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Festival of Reading: For mystery writers, research is essential

Crime fiction writers are always popular at the Times Festival of Reading, and this year's event will feature a murderer's row of bestselling mystery authors.

We asked six of them to talk about one of the most important elements in their genre: research. The deep, dark crimes they write about might be products of their imagination, but for a mystery to work it must be grounded in a believable version of the real world.

We asked each author two questions:

1. What was one of the subjects you had to research for your latest book?

2. What did you find out about that subject that proved to be most important to the book? If you can't tell us that without spoilers, what about the subject most surprised you?

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Jean Heller, The Someday File

10 a.m. Oct. 24, USF Science & Technology 124

1. I have been a fan of Chicago my entire adult life, and moving here in 2009 only deepened my love for the city. Over the years, I have collected six bookshelves of Chicago history and lore. But there were lots of things I didn't know and needed to before I wrote The Someday File. My biggest research project by far was learning about corruption in city government in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Everyone knows corruption existed, but I needed specifics. How deep did it run? What forms did it take? How audacious were those who perpetrated it? How visible was the corruption process? And why didn't the media blow the whistle on it? I have the answers to those questions now, and getting them was an amazing, eye-opening experience. I hope my story does them justice — so to speak.

2. What most surprised me was the general acceptance back then that corruption was simply the way people in Chicago conducted business. How important is that for my book? On a scale of one to ten, it's about an 18. The book wouldn't exist without it. The most interesting tidbit I gleaned during this research was about a place known as Bubbly Creek. Most Chicagoans have never heard of it. But it's real. It is an estuary of the south fork of the Chicago River that runs through acreage that used to be the Chicago Stockyards before they closed in the early '70s. The blood and offal that collected in the slaughterhouses were dumped into this estuary (along with the occasional victim of a mob hit). The process of decomposition released methane and hydrogen sulfide gases that popped to the surface in bubbles that released the nauseating fragrances into the air. Today, if the temperature and humidity are right and there is a slight breeze, Chicagoans can still get a whiff of their past, even if they don't know what it is.

Tim Dorsey, Shark Skin Suite

10:15 a.m. Oct. 24, Fish & Wildlife Institute Auditorium

1. The mortgage and foreclosure crisis a few years ago that hit Florida arguably hardest of all.

2. Most surprising, from my antihero Serge: "That not all Wall Street-types need to die."

Lori Roy, Let Me Die in His Footsteps

1:15 p.m. Oct. 24, USF Davis 130

1. While researching Kentucky, the setting for Let Me Die in His Footsteps, I discovered that the small town of Owensboro, Ky., conducted the last lawful, public hanging in the United States in 1936.

2. There were many intriguing and disturbing facts surrounding this historic event, including the fact that a woman held the office of sheriff at the time and that the district attorney sought an indictment that would guarantee a public execution as opposed to one carried out privately. But the part of my research that most disturbed me and most influenced the novel was the crowd, estimated at 20,000 by some news sources, that gathered to witness the hanging. There were reports of hanging parties, hot dog and popcorn sales, and drunken outbursts. As I studied the events, I began to doubt people were truly seeking justice that day and began to wonder what they had hoped to find.

Michael Koryta, Last Words

10 a.m. Oct. 24, Naughton Pavilion, Poynter Institute

1. Hypnotism.

2. The idea that for decades major police departments maintained dedicated hypnosis units was a surprise to me. The story that most fascinated me was the successful recovery of a license plate number from a witness under hypnosis. He remembered the plate number — but backwards, because he'd seen it in his rearview mirror! I thought that was an amazing story.

James Swain, Take Down

2 p.m. Oct. 24, USF Science & Technology 124

1. While I was writing an article about poker for Men's Health, I was introduced to a crew of casino cheaters in Las Vegas. Meeting this crew led me to eventually write Take Down, which is a fictional re-creation of the crew's ripping off casinos in Sin City. During the time I spent with this crew, I was able to watch them beat a casino for $30,000 by rigging a craps game. The experience opened my eyes to how modern-day grifters and con men really work.

2. The thing that most surprised me about my subject matter was how ordinary these cheats were outside of the casinos. They had mortgages to pay and kids to raise and all the usual everyday stuff. Except for the stealing, they were not much different than you and me.

Lisa Unger, Crazy Love You

12:30 p.m. Oct. 24, Fish & Wildlife Institute Auditorium

1. Research is always a big part of my process. Often, there's a great deal of it that precedes writing. And if all of the deep diving I've done into my subject matter is going to lead to a novel, I'll start hearing a voice in my head. With Crazy Love You, it was the opposite. I had the voice in my head first — a very edgy, male voice — and the only thing I knew about Ian Paine was that he was a graphic novelist with a lot of problems. I knew almost nothing about the world of graphic novels. So I reached out to my friend, bestselling author Gregg Hurwitz, and he connected me with Jud Meyers of Blastoff Comics in Los Angeles and I took a crash course on the graphic novel.

2. Though I didn't know much about the world of graphic novels, I have always loved the mythic universes created by classic comics — the idea that the world is populated by larger-than-life heroes and villains, big stories and colorful characters. I think what surprised me the most is what an underappreciated American art form it is. The act of storytelling is a complex and dynamic enterprise. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of graphic novels, where art and word unify to make something utterly unique. My research took me beyond the "comics" we all know and into the world of modern graphic novels, many of which are marvels of storytelling and artistic expression. From The Walking Dead (Kirkman/Adlard) to Watchmen (Moore/Gibbons), from Chew (Layman/Guillory) to I Kill Giants (Kelly/Niimura), there's a whole universe of beautifully told stories that mainstream readers, particularly fans of crime fiction, may be missing. It was a joy to dive in.

Festival of Reading: For mystery writers, research is essential 10/14/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 1:10pm]
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