Nell Valenti is settling into her role of transforming the Villa Orlandini into a superb farm-to-table cooking school, and the time has finally come for a full taste test run. But when Chef Orlandini prepares to reveal his top secret marinara recipe for the first time to a group of American gastro-tourists, Nell realizes she might have bitten off more than she can chew.
Nell begins to suspect that one of the tourists is actually a private detective sent to spy on her by her overprotective father, and the fussy foodies are noisy and disrespectful from the very start of the Marinara Mysteriosa workshop. Even worse, when one visitor appears to be poisoned by the famous marinara recipe, Nell will have to work fast to uncover a killer and keep a lid on bad press before her fresh start is spoiled for good.
The Rabbit Holes of Research
by Stephanie Cole
In Crime of the Ancient Marinara, Book Two in my Tuscan Cooking School Mystery Series, I have an important secondary character who owns a car dealership in Naples, Florida. Cozies are tight-knit little fictional communities, which for the writer means doing what we call these days a "deep dive" into all the shadowy corners of a character's nature and backstory. If there aren't these gradually revealed secrets about the core characters, why should we want to visit them time after time? I've discovered that the same need for roundness and depth applies to the secondary characters in each book, as well.
My car dealership owner from Naples is one of the five American gastrotourists (traveling foodies) who arrive at my cozy setting, the Villa Orlandini Cooking School in Cortona, a Tuscan hillside town. Getting him there was the easy part. But before very long, as I followed him -- as his creator -- into the story of Crime of the Ancient Marinara, I was Alice chasing the White Rabbit, and down the research rabbit hole I tumbled. What was the car dealership? Lamborghini. How long has he owned it, and were those luxury cars imported into Florida in that year? Could he have hit a rough patch in the sales of Lams in the U.S.? Certainly, but will that period satisfy my narrative need for when that happened? And that's where rabbit hole meets mine field.
Along the way in any nosing around for the facts of something -- an object, an event, really anything -- pretty soon it becomes an endless search. I found myself needing to know all sorts of things. Did the 1984 model have heated seats? Was the 1997 model available in yellow? How fast could they go? Can they take regular gas? When did USB ports show up? Did seat belts appear in models not exported to the U.S.? I Had. To. Know. all of it, I think, because as writers, (1) we can make an error anywhere along the way in even the smallest detail, (2) we'll hear about it from mystery readers, and (3) we never ever know what we might actually need to use, right? Nosing out those sorts of facts seem like the little stuff. Getting them takes a whole lot of time.
But rabbit hole meets mine field when the fact we uncover doesn't meet the narrative need. When the truth conflicts with how we want something to work in a plot. If, for example, a critical clue has something to do with a cigarette lighter in the 2014 Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4, but my research shows me that model didn't have cigarette lighters. . .what then? New rabbit hole, one full of scary possibilities.
· · Change the car model and year in the story. To do this may actually mean changing the ages of the characters involved, which may have major implications for the rest of the story.
· · Change the clue to something in the car other than a cigarette lighter. To do this may involve re-conceptualizing a lot about the story from the ground up. What if X doesn't smoke? What else does that new fact about X affect?
· · Change the clue to something NOT in the car at all. See above.
· · Fudge it. Make up a Lam year and model that never existed. Tempting, but unsatisfying.
I believe those of us who write research-tied novels actually like the rabbit holes. There's something satisfying about "just the facts, ma'am." There's always room for error, sure, and finally we have to insist to ourselves that it's jolly well time to climb up out of the rabbit hole and get on with things. But, for me at least, the thrill of the head-over-heels tumble into the unknown is both knowing I've done my best to write a credible story with depth and, frankly, enjoying the sheer adventure of the tumble itself.