Friday, December 11, 2009

Cheryl St.John: How Much Research is Too Much?

Cheryl St.John
1882 Colorado
December 2009

St. John's strong yet sweet romance is peopled by characters readers will care about...the lesson St. John teaches in the subplot about abuse touches the heart.
~ Romantic Times

There are definitely plenty of things a writer needs to know before she starts to write her book. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum; they have occupations and homes and families and histories and nationalities and all number of things we need to know to make them three-dimensional and bring realism to the story.

My December book, Her Colorado Man, is set just outside a town I’ve used in a previous story. Once I’ve done all the work for a setting, it only makes sense to get some mileage out of it. Colorado is a common setting for me. I own picture books, reference books and maps as well as books on plants and animals. I had another reason for the location, other than its convenience, however: I made my heroine part of a large German family who own a brewery, so I had to select a location to support the operation. The cold-water streams that flow from the mountains were perfect.

And then I had to know enough about brewing beer to decide which method they used and why, and which year would be workable. I chose a year when bottling was first being introduced and also a year that there was a huge Exposition in Denver. So my actual location and the brewery are fabricated, but everything about the people and production and operation and the time period are factual. Keeping facts as close to real as possible makes the reader believe.

I also had to know something about my hero who comes to this town from Alaska, where he’s been delivering mail between tent towns and postal stations. That research was probably the most difficult, because all the facts easily found about Juneau and the Yukon pertain to the gold rush, which didn’t happen until after my time period. So that part of my education took more searching.

So besides looking up breweries, their operation and types of brewing methods before I started, I searched for information on sled dogs, Alaskan temperatures, modes of travel and traditional Bavarian foods. I ended up with a binder full of facts and pictures. Sometimes I have to make an additional folder on one subject, like say liveries or beer making. In my opinion, you can’t ever know too much about your location or your topic or the cultures of your people.

Confession: I’m a paper person. I’ve learned to use PBWiki, personal online storage, but even though I have that ability and I’ve bookmarker the online information, I still want to be able to flip through my binder and put my finger on that list of names I was going to use. I need to see the paragraph about the competitive advantages of lager brewing over ale. That’s just me. If you are a writer, maybe you’ve got a smarter way to store your research, and if so, I applaud you. The important thing is that your method works for you, and you’re not losing writing time searching for something you’ve lost.

Now just because I have all that info doesn’t mean I will ever need to or that I ever should use it all. A writer knows far more about her subjects than she should ever use in a story. But she needs to know it, because if she didn’t, she’d make mistakes. I have many writer friends who love the research part so much that it takes on a life of its own. Once they start, they can’t stop.

Here’s how to know when to quit researching: If your study is cutting into your production, you’re researching too much. If you get caught up in the fact-finding and aren’t tallying a page count, you’re doing too much research. If you’re not putting words on pages, you’re avoiding writing. Give your study a rest and write the story. You can learn the rest of the details as you need them. I learn enough to get started and then I begin. When I get to something I don’t know, I simply google the subject. If I’m on a roll and need to know something, I leave an asterisk and come back to it after the muse is burned out for the day.

So, yes there is a lot a writer needs to know, but the wise writer knows when to call a halt get down to business.


Chapter One

Ruby Creek, Colorado May, 1882

Her Colorado Man
by Cheryl St.John

"Watch out!"

Mariah Burrows ducked and ran a good six feet before turning back to look up at the crate teetering atop a stack of similar ones in the cavernous warehouse. Three agile young men scrambled from their positions on ladders and beside wagons to prevent it from falling. Two of them were her nephews, the other a distant cousin.

"Don't stack these crates over twelve high," she called. "Better that we take up warehouse space than lose eighty-five dollars or someone's head. We built this whole building just for storing the lager for the Exposition, so let's use it."

Her nephew Roth gave her a mock salute and jumped down from the pile of wooden crates. "Grandpa would've had our hides if we'd let that one slip."

"I'd have told your mother not to serve that apfel-strudel you're so fond of tonight."

He laughed and took his cap from his rear pocket to settle it on his head. "You're a tyrannical boss, Aunt Mariah."

"Mariah!" A familiar male voice echoed through the high-ceilinged building. "Mariah Burrows!"

"Over here, Wilhelm," she called. At twenty-two, he was her younger brother by two years. He used her full name at every opportunity. Among the hundred plus employees at the Spangler Brewery, hers was one of the few non-Bavarian or German names, and he lived to tease her about it. "What has you out of the office this morning?" she asked.

"Grandfather wants to see you right away."

She fished for her pencil in the front pocket of the men's trousers she wore that were her everyday garb. "I'll be there as soon as I go over the inventory of last night's bottling."

"No, right now. He says it's urgent."

She tucked her ledger under her arm and rushed to join him. "Is John James all right?"

"Your son is fine."


