A lifelong resident of Minnesota, S.L. Smith was born in Saint Cloud and attended Saint Catherine University in Saint Paul. During her thirty-two years with the state department of public safety, she worked with law enforcement and fire officials at the state, county and municipal levels. Those interactions assisted her with writing mysteries, but were just the starting point. Without the help of a friend who spent thirty-five years as a cop, she might never have ventured into writing police procedurals. He contributed to her understanding of the perspectives of her two protagonists, Pete Culnane and Martin Tierney. Thankfully, this friend is still a resource. He proofreads each manuscript and performs a reality check on the law enforcement aspects.
All three of her previous books include a social issue. In Blinded by the Sight, it’s homelessness. For book two, Running Scared, it’s the impacts of a failing marriage on the kids. Book three, Murder on a Stick, addresses a plight faced by many of the elderly. Smith is a member of Sisters in Crime (an organization that supports mystery writers). She divides her time between Minnesota and Florida, to care for her mother.
Research is a centerpiece of my novels. Three critical resources provided valuable information as I wrote and rewrote my first four books. They are: a retired police chief, a retired lead investigator with the medical examiner’s office, and an emergency medicine physician. The mission? Keep the stories realistic. Outcome? Several law enforcement officers buy my books, and the retired lead investigator is a loyal fan.
But that’s just the beginning. All four of my books are set in St. Paul, Minnesota. No, thirty years in St. Paul doesn’t make me an expert in all facets of this city. For that reason, each of my novels requires a lot of location-related research.
The crime in Mistletoe and Murder occurs in Saint Paul’s Union Depot. I’d heard about the depot, but never been inside. That was the starting point. It took three trips to get and verify the facts, as I worked my way through the first draft and the revisions. The fact Christos Greek restaurant is located in the depot and plays a part in the book worked in my favor. I was forced to eat dinner there… twice. How else could I work the menu into the book? In the process, I got to know the manager and a waitress. Both served as valuable resources. Both made their way into the book.
I wanted to know when construction of this landmark began and was completed. Then I had to know why it took so long. This led to a discovery of the World War II modifications to and utilization of the facility. That led to the insertion of the story about my main protagonist, Pete Culnane’s grandfather returning from World War II via the depot. And that led to more research, regarding the return of World War II veterans.
An Internet search provided a story about a soldier returning to St. Paul, after the war. It gave me a feel for the atmosphere greeting these soldiers upon their return, and the attitudes of the returning soldiers. Didn’t find a place for the latter in Mistletoe and Murder, but filed it away for future reference.
Since Pete’s grandmother retells the story of meeting his grandfather at the Union Depot, I wanted to describe what it would have been like—the look, the feel. In the mid-1940s, a woman would’ve dressed to the nine’s to meet her returning fiancé, right? You bet! Even so, I wanted to see photos. Once again, the Internet came through. I found not only pictures of families greeting returning veterans on train platforms, but also one of soldiers hanging out the windows as their train approached the station. Both made their way into the book.
I researched departure ports from the European theater. I’ll share a secret. I tried every way imaginable to have Pete’s grandfather’s journey mimic my dad’s. I knew Dad’s location at the end of the war and a month prior to his return to the states, as well as his departure and arrival dates back in the US. Unfortunately, that’s all I knew. The other details burned in a fire at the facility housing military records. Tried the county historical society, but their efforts, too, failed. Solution? A friend who is an historian provided viable options.
Carrying it several steps further, I visited the locations where characters lived and worked. Since I describe those locations, and since they are real, accuracy is important to me. That includes the route in getting from one place to another, and the location and appearance of the entrance, the existence and type of security system. You name it.
Heroin comes into play in Mistletoe and Murder. Fortunately, or in this case perhaps unfortunately, I’m ignorant when it comes to a firsthand knowledge of heroin. The good news is, a friend provided a connection. Once again, problem solved.
A homeless man, “Doc,” is introduced in book one, Blinded by the Sight. Because temperatures are predicted to be dangerously cold in Mistletoe and Murder, Pete Culnane is intent on reconnecting with Doc. You have to read Mistletoe and Murder to learn what Pete is considering, and why he must contact social services to get some answers before making the offer.
The materials used by highway departments to keep roads passable in winter are dictated by ambient air temperatures. Yet another detail that came into play and required accuracy.
* How does a gunshot sound in an enclosed, cement facility?
* What are optical affinity and auditory exclusion, and what part do they play in police confrontations?
* What pricey shoe would be rare, yet readily recognizable?
Each time I find an answer, it’s a victory, moving me toward the completion of my work in progress. It isn’t the storytelling part of the effort, but it adds depth. It helps the novel come alive. For that reason, I love the research almost as much as the writing.
What do you think? Do I carry it from the sublime to the ridiculous? If you’re an author, I’d love to hear about the research you do. If you’re a reader, do you like to learn new things as you read a novel? If so, what types of things?