I’ve always set stories in locations I know—either by living in the area or traveling there for research. As I’m exploring a setting, I don’t always know exactly what I’m looking for—but as with any good detective—I know it when I find it.
I’d like to share a little about my travel research for two 2018 mysteries with American Girl: Menace at Mammoth Cave and The Showstopper. In both cases, these are mysteries based on characters written by other authors, something I’d never done before but wanted to try. The groundwork had been laid for these characters; I was asked to write fresh mysteries.
From earlier Kit books written by my friend, Valerie Tripp, I knew Kit’s mystery would be set during the Great Depression in 1934, that she lives in Ohio, and that her brother works for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp.)
When I read that CCC workers helped transform areas into national parks, I decided to set my story at Mammoth Cave National Park—occupied by 600 families that CCC workers had the unpleasant job of evicting.
I must first absorb a setting with my five senses, then write about it.
I booked a flight to Lexington, KY, rented a car, and drove to Mammoth Cave for a week of research—above ground as well as below. I rode a trail horse so that I could experience the terrain on horseback above the caves. I took guided cave tours so I might be able to describe these natural wonders. Before I can convey the awe and mystery of the caves, I must experience it first. I must first absorb a setting with my five senses, then write about it.
While researching Menace at Mammoth Cave, I focused on history as well as the here and now–such as, what does it feel like to ride a horse in the lands above the caves?—and what actually happened historically with families when the park was first formed? Were there ghost stories or legends? Who were the first ones to discover the cave? I went to small historical museums, hounded curators with questions, and read through papers and pamphlets and old records … much like a detective following an inkling.
The Showstopper, based on Rebecca stories written by Jaqueline Greene, sent me off to New York City with my husband for a week. Set in l914, I already knew that Rebecca’s passion is acting, that she doesn’t give up easily, and that her family celebrates their Jewish heritage and traditions. I toured Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tenement Museum (depicting life in the lower east side at the turn of the century), and after seeing Hamilton and another Broadway play, I finally landed on Broadway as my story’s setting.
From a historic tour of Broadway, I learned that competition was so fierce between theater owners that they built summer rooftop gardens to draw more customers. One went so far as to create a small farm complete with a milk maid, cows, ducks, a small pond and creek. I found my kid-friendly way in! Once I returned home, I dug deeper into photographs and history. I absorbed while I was in New York (and bought books on the history of vaudeville on Broadway), later did more reading and research, and eventually wrote The Showstopper.
What I love the most about travel research is that I’m forced to absorb every moment and to pay attention to every single detail. My intuition is on high alert, looking for tidbits that may spark off a great setting, add sensory detail, or launch a compelling conflict.
I know it when I find it.