Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obsessive Research, Part II

I echo the most recent post of friend and colleague Luisa Buehler, who wrote about how she enjoys researching her books--to the point of obsession. I see much of myself in her comments.
In each of my "Snap" Malek Chicago historical mysteries, I immerse myself in the microfilm of Chicago newspapers from the 1920s and '30s at local libraries. When I tell friends how much time I spend poring over these pages, they roll their eyes, and I can almost see the word "geek" in the imaginary thought balloons above their heads.
Fact is, I relish spending hours on these old files, perhaps to the point of obsession. From them, I get all sorts of nuggets that help, I think, add color to my stories of a Chicago of decades past. In a 1938 paper, I learned Helen Hayes was in Chicago in the drama "Victoria Regina," where as Queen Victoria she aged 50 years each night on stage. I inserted Miss Hayes into my first Malek novel, "Three Strikes You're Dead," set in '38.
When researching my soon-to-be-published fourth Malek book, "A President in Peril," set in 1948, I discovered that was the year maverick automaker Preston Tucker built his revolutionary but doomed Tucker Torpedo cars in Chicago. In the book, Malek meets the man and test drives one of his autos.
There's a drawback to my microfilm fixation: Going through these files, I get sidetracked by all manner of interesting tidbits that will never make the printed page. For as friend and fellow author Max Allan Collins counsels, don't feel you must put every kernel you've gleaned into the finished product.

Robert Goldsborough

Sunday, December 21, 2008

When Research becomes Obsessive: A Quilting I shall Go!

Something becoming obsessive isn’t a far stretch for me. I get caught up in details. I fuss over symmetry. I lay a perfectly squared-off dinner table. (no round tables for me)
I love to do research for my books. I enjoy research just because…just because I heard or read a word I’d never encountered before. What is its origin?
In the next Grace Marsden, The Innkeeper: An Unregistered Death, I present a cold case involving slaves and the Underground Railroad. During the course of my research I discovered stories about quilts used to signal ‘freedom seekers’. A quilt laid over a porch railing could either give directions or indicate it was safe to approach the house.
I became intrigued with the various symbols hidden in plain sight. My research led me to websites where I realized there were thousands of people interested in the subject.
In casual conversation about the book I discovered several people who I thought I knew well who revealed their interest in quilts and quilt making. I discovered societies for quilt making and quilt makers. My long time neighbor, who collects quilts, offered to help me put together a quilt depicting the Log Cabin design.
Does anyone make quilts with symbols from the Underground Railroad.? I’d love to hear about your quilts, maybe see some photos. I’m fascinated by this visual art form that served as a successful life-saving method of communication. The layers of meaning appeal to me; anyone else get that sense of full circle from that type of quilt?
I am embarking on my first quilt this holiday season. My neighbor, who is a grade school teacher, has time over her break to teach me. We have chosen the design and the pieces. I’m looking forward to spending my spare time learning a new art form.
I should be spending that time writing the next Grace Marsden but I can’t do two art forms at the same time. The compulsive format in my head allows concentration for only one project at a time.
Fortunately, I can walk and chew gum but I choose not to.
My next book, The Re-Enactor: A Staged Death, has a cold case involving Civil War re-enactors. I hope I don’t become obsessed with that period's clothing or lifestyle—I enjoy my jeans and my flush toilet!
Luisa Buehler

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Very Special Book Signing

A few days ago, I was a party to the most enjoyable book signing I've ever attended-- even though there was no financial gain. I'm among two dozen authors who contributed to an anthology titled "Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting for Next Year." The brain-child of Chicago author Donald G. Evans, it is a compendium of articles, short stories, poems, and other material centering on the Chicago Cubs and the team's fruitless, century-long quest for a World Series triumph. Evans, a lifelong Cubs fan, rounded up a group of us writers who, like him, have suffered with the team for years--even decades. And he told us up front that our total compensation would be two copies of the finished product because all the proceeds would go to a charitable organization.
The organization is Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, a group of former and current athletes. CBCC has raised more than $12 million for cancer care, education, and research programs at Chicago hospitals. It also supports Camp One Step at a Time, a summer event for children with cancer.
The mass book signing, with at least 10 contributors on hand, was held in a North Side Chicago bar. I don't know who had the most fun, the folks who bought the books or the authors, all of whom--if I can speak for myself--came away feeling awfully good because they were part of a project that was both enjoyable and worthwhile.
For information on ordering "Cubbie Blues," go to www.cantmisspress.com

