The Search For Truth

Sing It to Her Bones,Talley's first novel, was originally set in Kentucky, but she found it difficult to conduct background research long-distance. "Out of sheer laziness I moved Hannah to Annapolis where I live. I've a passion for sailing, so it was inevitable that Hannah would end up fighting for her life on a sailboat in the Chesapeake Bay."

Research, it seems, whether gaining knowledge of a city, occupation, weapon, or evidence, adds notably to the appeal of writing. "I love research--it involves my two favorite activities: walking around and reading," Rosan says. "I don't particularly write what I know. I think about what I want to know, then go out and research it until it's enough a part of me to write about. This involves an intimate knowledge of a novel's setting, which is an excuse to eat in restaurants and sit in parks and shop."

Rosan also admits to knowing very little about her stories before she actually begins. "I usually start with a theme and setting, then choose an opening situation--in Mandarin Plaidfor example, Lydia's brother had a friend who needs her help. Did I know what the friend's problem was at the time? No. I go down a lot of blind alleys this way, but I can't plot out a book before I know who's in it and what kind of people they are. I can't know that until I write about them for a while. I'm working on a book now set in Hong Kong, and I have no idea what Lydia and Bill are going to do."

She benefits by reading works by new generation Chinese-American writers. "I find people--sweatshop owners, museum administrators, representatives of the Hong Kong police--who will let me in and show me how to do what they do."

It's been Talley's experience that most individuals are willing to bend over backwards to help an author. "A doctor I know once wrote a complete medical chart for one of my victims, and a young Coast Guardsman eagerly told me everything I wanted to know about survival at sea," she says. "When I needed a weapon that would logically be at hand in a boat, I visited a bait and tackle store where a guy barely out of high school helped me find the ideal fishing lure. He was so enthusiastic, that I was afraid he'd be disappointed if I didn't actually use it on somebody." For her current novel, Unbreathed Memories,Talley has had to interview women who were victimized by careless or incompetent therapists. "I'm finding them amazingly cooperative and candid."

Book research is especially fulfilling when it coincides with the passions of the author. Several of Frommer's novels are based in the music world, and, as a self-taught quilter, she was able to research old patterns and the workings of quilt shows for her 1994 book, Buried in Quilts.For her newest novel, The Vanishing Violinist,Frommer consulted with the contenders at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, where the novel is set. "They couldn't wait to give me the inside dope on what it's like to compete at that level--especially when I promised nobody would ever know who told me.

"The research is what makes the books fun, but it's the window dressing," Frommer adds. "In fiction, what matters is that the characters live and make you care about them."

Forging Ahead

The characters--and their fans--help tremendously during the inevitable periods of writer's block. "I received a letter from a woman whose aunt read Buried in Quiltsto distract her from her pain while she was dying of cancer," Frommer says. "She finished it just before she died. I got that letter when I was having a really hard time writing and was thinking of giving it up."

Talley remembers a man in her writer's group who, after reading the first chapters of Sing it To Her Bones,called and talked to her about everything but Hannah's struggle with cancer. "Finally I asked, 'Is there something you want to say, John?' and he said, 'I just want to know. Will she be all right?'"

With the book just released, Talley is continually amazed that people seem to be loving it. "I have this nagging fear that the world will wake up and discover that I'm an imposter who can't write her way out of a paper bag."

"What I've discovered," adds Rosan, "is that you can keep pulling the wool over readers' eyes. They will, in fact, never figure out that you're the fraud and imposter you know yourself to be."

The Basic Four

Ever since Edgar Allen Poe introduced the literary world to the mystery story with his seminal masterpiece "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the genre has evolved in many different directions. Although the details of a crime story are infinitely variable, most critics agree that mysteries fall into one of four major sub-genres.

The first category, known as the "Puzzle" or "Locked Room" genre, is a style in which a murder victim is found in an apparently sealed enclosure. It is the detective's job to decipher the seemingly impossible means of escape. This is the genre that Poe is credited with inventing.

The "Cozy" genre is generally regarded as the classic mystery form. Also known as the "English Country House" or "Manor House" style, a Cozy novel usually focuses on an isolated group of semi-aristocratic individuals who find themselves suspects in a murder. A super-detective is able to solve the crime with his keen sense of observation and understanding of human nature. This style was immensely popular in the 1920s and '30s.

The 1920s also saw the rise of pulp magazines, featuring what is now known as "Hard-Boiled" or "Black Mask" fiction. The protagonist in these mysteries was usually an isolated investigator who could "achieve limited and local justice in a less than perfect world." Hard-Boiled fiction was the United States' foremost contribution to the mystery genre, bringing to life the gritty realism of urban America.

The 1940s saw the advent of "Police Procedural" stories which took a pragmatic look at the crime-solving methodology of various law enforcement agencies. The strong character development and limitless plot possibilities of police procedurals also made the genre well suited for television.

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