"He's just anxious to have you in the office for whatever reason."

Relieved, she turned to wave at Roth. "I'll be back.

Go ahead and start stamping those crates near the conveyor. Seven weeks until opening day in Denver."

Spangler Brewery spread over an acre located roughly two miles from Ruby Creek. The warehouses were situated with platforms a few scant feet from the railroad tracks, and the production buildings sat close to the cold-water streams that poured from the mountains into the wide creek for which the town was named. Three smoke stacks puffed billowy gray clouds into the bright Colorado sky. The mountains to the northeast were still capped with snow, but fireweed and forget-me-nots bloomed on the hillsides nearer. Mariah breathed in the pungent smell of fermented hops.

"I overheard Mama talking in the kitchen this morning." Wilhelm's tone was uncharacteristically solemn.

She glanced up at him as they passed the corner of the four-sided brick clock tower that stood in the center of the open yard.

"She said that sometimes Grandpa forgets what day it is for a moment."

Mariah had noticed the same thing a time or two. Once he'd said something about an occurrence twenty years ago as if it had just happened. But the next moment he carried on with their business. "He seems perfectly healthy," she said. "It's almost like he takes a little trip into the past."

"No harm there, I guess," her brother said with a shrug.

Near the front entrance, they entered the four-story brick building that housed accounting offices as well as comfortable quarters for her grandfather. Their work shoes padded on the carpet runner that ran the length of the hall.

Mariah smiled a goodbye to Wilhelm and opened one of the carved walnut doors to enter Louis Spangler's domain. She'd loved these rooms from the time she'd been a child, when he'd indulgently welcomed her to sit in one of the soft leather chairs that sat before a stone fireplace. She'd listened with rapt attention as he spoke of the old days back in Bavaria and his early days in this country, when he and his father and his uncles had built the brewery from the ground up.

He was the only one left from the old country. He and Grandma used to speak to each other in Old High German, a dialect of which their children and grandchildren could only understand bits and phrases. Mariah hadn't heard it spoken for many years now.

"You must need something important," she said. "You've spent the last three months cautioning me not to waste a minute until everything is ready for the Exposition."

Louis moved from where he'd been standing at the wide window that looked out over foothills decorated in a dozen shades of verdant green to his desk. He cast her a tentative glance. "We have something important to discuss."

"About the Exposition?"

"No. Nothing like that." He waved her to a chair.

Mariah knew better than to rush him. He would come around to the point in his own good time. She made herself comfortable on a wing chair and waited. The concern in his vivid blue gaze unsettled her.

"I have some news. Something that's going to affect you and John James."

She sat a little straighter. Four years ago he'd given her a seat on the governing board, and for the first time in its nearly forty-year history, the brewery had a woman in a principal position. He'd always held Mariah in a place of favor. When her son had come along, Grandfather had given him his favor, as well. She anticipated that one day she would inherit her own share of their family holdings. "What is it?" she asked.

"Wes Burrows is coming here. In just a few weeks' time."

Mariah heard his spoken words immediately, but their meaning took longer to penetrate her haze of disbelief. They never spoke of the person he'd just mentioned because that person didn't exist. Hearing it from him now was like hearing that foreign language her grandparents used to use. "Wha-what do you mean?"

"John James's father is coming to see him."

A buzz rang in her ears. "But that—that's impossible."

"I'm afraid it's not. I've had communication with him, and he's already left Juneau City. He should arrive early next month."

Mariah's first reaction was to stand. Bolt perhaps. But the room tilted at an odd angle, and she collapsed back onto the leather cushion before she fell. "Could you explain, please? How does a man you invented suddenly write and say he's coming?"

"I didn't invent Wes Burrows. The man exists."

She overcame her light-headedness to stand and release the tension ratcheting her nerves by pacing a few feet away and back again. "I thought your old friend from Forchheim was writing those letters."

"Otto died. I told you that."

"No. No, you didn't." Just the other day she'd read a few of the letters her son had received recently, and there had been subtle differences in the penmanship and the sentence structures, but she hadn't suspected a different writer.

Mariah placed a hand on either side of her head as though to keep it from flying off. Was her grandfather confused or was she hearing wrong? "If Otto is dead, who has been writing to—and who is traveling to—see John James?"

"I didn't expect this," he said apologetically. "Not in a hundred years. Sit back down and let me explain."

He wouldn't continue until she complied, so Mariah sat once again and gripped the arms of the chair. "I'm listening."

"Otto Weiss had been living in Alaska for quite some time when I asked him to help us with the name of someone who rarely checked his postal box, someone whose name we could use and who would never find out."

"I know that part." Seven years ago, when she'd told him she was going to have a baby and had no plans for a husband, he'd sent her to Chicago for a year. She'd been surprised when she'd returned home with her baby and learned that her grandfather had invented a husband for her while she'd been away. The story had already been told throughout the family and in the nearby town of Ruby Creek. Supposedly she'd married in Chicago.

