Tag Archives: thriller

Researching Facts While Writing Fiction

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release a paperback edition of Death at Gills Rock, the second Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery. Three local World War II veterans about to be honored for their military heroics die from carbon monoxide poisoning during a weekly card game. A faulty heater is blamed, but Cubiak puzzles over details. In this post, author Patricia Skalka does some puzzling of her own over how best to undertake research for a mystery.

One of the most unexpected aspects of writing a mystery is the amount of varied research needed to fill out a story. When I worked as a freelancer and Reader’s Digest staff writer, research was an essential element in nearly every assignment. Once I started writing mysteries, I thought that part of the job was behind me. But I was wrong.

Death at Gills Rock, the second volume in the Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries, is a good example. I knew that I wanted to write a story involving childhood friends who had served together in World War II, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. When a Door County neighbor told me that recruits to the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Contingent were posted in the Aleutian Islands, I had my first lead.

However, at that point, I knew little about the Coast Guard, less about the Aleutian Islands, and virtually nothing about how either factored into the war. To create a credible story, I had to ferret out specific historical details and background material that spanned decades. To start, I interviewed the head of the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Station, hunted through library catalogs, and searched the internet. Much of the information I needed was buried in out-of-print history books, old military newsletters, and obscure magazine articles. The material was fascinating. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn. Finally, I had to stop researching and start writing!

I knew from experience that only a portion of what I learned would make its way into the novel. After all, I was writing a mystery story, not a history book. Difficult decisions had to be made. I could use only what added to the story itself, but even what I couldn’t include in the book stays with me and is worth sharing.

Even what I couldn’t include in the book stays with me and is worth sharing. Click To Tweet

Let’s start with the U.S. Coast Guard. This division of the U.S. military was established in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service and remains the nation’s longest extant military branch. From 1794 to 1865, the Coast Guard’s primary function was to stop slave ships and prevent them from reaching American shores. Under the Timber Act of 1822, it was also charged with the task of protecting government forests from poachers!

Fast forward to World War II and the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago that extends a thousand miles west from the coast of Alaska. It’s location made the island critical after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1942, the Japanese had captured two small islands in the long chain—the first time since the War of 1812 that a foreign army occupied US territory. The Japanese wanted control of the Aleutians to prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific; while the Americans feared that the Japanese could use them to launch an assault on the West Coast. The Aleutian campaign also had a secret mission to train American naval forces for a possible invasion of Japan; this was not revealed until after the war.

In Death at Gills Rock, I refer to the battle of Attu, an eighteen-day siege in which U.S. forces recaptured the island as part of the U.S. campaign to oust the Japanese. What’s not mentioned is that the battle was one of the most costly assaults in the Pacific: for every one hundred enemy combatants found on the island, about seventy-one Americans were killed or wounded.

In gathering material for Death at Gills Rock, I also expanded my knowledge about societal norms and learned the specifics of raising puppies and outfitting a wooden sailboat—subjects I knew little or nothing of before I started the project.

Research may not be easy, but it is rewarding. I hope that by weaving facts into my mysteries, I provide readers with a more satisfying and substantial experience. Certainly, taking the time to get things correct makes me a better writer.
Taking the time to get things correct makes me a better writer. Click To Tweet

Photo by B. E. Pinkham

Patricia Skalka is a former freelance staff writer for Reader’s Digest specializing in medical and human interest stories. She has worked as a magazine editor, ghost writer, and writing instructor. A native of Chicago, she divides her time between the city and her cottage in Door County, Wisconsin.

The Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series so far

Next book coming 2018!