"Never Trust Your Memory" by Betty Webb

Like it or not, research is invaluable to writing a good mystery novel. But much of that research means double-checking things you already “know.”

For instance, I’ve lived in Scottsdale AZ since 1982, and much of my time here has been spent as a reporter, driving back and forth across the Valley of the Sun chasing story after story. So I knew the Valley pretty well, right? Wrong.

In the first draft of “Desert Noir,” my first mystery novel, I misnamed streets and put in intersections that don’t exist. I also wrote in tracts of empty desert that no longer exist, having long been replaced by sprawling subdivisions. I misnamed hotels, I misnamed corporations, I wrote in one-way streets running the wrong way.

How did this happen? Easy. I was writing from “memory of the known” only, and thus didn’t bother to fact-check my memory. Fortunately, in the second draft of “Desert Noir,” I fact-checked myself via a map and updated business and location information, so I caught those goofs before my agent delivered my manuscript to my publisher. I’ll have to admit, though, the number of errors I’d made in writing from memory alone surprised me.

I am now writing “Desert Vengeance,” my ninth “Desert” novel, at the same time I’m celebrating the release of “The Puffin of Death,” my fourth “Gunn Zoo” mystery. Since the publication of that long-ago “Desert Noir” I’ve learned a thing or two.

I’ve especially learned that we writers should never trust our memories; memory lies. Look back on your childhood, for instance, and make a list of all the dates you can remember off the top of your head without double-checking. What year did you go to Disneyland, for instance? Had your baby brother already been born, or was he still just a gleam in your parents’ eyes? Did you have to wait very long to get on the Matterhorn ride, or was it a breeze? Which hotel did you stay at, and for how long? Was it a trip unblemished by trouble, or did snafus pester your trip every day? Write down all your answers, and then check them against your parents’ (and/or your baby brother’s) recollections. Chances are you all remember very different experiences, right down to the year of the Disneyland trip.

Reporters know how much “facts” tend to wiggle around, according to the person who is relating them. Let’s say four pedestrians – each standing on separate corners – see the same accident. Once the debris is cleared away and the vehicles hauled off, the reporter sent out to cover the accident gets four very different versions of the accident. The woman standing on the northeast says the green Chevy Malibu ran the red light and crashed into the tan Volkswagen Golf.  The man standing on the southeast corner tells the reporter that the accident happened because neither the green Buick nor the white Honda Civic stopped at the four-way stop sign. The other two witnesses saw something completely different, an accident involving a green Hyundai Sonota and a white Fiat, or a black Ford and a pale blue Nissan. Sometimes there was a light at the intersection, sometimes it was a four-way stop. No matter which version the reporter writes up – unless he first checks with the official accident report – his story will be flawed.

My point is this: when putting something in print, never trust your memory. Or what you “saw.” Check your sources first.
Iceland Sodhouses

While researching “The Puffin of Death,” which was set in Iceland, I read histories of Iceland, studied Icelandic travel books, Googled all things Icelandic, and – because the book includes many species of birds – bought and read the Collins Field Guide edition of “Birds of Britain & Europe,” by Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Montfort, and P.A.D. Hollom. I committed as much information as I could to memory. Then I flew to Iceland and crisscrossed the country for two weeks, picking up literature, receipts, and souvenirs from each spot I visited. Then I came home and began to write.

Guess what? Regardless of all the care I took while writing the first draft of “The Puffin of Death,” I misnamed a hotel, got some directions wrong, misnamed a volcano, put the town of Vik sixty miles east of where it actually sits, and got the ingredients wrong in the Icelandic version of a hot dog. Again, how could this happen?

It happened because I wrote that first draft from memory -- and even a trained reporter’s memory can be flawed.

Fortunately, using the reams of material and bags full of receipts I’d collected in Iceland, I was able to fix my screw-ups in the final draft of “The Puffin of Death,” and so far, no one has written me to tell me I got something wrong. However, my husband – who was with me during my Icelandic sojourn – remembers the trip differently, right down to what we ate for dinner at that restaurant overlooking the slope of Eyjafjallakokull, the erupting volcano that tied up European air traffic for five days, six years ago.

Or was it six days, five years ago?

Betty Webb


Thank you so much, for visiting me today. What great advice you've given all the authors out there.
Billie Johnson said…
I agree, Betty's advice is terrific! Hope we will see her at PSWA again soon!
Peg Brantley said…
You are always a delight! Thanks, Betty.
So correct! I've learned long ago that it's easier to write about a faraway place you're just visiting than somewhere close to home. You never know what you think you know!

Thanks for the interesting post, Betty and Marilyn!
Thanks for commenting, Billie, Peg, and Monti.
Betty Webb said…
Thanks, guys. It's always embarrassing to admit to our screw-ups, but it's my wish that my screw-ups can help others!
Anonymous said…
Oh so true about memory. I set my novels in real towns. There is a street I've been on a thousand times. It runs along the river through three towns. I always called it River Road because that is the name in two of the towns, but in the third it's Front Street. Luckily I had checked the map for something else and saw my mistake which I corrected.
Richard Brawer

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