When I turned in Show Me the Gold, the third book in my series, last January, I planned to send Phoenix, Annalynn, and Connie out of town in the next book rather than plague Vandiver County with a new murder. Busy preparing for the February release of Show Me the Murder and going over the editor’s queries for Show Me the Deadly Deer, I stewed about the time and expense of researching that new setting and its subculture.
I woke up one morning with the seed of a new idea: Let Phoenix work on a cold case, one that would put her in conflict with Annalynn. Over two or three weeks I built on this until I was ready to start the prewriting work on my next manuscript, Show Me the Ashes.
Before I write Chapter 1, I do a lot of conceptualizing and research. That doesn’t stop when I put the first scene on the screen. Here’s my basic process.
Step 1: Develop a nebulous idea enough to figure out the major things I’ll need to know and, the big question, what I’ll need to learn to make sure my idea is feasible. I usually end up with about 10 pages of notes on plot, themes, victims, villains, kill methods, and settings.
Step 2: Find key sources, human or written, to give me an overview and, if necessary, direct me to other sources. Often a manuscript requires repeating this step several times.
Usually I begin by searching for information on the Web or in reference books, including those in my own library. As in doing research for articles or other nonfiction material, I prefer to grasp the basics before I question experts. Doing my homework allows me to ask better questions and elicits better answers. That saves time for everyone.
If I know people with vital expertise, I contact them and ask to chat. Maybe I invite them for lunch or a coffee. (Friends tend to tense up if I use the word interview.) I end a chat/interview by asking if I can come back if I have other questions.
Step 3: Determine priorities and set up a rough research schedule. Decide what has to be learned before I start writing (facts affecting the plot) and what can wait (observations of a setting or activity that comes late in the book).
Step 4: Research small, unanticipated questions as I write. Something pops up in almost every chapter. If I can find the information quickly, I may interrupt the writing to do it. If finding the information requires times, I’ll boldface some x’s or a best-guess draft and come back to it later. (After the second draft of the full manuscript, I ask knowledgeable people to check anything questionable.)
From the middle of April until the middle of May, attending conferences and preparing workshops and speeches took all my attention. In late May I wrote rough drafts of the first two chapters.
I usually rewrite the early chapters several times before I’m confident I have the right tone and pace. At this stage I’m figuring out any changes in my four regulars’ lives, meeting new characters who are hiding their personalities and motives, and puzzling over how Phoenix will find evidence and evade the inevitable attacks.