Webb's Blog

Read the first chapter of THE PUFFIN OF DEATH at


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Temptations of Research


After almost a year and a half of slaving, DESERT WIND, my seventh Lena Jones novel, has been sent to the publisher. Now I’m working on my 10th mystery, THE LLAMA OF DEATH. This probably explains why I haven’t been blogging like I should, although I’ve tried to keep up on Facebook.

We writers are strange creatures. Although of necessity we keep up with important current events (“BIN LADEN DEAD!!!” “TRUMP DROPS THE F-BOMB!!!” “NEW BARBIE DUE OUT!!!”), at the same time we’re almost like hibernating bears while working on a book. But instead of going to sleep, we enter a waking dream-like state where we live entirely in our heads, coming up for air only for trips to the potty and other necessary forays outside our dens. When our friends run into us at the grocery store or dry cleaners and attempt to engage us in conversation, we stare at them through glazed eyes and say something like, “I’m so glad your little Brucie was chosen honor student of the year, and did you know that an Argentine duck has a 17-inch-long penis?”

We don’t even notice when our circle of friends starts shrinking. Until, of course, that day when we pack up our manuscripts and ship (or e-mail) them off to our publishers. Then we look around and wonder where everyone disappeared to.

That’s the situation I find myself in right now. When I call a friend, they ask, “Betty who?” After a pause, they add something like, “Oh. I thought you were dead.” Once I convince them I’m not a ghost, we play catch-up.

Speaking of ghosts, I actually wrote one into DESERT WIND. The ghost’s name is John Wayne. That’s right. John Wayne, the movie actor. What happened to Wayne in 1953, while he was filming THE CONQUEROR, is a major plot point of DESERT WIND. And Mr. Wayne created a problem for me. About halfway through the first draft, I realized that I was committing the major writing sin of “telling, not showing.” After all, the man died decades ago. So in order to show the pertinent portion of Wayne’s life, I set pivotal scenes in different decades, thus turning what could have been a contemporary novel into a semi-historical one. Which, of course, meant tons of research.

Here’s the trouble I have with research. I LOVE it -- madly, crazily, goofily LOVE it. In another life, I was probably a historian, so I’ve always had a hard time putting the research down and just writing the book. But oh, the things you learn while plowing through sixty-year-old magazines. For chapters set in 1953, I learned not only about the era’s major events (Red Scare, anyone?), but also what songs people were listening to. You see, history isn’t just made up of the big things -- history is also the “little” things, and to a great extent, those “little” things are what we notice. Most of us aren’t in the White House War Room, and most of us aren’t Arizona ranchers trying to figure out why our cattle are suddenly dying. And goodness knows, most of us aren’t movie stars sauntering through a film set in a remote desert canyon. We’re just normal, everyday people out shopping, trying to figure out what kind of skirt to buy (in the 1950s, we’d have bought a skirt with a poodle appliqued on it).

Despite all those historical temptations, I finally finishedDESERT WIND. I’d planned to take a month off to just sit around reading other people’s books, but you know how writers are -- finish one book on Monday, start a new book on Tuesday. So that’s what I did.

Now I’m knee-deep in research on llamas, those lovely Peruvian creatures who hum when they’re happy (bet you didn’t know that, did you?). But as soon as I finish THE LLAMA OF DEATH, I know there won’t be any vacation -- I’ll just plunge straight into the research for DESERT REGRET.

Oh, I can’t wait!


J.P. Farris said...

I always say that a writer is a student of everything, and that leads to the temptations of research. We are born with a curiosity that makes us what we are. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Eunice Boeve said...

Right on! We must forsake kith and kin to some degree if we're going to one day hold a book in our little hands with keyboard roughened fingers. I too love research and find it hard to stop and start to write the story. Also, I find it amazing/interesting to find when the story is done, what I've used and what I haven't from the reseach material.

Trish said...

Your blog is as funny in print as you are in person! Loved it -- will be looking for llamas ...write on!

Vicky Ruth said...

Speaking of penis envy! Freud would have had fun with that information. Isn't it interesting what we pick up from blogs?

Congrats on another Lena book! Yeah, I can't wait. John Wayne? That will be interesting, I never liked his movies or him, so I am sure you will make him likeable, or is he the villian?

Yep, research is the best fun! Thank you for sharing the writing life! Now, this was a very interesting blog.

Betty Webb said...

Vicky, oddly enough, I totally shared your view of Wayne before I began my research (which entailed watching a 20-film Wayne marathon back-to-back). By the time I was through with the films & the books, I felt differently. Lena, whose opinion of him mirrors mine, may -- or may not have -- changed her mind, too.