Write what you know. That’s one of the rules for creating good fiction, so as much as possible you should draw on your own first-hand experiences. Not easy to do when you’re writing historical fiction (unless you’re two hundred years old), in which case you need to up your game when it comes to research.
As authors, we don’t like to stray too far from what we know, so we set our latest title, In A Town Called Paradox, in Utah – a state we’ve visited many times, as we live in neighboring Colorado; and for our historical time period, we chose the not-too-distant past – the 1950s. We liked this combination, because it was during that decade that the Big Five Hollywood studios descended on Utah, lured there by the fiery red-rock scenery that formed the perfect backdrop to the blockbuster movies they wanted to shoot. We thought a rural backwater (our fictional town of Paradox) – which was turned into a glamorous playground for 1950s’ stars like Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson – would serve as an ideal setting. It had worked for Hollywood, so maybe it would work for us.
For one thing, as part of our in-depth research, our chosen setting meant we could kick back and watch any number of old movies – especially the many Westerns that were then filmed in Utah – and still call it work (we’re good at procrastination). We played movies like How the West was Won, Rio Grande and The Dalton Girls until we could recite the dialog (write what you know, remember), and spent long hours deconstructing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid since it formed an integral part of our plot.
We relived the careers of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and we grew better acquainted with producers and directors like John Ford, who shot such classics as Fort Yuma, Stagecoach, and Wagon Master. Ford treated the scenery as if it played a starring role and would recreate on film images that Western artists like Remington and Russell had originally created on canvas. We decided to follow his lead, so as another strand of our research, we spent time hiking the fiery-red scenery – the canyons, buttes and mesas – so that we, too, could make the setting come alive.
Our plot is not unduly complicated, but it does cover a lot of ground; and when it moved away from Utah, we made sure it remained within areas we already knew. One example is life in England, where one of us grew up. Another is life in the Amazon jungle (which may sound weird, but it makes sense in the context of the book), where we’d earlier traveled while researching one of our non-fiction books, Along the River that Flows Uphill.
But there was one subject area that had us stumped.
As part of our story, we needed to describe how ranchers used ‘teaser’ cows to fool prize-winning bulls into ‘donating’ their semen for artificial insemination. Collecting a bull’s sperm was not in our skill-set, so it required serious research, starting from scratch. We spoke to several ranchers in Utah, and also attended stock shows in Denver where prize-bull semen now sells for more than an Inca’s ransom.
But there’s no substitute for the real thing – seeing a bull in action. But even prize ones don’t perform on demand, so one of us (co-author Miriam Murcutt) took on the job of watching videos of the act on YouTube. It turns out there are scores of such videos, some filmed before small crowds. So we learned how cows and bulls were encouraged to ‘fool around for profit’ in the 1950s, and that helped us writewhat we think are some of the grittier scenes in our book.
We also experienced some unexpected fall-out, forMiriam’s research threw a sizeable wrench into Google’s ad-matching algorithms. After all, what ads do you present to someone who goes online to buy books by Walter Isaacson, jars of Tiptree marmalade, and the occasional Cuisinart kettle – yet spends upwards of five hours a day on YouTube, deeply immersed in what we came to call ‘bull-porn’.
Richard Starks is co-author with Miriam Murcutt of the historical novel, In A Town Called Paradox. Together, the authors have written ten books, fiction and non-fiction. These include a crime thriller, Money Doesn’t Talk, It Kills; the true-life World War II adventure, Lost in Tibet; and a travel book, Along the River that Flows Uphill, which examines the dangers of off-the-map exploring through a journey the authors took to the Amazon basin. Visit the authors at http://www.starksmurcutt.com