Robert Goldsborough

Thursday, December 11, 2008

You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up

In writing my "Snap" Malek Chicago historical mysteries, I use actual occurrences and people from a particular era and weave in fictional characters and events. These being novels, I take liberties in creating plots. For instance, in "Three Strikes You're Dead" (set in 1938), I have Al Capone scheming to avoid tranfer from another prison to the dreaded Alcatraz. In "Shadow of the Bomb" (1942), I use the ground-breaking World War II nuclear experiments at the University of Chicago as a backdrop for fictional murders.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But not nearly as far-fetched as what's been happening in Chicago lately. Unless you've been vacationing in the mountains of Nepal, you know that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been charged with an outlandish series of acts including trying to "sell" the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama and witholding state funds to a children's hospital unless they sent $50,000 his way.

How can fiction compete? No less a hardened observer of the Windy City scene than attorney and best-selling author Scott Turow wrote in the New York Times that "Even by Chicago's picaresque standards, Tuesday's events are mind-boggling." Indeed. Not long ago, I had this idea to build a plot in which a fictional Illinois governor has an affair and...oh, never mind. Now it all sounds pretty lame.

Robert Goldsborough

Monday, December 8, 2008

Holiday Magic

The splendor and magic of over 100,000 twinkling lights decorating trees and buildings happened again this weekend. Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo opened Friday night.
This annual event creates a winter wonderland for visitors. The zoo keeps animal buildings open until 8 p.m. and Docents are on hand to answer questions and help children with crafts and puppet plays.
The Holly Jolly Theatre provides entertainment from magicians to dance troupes to those Funny Little People. High school choirs and girl scout troops carol at different buildings.
Guest Guides lead visitors in singing to the animals at Bears Grotto, Dolphin Underwater Viewing and Big Cats. The park is awash with lights and color; it reverberates with laughter and song.
As in most years, I volunteer to be a town crier. I get to wear a festive cape and Santa hat and carry bells to ring and welcome guests as they enter the park. Town criers answer logistics questions—where’s the bathroom, where’s the Elf Train, what time is the laser show, where’s the laser show, is the tram running, et al.
I used the zoo as a setting for my second book, The Lion Tamer: A Caged Death. The mystery was set in the spring at another well known event, The Whirl. Every year when I sign up to work Holiday Magic I consider setting another mystery at the zoo during this event. The open parts of the park are brimming with light but the off limit paths are dark and uninviting. My imagination could conceive of evil lurking on the edge of joy.
Then I work the event and meet the groups of people who plan their holiday season around visiting the zoo and singing to their favorite animal. I watch as a group of girls comes upon the costume character Frosty and burst into an unexpectedly good rendition of Frosty the Snowman. I marvel at the grins on their teen age faces as I offer to take a picture of them with Frosty.
After an evening in the park greeting families and directing them to events then later thanking people for attending and wishing them Happy Christmas I remember why I’ve never set a murder mystery during Holiday Magic. People are smiling, singing, thanking me for thanking them as they leave. Children are stopping to wish me a Merry Christmas; they’re telling me about all the things they did, showing me their crafts, relating how they sang to the Polar Bear cub, Hudson. How could I possibly mar the magic with murder?
Does anyone have ‘off limits’ topics? Anything you’re too close to or involved with to be able to turn it bleak or dark?
Once again, I glanced at the dark areas of the zoo and decided to leave them off the page of the magical season at Brookfield Zoo.
Luisa Buehler

Friday, December 5, 2008

Stormy (sometimes) Weather

At the risk of sounding like Jerry Seinfeld doing standup, I have to ask: What's with TV weather forecasters?

Why, oh why, do these men and women seem to take particular satisfaction in telling us of approaching misery? You know the drill. It starts with an on-air promo for the upcoming news that goes something like this: "Brace yourself for the biggest (pick one) blizzard, windstorm, deluge, heat wave...in years! Details at 10!"
Okay, so it's important to be forewarned of impending trouble. But so often it appears that the weather folks relish delivering gloomy news, and are crushed when the worst doesn't happen. Here's a recent example on a Chicago TV station.

All day, we heard about a big, really big, snowsorm bearing down on us. We braced, and braced...and the storm fizzled out, giving us only a dusting. When the weather guy came on, he was, to say the least, deflated. "It just sort of, well...fell apart," he told the audience dejectedly. "It...didn't materialize."

It was pathetic to watch. His dreams of five-foot drifts and massive traffic tieups had been dashed, at least for the present. Almost everybody in the Chicago area was happy that December night. Almost everybody.

Robert Goldsborough