Why I Love Research

Maxine NunesMaxine Nunes is a New Yorker who’s spent most of her life in Los Angeles. She has written and produced for television, and currently writes for several publications including the Los Angeles Times. Her satiric parody of a White House scandal won the Pen USA West International Imitation Hemingway Competition.

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Website: maxinenunes.com

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In Dazzled, Nikki Logan is constantly on the move, drawn into a high stakes game that demands even higher risks. It’s pretty much the opposite of the writing life, where fingers flying across the keyboard is about all the action you get.

Which is why I love research. It’s the best excuse to get out in the world, to go where you’ve never been before, to live life, for awhile anyway, in the shoes of your fictional alter ego. It widens your world as a person and, I think, adds an important dimension to the page.

There were two points in the book where Nikki was going to do things I’d had no experience of. I knew they would be challenging for me, because every time I thought about picking up the phone to make the arrangements, my pulse quickened with that potent combination of fear and excitement. And I knew the book couldn’t move forward until I did them.

At a certain point in Dazzled, Nikki has to go downtown to the County Coroner to ID a body. All I knew about this came from TV crime shows or internet research, and that wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to have the experience myself to do it justice. So I made arrangements with the Coroner’s press liaison. “We can’t take you down to the morgue,” he said. Of course, that’s where I wanted to go, but at least I had a foot in the door. When he met me in the lobby, he said it again. “We can’t go downstairs.” I figured I wouldn’t push it till I got to know him a little better. Then he took two steps toward the elevator, turned to me and said, “Okay, I’ll take you there.” I guess he’d been hoping for a little more drama before the big ta-da moment.

The first thing that hit me when the elevator doors opened onto the basement was something you really can’t imagine until you’re there – the smell. The people who work there didn’t seem to mind it at all. They were hanging out, laughing, kidding each other, while gurneys carrying waxy corpses glided back and forth in the corridors. Of course, the big thing was coming face-to-face with the cold, physical reality of death minus the personal emotion. It was disturbing in a completely different way from losing a loved one, and it brought up so many thoughts and feelings that I hope come through in that chapter.

DazzledAnother challenge for me was learning to handle a gun. I’ve never liked being around them. When I was a kid my parents had a friend who was a cop. A big, sweet, teddy-bear of a guy. Every time he came over, he’d hang his holstered gun in our hall closet. And that closet was electric to me until he and his gun went home. But if Nikki had to learn to shoot, so did I. The manager at an outdoor range offered to give me a free lesson. And boy, walking into a place where maybe 50 strangers were shooting live ammunition was a pretty highly charged moment, as was everything about handling, loading and shooting a semiautomatic. That energy fueled the scene in Dazzled where Nikki learns to shoot, and leads to what I think is a really sensational payoff.

These field trips aren’t always so dramatic. Sometimes I go to places I think I know pretty well — but when you’re inside the writing process, you see familiar things in completely different light. All your senses and perceptions sharpen, because you need to catch the specifics that will nail the experience on the page. On a little trip to Hollywood Boulevard, I found a building that had been there since Raymond Chandler’s time. The elevator still had an old brass wheel for a uniformed operator. And in the lobby was a saucer-eyed drunk who made his wobbly way into the chapter. It’s one of my favorite details in the book.

As for upcoming Nikki Logan books, her acting career will take her on location to Paris, Lisbon and New York. And she’ll have to take me along.