Thursday, February 28, 2013

Research Slut by Shannon Baker

Shannon Baker is a lover of mountains, plains, oceans and rivers and can often be found traipsing around the great outdoors. Tainted Mountain, the first in her Nora Abbott Mystery Series, is set in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she lived for several years and worked for The Grand Canyon Trust, a hotbed of environmentalists who, usually, don’t resort to murder. It involves man-made snow on sacred peaks, uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, kachinas, murder, and a woman determined to make some sense of it all.

Shannon now makes her home in Boulder, Colorado. Surprisingly, Nora followed her and the next book in the series is set in this beautiful location.

My first contact with Shannon was through Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers when her previous novel, Ashes of the Red Heifer, was released. (And by the way, it's a very good read.)


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Research Slut by Shannon Baker


Not everything about writing novels is great. It takes lots of time I could spend outside playing. I have to deal with the ugly face of rejection—more frequently than I’d like to admit. Trying to work out complicated plots hurts my head. Getting the words right with all the craft and expert writing advice swirling around my brain is enough to make me crazy(er).

One thing that is great about writing novels, though, aside from getting to play god to a world of my imagination, is research.

I guess it won’t hurt my reputation much now, so I can confess that I actually liked term papers when I was in high school. I secretly enjoyed history class and though I read more fiction for fun than I read non-fiction, I love learning obscure facts and trivia laced into the story.

My plots and characters are often a product of the really cool stuff I learn while researching. For instance, when I moved to Flagstaff and found out about the controversy surrounding Snowbowl and man-made snow on a mountain peak sacred to thirteen tribes, I got curious. Off I traipsed with my brand new Flagstaff library card.

The conflict over man-made snow, climate change, environmentalists, and Native American religion seemed perfect for a mystery and I couldn’t wait to get down to writing it.

I read several tribes’ creation stories that centered around the San Francisco Peaks. These people have been around this area for a couple of thousand years and they find important plants and perform vital ceremonies on the mountain.

I stumbled across several books about the Hopi tribe. Now, that’s an interesting culture with a rich history. This tiny tribe, destitute and insular, believes it is responsible for the balance of the world. The Whole World.

How could I not be drawn to that?

I did some super-fun in person research. One summer morning I drove a few hours to the Homolovi ruins north of Winslow. Along with a tour of the dwellings and ruins, a few Hopi tribal members talked about their farming techniques and their reliance on native plants. One generous young man took the time to explain to me why the Hopi corn is planted in disarray instead of nice neat rows. He told me why his corn grows green and strong in the arid climate. Let me give you a hint, it has very little to do with fertilizer, barometric pressure and high and low fronts.

Another day I ventured even further to a public dance at Second Mesa in Shipolovi. I was an obvious outsider. The Hopi haven’t been treated well by white folks in the past. Their sacred relics have been stolen, outsiders broadcast their secrets, and overall treated them with very little respect. The Hopi now have some pretty strict rules, such as no photography, no sketching, and they frown on note taking.

Their dance was amazing. I was so nervous I’d do something offensive I stood as still and silent as possible and watched. But they wouldn’t let me be a fly on the wall. During one break, when the kachinas filed out of the plaza, the Hopi clowns gathered up all the white folk and sat us in the middle of the plaza. They had some good-natured fun with us and in the end, piled many gifts into our hands.

I was welcomed into the home of one young woman. She explained a lot about kachinas and gave me some history of the Hopi migrations that brought them to the three mesas in Northern Arizona.

I wouldn’t have traipsed off on my own like that if I hadn’t been chasing a plot.

For Tainted Mountain I had to learn about uranium mining and watersheds. I sought out a hydrologist at Northern Arizona University. I interviewed a manager at Vane Minerals about their mining operations close to the Grand Canyon.

For those of you who didn’t like school, maybe novel writing that involves research wouldn’t be your idea of a good time. I know people around me can’t believe I do this for fun. The most frustrating thing about the research is not being able to use all the neat stuff I learn. That’s okay, I figure if I write enough books, I’ll be the perfect dinner party guest.

If you’re a writer, what is your favorite research story? If you’re a reader (and who isn’t?) what is the best fact you’ve learned from a book?

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Shannon, I almost hate to write a story that requires a lot of research because I get carried away, start looking for out-of-print books in out-of-the-way places, and surf websites and blogs until my eyeballs weep in protest. The most interesting thing I learned concerned early 1800s history in central Illinois. In 1811-12 there was a great earthquake and lots and lots of aftershocks centered in the New Madrid fault in Missouri that set the Mississippi River flowing backwards for a time. I spent a lot of days reading about that event and had to work it into my novel. Research is addicting.

