Research, Diversity, and Writing the Not Me
When I was attending a regional middle school in rural Maine, I wanted to work for the United Nations. It seemed cool—the building’s international design, the New York City setting, the languages, the people of different colors from diverse countries, the mission. At the time, I was enduring mean-girl culture. Snip-snap, realign, re-friend, repeat. Maybe a blouse would be torn. No wonder I thought a mission of mediation and peace to be the ultimate goal.
Now I kill people. In novels, that is, the Twin Cities Mysteries. The series, set in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, features two white detectives, sharp Erik Jansson and forceful Deb Metzger. Should Grace Fail, available this December, involves addiction, sex trafficking, racism, and bias against those who are LGBTQ plus. Admission: I don’t quite live in the Twin Cities, I’ve never been athletic like Erik, I’m not lesbian like Deb—though I too am white and middle-class. Like many authors, I’m drawn to writing about the Not Me to explore difficult topics and better comprehend what has been labeled “other.” For my readers, I want to create an adventure that merges seriousness and fun while respecting the realities of people’s lives.
That means research and training on diversity because my detectives work and live in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic context and must be aware of issues like police bias against Blacks. Should Grace Fail was completed before the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but the death of Philando Castile haunted its writing. My topic in part is white confusion. Erik, a whistle-blower, and Deb, non-cisgender, struggle to connect not only with the mistreated, but also with colleagues in uniform, a struggle that at times is comic. My detectives, as I have done, attend sensitivity workshops; these can provide insight or backfire, as the anger management seminar does in Where Privacy Dies.
To develop character, I do draw on my own experiences. In Should Grace Fail, a man had a severe accident—based on the accident of a farm neighbor. Erik Jansson overhears a conversation about popping oxy pills while he’s stuck in a tunnel that connects government buildings—I heard that conversation in the same place. Like Deb Metzger, I’m involved with nonprofits that assist women and children. I’ve had classical music training, as does a central character, eighteen-year-old Jaylyn Dudek.
Jaylyn is mixed race, African American and Polish American, and she hangs out with a Black cousin. Black experience should be, has been, and will be most deeply plumbed by Black writers—Crime Writers of Color is a reference point on this. It’s also inevitable that white writers will portray diversity because they can’t and shouldn’t avoid it. Jaylyn got in my head and wouldn’t leave for several reasons: a graceful musician inspired me; characters who cross boundaries are fascinating; and I, like Jaylyn’s White Gran, have dark-skinned grandchildren.
To make Jaylyn and characters of all colors convincing, not tokens, not mouthpieces, I did homework and drew from people I know. I looked into the Gateways and Sphinx organizations which support musicians of color. I went to The Dakota Jazz Club to hear Lizz Wright and observed an academy piano masterclass—the virtuoso pupil had a light Afro and performed Liszt. I had read and continue to read books by nonwhite authors. I studied Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. I was privileged in being able to attend a Key West Seminar on Writing the Other. A diversity reader went over the manuscript. I listened, and I intend to keep listening.
My research also took interactive forms. I did drive-arounds and walk-arounds with a camera. I browsed a holiday bazaar at Polish American church. I researched a breed of dog and checked out the tiger display at the zoo. I ate at a faux country club and at a genuine truck stop. Yes, research can turn into fun procrastination.
Murder mysteries begin with violence and thrive on conflict. Research helps me imagine plausible ways for Erik and Deb to forge through the discord to glimmers of justice. It’s not exactly the United Nations, but it is, I hope, a larger world.