Research hits the sweet spot for me. When writing gets tough, other people clean their kitchens as a way to avoid the computer. My kitchen stays messy. I get lost in old newspaper articles, diaries, and histories. And with my novel, I was faced with questions about my characters that only research could solve. For example: what motivates someone to choose crime as a profession? I have an entire gang of old ladies who steal cars, fence stolen goods, and help with the odd bank robbery or jewelry heist. My main character's great-aunts, Wilma and Eugenia, are intent on passing down the family business to young Nina.
In trying to understand their motivation, I set up an entire genealogical chart for my criminal family of women: starting with Sarah Burd, a domineering Virginian married to a revolutionary colonel. About to lose their farm because of her husband's devotion to the revolutionary cause, Sarah stole a pair of garnet earrings from Martha Washington at a ball. I kept going from there, and it became an obsessive exercise. I continued the entire family line through the 19th century (Mary Lincoln got fleeced in a Burd family financial scam) and up to the 20th. None of this research made it into the novel, but it got me immersed in criminal cultures.
Some of the best histories about crime and women are about England, and I read those, too, discovering the story of the great pearl heist (now a nonfiction book) with, I was delighted to find, a gang of women thieves.
Eventually--like the 9 pound dog who eats a 5 pound bag of sugar*--I was so full of information that I had to stop. And what did I find out? People treat crime as a profession for many reasons. What they all share is a feeling that they can away with it, that they're smarter than the rest of the world, and that the really good ones also do it because they are so good at it that they can't bear to stop. That was helpful in building character. When asked by Nina why they don't stop stealing since they have so much money, Eugenia says, "It would be a real crime not to do our art. That's how we're not like other criminals."
In the novel, I start the family criminal enterprise with great-grandmother Nanabelle Lindstrom, a brilliant and ruthless gambler from Minnesota, who meets her future husband when she cheats at blackjack in his speakeasy. I based their relationship on my (virtuous) grandparents' story, but that's a different tale.
I also found out (no surprises here) that most Hollywood movies get it wrong. Safecrackers laugh at all safecracking scenes, just like my lawyer husband can't stand watching your average courtroom drama. This leads me to the title for this post, which is based on a quote from Eudora Welty, and comes from her memoir One Writer's Beginning.
“I never found out the moon didn’t come up in the west until I was a writer and Herschel Brickell, the literary critic, told me after I misplaced it in a story. He said valuable words to me about my new profession: ‘Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.’”
*from a story told by Kurt Braunohler on This American Life