While Tainted Mountain is available from your favorite online bookseller, if you'd like to support our indie bookstores, you are welcome to contact Broadway Book Mall in Denver. They may still have signed copies of Shannon's books, and they will be glad to help you.

You can learn more about Shannon and her novels at her website.  She can also be found on Facebook.

"Baker’s series debut brings Native American culture and big business together into a clash that can be heard across the mountains. Fans of J.A. Jance’s Joanna Brady will see similarities in Nora Abbott." ----- Library Journal

20 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Shannon.

Shannon - Oh, I love researching too! Finding out interesting information is one of the most fun parts of writing for me. My favourite research moment? Finding out how police jurisdiction works in our national parks. I got some generous help from some generous people and I learned a lot.

Shannon Baker said...

Pat-you're the BEST! Thanks for hanging out with me today. I love that bit about the Missouri River running backwards. What book is that in?
Margot-What books are you writing in National Parks? Which parks?

Julie Luek said...

Shannon-- thanks for a little insight into your writing process. I loved "playing god to a world of my imagination." Fun.

In pre-writing life, I spent years in higher ed. The VPs knew to give me projects to research-- they knew I loved to dig and find information and resources. It carries into my writing too.

Thanks for sharing, Shannon and Patricia.

Janet Fogg said...

Your research journey reminded me of how proud my physics teacher would be (of me). I never anticipated bending my brain around THAT subject again, but you should see my notes on wormholes and black holes and quasars and... Can't wait to read Tainted Mountain! Thanks, Shannon and Pat! Janet

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Shannon -- The book I was talking about is: "When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12" by Jay Feldman. It looks like it was re-released in 2012 in paperback and e-book.

Wouldn't it be fun if we could get paid extra for research when we write our books?

Shannon Baker said...

Julie--I'd love a job researching. Like Pat, it would be great to get paid to learn things.

Janet--having read a bit of your WIP, I'd have to say that yes, your physics teacher would be impressed. It's possible the teacher would learn a thing or two from your work!

Searching for the Story said...

Shannon is a rare gem; for most people, the exhaustive research necessary to write a book like this would not be a lot of fun. Her project must be all the more fantastic for her commitment to getting even minor factual details right.

Karen Duvall said...

Shannon, what fun in-person research projects you've done. I have a writer friend here in Oregon who writes books about the Nez Perse Indians of the Pacific Northwest and she visits them often. Her research has really enriched her stories.

I write fantasy and don't have to do a lot of research, but I still like factual information in my stories. I especially enjoy reading memoirs and biographies when I'm creating characters. I read a fascinating memoir by a NYC cab driver about her experiences in the city that helped me authenticate my half-demon cab driver in MYSTIC TAXI. I also read a book called The City in Slang to learn about the city's colloquialisms at the turn of the century. It added some interesting words and turns of phrase to dialogue. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sounds like you learned some fascinating stuff about a whole new world. And you didn't have to go to the ends of the earth to get it.

Shannon Baker said...

Thanks, Searching for Story. Blush.

Karen-- You know I love Mystic Taxi. I'm your biggest fan!

Helen Ginger said...

I'm not a lover of doing research, but I do it. I'll admit that researching and finding what you need to know is actually fun, though.

Kim McMahill said...

The book sounds very interesting and right up my alley. Research is necessary to make this type of story realistic, so kudos.

Jan Morrison said...

Yay Pat - thanks for hosting Shannon. I too love research. The difference between researching for a book and researching for school is that EVERY topic is one I'm interested in. I went to a Pow Wow for some research on a book I've written - it was so much fun and I found I hadn't gone too far off the mark with my online research which gave me great confidence. Thank you for a great post!

Pat Tillett said...

Very interesting! I often do research for no other reason than my sometimes annoying need to know...

Sisters of the Quill said...

My posts seem to be eaten up. Karen

Sisters of the Quill said...

interesting: Japanese social isolates and ghost culture in China. I too loved research and note taking...I did it even when I had no assignment - just liked to learn something new. Karen Lin

Sharon said...

I like research. I recently had to research life in a Thai prison from an outsider's perspective. I found a true story written by a British woman who had been imprisoned for several years in a Bangkok prison. Amazing. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to find her book.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Shannon, your topic has hit home with a lot of writers. Thank you a whole bunch for this most excellent post. Let's see who else we can draw in tomorrow. :D

Shannon Baker said...

Thanks, everyone for your interesting comments. I woke up in the wee hours (as women of a certain age do) and thought what a dolt I am! I forgot to mention that I'm having a give away on Goodreads for Tainted Mountain. Stop by and enter. http://tinyurl.com/d4abwab

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Pat and Shannon,
Thanks for the great post and interesting information. I can get lost doing research, and some times I learn the most amazing facts!