compassion for historical and contemporary issues. You are far from alone in getting lost in the research and then shaking yourself free to tell the story in a smooth(but very provocative) style. I'm looking forward to reading this and your future tales.