Research Surprises

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by Susan Lyttek

One of the first things I do when I get an idea for a story is research. I enjoy the process. More often than not, its results surprise me, taking the story in a different direction or changing the focus.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I often approach a book project with preconceived notions of where certain things will go. When I began to write Killer Field Trip, (release date 8/1/2014) I required a valuable motive for the victim’s demise. It needed to be something native to the area since the historic storyline said that George Washington and George William Fairfax had found it on the survey trip for Lord Fairfax. In the present day, the woman who will lead the homeschool field trip finds out about this item of value and its source. She wants it both for its intrinsic value and for its connection to our first president.

Since the dastardly deed was going to happen to the tour guide while they explored the Shenandoah region, I needed something that George Washington might realistically have stumbled upon while he did his surveying. Having been to the area several times as a tourist, I knew it was filled with caves. The caves sparkled and glimmered in the light provided for the tours. So surely there would be some sort of gemstone discoverable in a hidden cave, right?

Thinking I might find diamonds or a large enough deposit of amethyst to have value, I began to review topographical and mineralogical studies of the area. While Virginia did have amethyst, the sources were nowhere near the Shenandoah region. And as for diamonds, not a one. Near the Shenandoah area, in the Piedmont, they have garnet, but even in the 1700s, it did not have enough worth for people to get excited about.

Near to believing that nothing would occur naturally in the region of my story, I looked more extensively for natural resources in Virginia. I could engineer some sort of treasure if I had to, but a natural occurrence worked better for the storyline. What might have value and occur near water sources or underground caves?

I stumbled upon gold.

I would never have guessed it. Knowing colonial history, I remembered that Jamestown had hoped for gold and that its settlers were finally forced to abandon the search for the malleable metal when it looked like they would starve. And all the while, they were just a bit too far south and east of a sizable vein.

From northeast heading south to mid-state in Virginia, resting primarily to the east of the Appalachian range and west of the coastal area, there lies the iron pyrite belt. Until just after World War II, Virginia was in the top ten gold producing states.

Who knew?

This is not the first time that the research has taken my story in an unexpected direction. And it won’t be the last. As I began to work on a time travel fantasy, beginning in the 1500s, I was convinced my hero would travel with Columbus to the new world. But as I researched, I discovered too much known about Columbus to allow for surprise occurrences. Amerigo Vespucci, on the other hand…

Killer Field TripSusan A. J. Lyttek, author of the Talbott family mysteries by Harbourlight Books, writes near our nation’s capital. She enjoys teaching the next generation of writers through WriteAtHome. Find out more about her upcoming books and other projects at

Comments 0

  1. Great thoughts! I write contemporary, but hit a historical stumbling block that has me rewriting a bit of the story – and it will wind up better than before!

    The protagonist’s brother died in 1997 – in my outlining phase I had him dying in combat. The year of death is pretty critical to the current story’s timeline – but wouldn’t you know that we had ZERO combat deaths in ’97?

    I contemplated whether to leave it as-is and disregard the historical innacuracy, or to shift my timeline to make it fit into some other wartime event (perhaps on the U.S.S. Cole?) … but nothing resonated.

    As I’ve rethought the story, I have a scenario that fits the family even better than a combat death – and I would’ve never stumbled upon this idea if I hadn’t dug into the historical accuracy of my original concept!

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