How Sandra de Helen Researches Her Books

Marilyn, thank you so much for hosting me again. This time I'll talk about one of the ways I research for the books I write. At the moment, my work in progress is The Valley of Fear, the third one in the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series. (The first two are available in paperback, eBook, and audio book formats at bookstores, or online.)

For The Hounding (first book) I walked the route the victim was running when she was attacked by a pack of dogs. I spent a lot of time driving around neighborhoods, both in Lake Oswego and Portland, where Shirley and Mary live, where the victim lived, where the suspects lived and worked. I made a physical scrapbook of maps, blueprints, and character studies.

The Illustrious Client took me to Portland's waterfront to look at yachts, up on pill hill to visit OHSU hospital, site of the first murder, even to Voodoo Donuts.

I eat in the restaurants, delis, or coffee shops featured in my books.

I use the internet to learn about different jobs, companies, products, and locales. But as much as I can I use my own experience to help my readers visualize the sights, sounds, and smells of each scene.

For example, I recently traveled to Shaniko, Oregon in order to see a ghost town for myself, as part of the current book is set in one. I walked the town, taking lots of pictures to remind myself of what I saw. Driving across the high desert in the spring was a delight. The high wind made the entire terrain come alive. The magenta, terra cotta, and wheat hued grasses moved as if they were part of an ocean. Sage brush is a gorgeous blue gray tint right now. Later it will become dried up tumbleweeds rolling across the long flat highways and desert without cease. There are stunted evergreen trees now and then. And at the bottom, creating its own valley, is the Des Chutes River, both sides surrounded by every shade of green.

As for the ghost town itself, I chose Shaniko to visit because it has more standing buildings and vehicles than most, as well as a few establishments open for business. The population currently stands at 25. I recommend visiting it in late spring if you can. I drove the scenic route on the way there and the more direct route back. Both are well maintained roads with few towns, and loads of scenery.

Shaniko was once the wool capital of the world, shipping as much as five million dollars worth of wool per year in the early years of the twentieth century. It has a city hall, a bank, a hotel, restaurant, jail, and other establishments, all empty for decades. The wool barn that is still standing is now only one third of its original size. The town was once thirty blocks in size. Now only two or three blocks remain. It looks like the old west town it is. The occupants are warm, friendly, and love to tell you about the place.

For me, it's important to immerse myself in all the details of my books, especially the pleasant ones. I spend a lot of time creating the murders, attacks, rescues, and nefarious deeds. Everyone, even the author, needs a break from the dark side!

I welcome questions, comments, and your own personal stories about research, writing, or reading. Feel free to share.


Sandra de Helen’s The Hounding and The Illustrious Client are available in paperback, eBook, and audio book. These Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson mysteries can be purchased in bookstores or online. She has been a produced playwright for many years. Her one-act play Singer Clashes with Cougar is being produced in New York in July, 2014,  Samples of her work are available at de Helen is a proud member of GCLS, Sisters in Crime, and the Dramatists Guild. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

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The Hounding:
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Thanks for visiting me today. I enjoyed reading the information you shared today.



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