The tale continued that her new husband had gone off to the gold fields of the north, leaving her to wait for him, and because of that she'd chosen to move home to her family until his return.

Living with the stigma of a husband with gold fever had been better than her son or anyone else learning the truth. Louis had found a solution. A no-muss, no-fuss absent husband suited Mariah just fine actually. The ruse had kept away potential suitors and given her the freedom to live her life exactly the way she pleased. A pretend husband had been an easy solution.

"Alaska is at the edge of nowhere," he said. "I never dreamed anyone in Colorado would hear Burrows's name."

When he'd shown her the first letter from this make-believe father, he had suggested that his friend would write and send a few letters so John James could believe his father loved him. "A boy needs to believe his father cares for him," he'd told Mariah. She hadn't been able to disagree with that. And the truth would never pass her lips. "All along I thought Otto made up a name to use," she said.

"We should have simply rented a box in a fictitious name," her grandfather said. "Or we should have said your husband died like we talked about, but John James loved getting those letters. Telling him that would have been like actually killing his father. He believed the man was real. At the time there was no harm in allowing the ruse to continue."

"I'm as responsible as you are for that," she said. "But what about the name that I've been using—the name I gave my son? This Burrows is a real person?"

"He is."

The information was too much to absorb. Thinking back, she had noticed a difference in the letters. She hadn't read all of them, but she read a few here and there for John James's safety. She'd read more than usual lately because she'd been intrigued by the writer's stories. "Who are the letters really from?"

"The real Mr. Burrows. Initially he wrote to me because I always help John James with his letters. He asked me to explain why his post box was filled with mail from a child he didn't know. I made it clear how much the dear boy longed for a father." He gave her a sidelong glance. "I may have suggested that no harm would come if the charade continued a while longer. And soon this Burrows fellow was writing letters to John James."

Mariah wiped a hand over her eyes as if that might clear the confusion and concern. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did." He frowned and his gaze fell to the desktop. "Or at least I thought I did."

Her heart beat hard and fast at the thought of this stranger coming to expose their lie to her son. John James's heart would be broken. He would despise her for the lies she'd strung out for so long. A tight knot formed in her stomach at the thought, and suspicion straightened her eyebrows in a skeptical frown. "Why does this man want to come here? What does he expect?"

Louis unlocked his top desk drawer and took out an envelope. He tapped it against his other palm thoughtfully before placing it on top of his desk and pushing it toward her. "It's all here."

With trembling fingers, Mariah reached for the envelope. Her grandfather's name had been written in sprawling black script. She slid out the stationery and unfolded the paper.

Mr. Spangler,

I do not know if you are going to understand what I am about to do. I do not know if I understand it myself, but I am leaving Juneau City at the end of the week and will be heading to Colorado.

For the past six years, I have been traveling between tent camps and post offices. There is money to be made in this land, and I have spent my youth acquiring it. I have witnessed plenty of men getting mail from home, and I have often wondered what it would be like to have family waiting for me, wishing I was with them.

Before I was a mail carrier, I worked aboard a whaling ship. I once tried my luck at gold mining, and I have traveled half the world. In all that time I never felt attached to a place. I never had a yearning to settle until I read the lad's words about the Spangler family. He writes about his mother and you. I feel as though I have been to Ruby Creek.

It makes no sense, but lately I have been homesick for a place I have never been and I have been missing a boy I have never seen. The yearning I read in John James's letters is the yearning I have felt my whole life. It is a need to be important to someone. And I aim to be that to him if I am able.

I have had some time to reflect on my life these past weeks, and what I now see is that above all I want to make a difference in this world. I want to make a difference in your great-grandson's life. By the time you get this, you will not be able to reach me, and you could not have said anything that would have changed my mind anyhow. I am on my way to meet John James.

You have my word that I shall not embarrass or hurt the boy. Neither do I intend to disrupt your life or your granddaughter's. This is something I need to do. I want your great-grandson to have what every boy deserves—a father who cares about him.

Sincerely, Wesley T. Burrows

Hot tears stung at the backs of Mariah's eyes. Fear and resentment welled up strong and fierce.

After being awarded a 5 spur review, Her Colorado Man has been nominated for Love Western Romance's Best Western Romance of 2009!

The voting has begun, and you can follow the above link right now to place your vote.


Blythe Gifford said...

Cheryl: Your story sounds like a great combination of some interesting backgrounds. I'm such a sucker for research - sometimes, I think if they'd just pay me to do that, I'd never get to the story...(Obviously, I need your advice.) Back to the keyboard!

Barbara Monajem said...

Yikes! I read the excerpt and now I'm hooked...

I love doing research, but fortunately I have a short attention span, so usually I get back to writing pretty quickly.

And I'd better get cracking on my revisions right now!