mystery, research, world-building, writing

A Day of Research

Canton, N.Y. is a small town tucked between the Adirondack Mountains and the St. Lawrence River. It is home to St. Lawrence University as well as SUNY (State University of N.Y.) Canton. The Grasse River winds its way through the town, as well as numerous streams and brooks. The park in the center of the village has been there–if not as long as the town has existed, then pretty darn close. It shows up on every old map I’ve seen, and I’ve looked at a lot of them.

It is my hometown, where I was born and raised, and it is also the setting for the Pauline Gray mysteries. All the characters in the Pauline stories are fictional, but I have done my best to keep the setting as authentic to Canton in the 1930s as possible. The photos and memories posted on the Historian Town & Village Canton Facebook page has been one great resource for this; family has been another.

In the end, though, nothing beats poking around the town in person for inspiration and authenticity. For all that I spent my formative years there, there’s a lot of the town I never explored growing up, and so now I take advantage of any trip up to visit my folks to drive around and re-familiarize myself with the landscape.

(I am embarrassed to admit that all the way up until the final proofread of Candles in the Dark, I had misplaced the street where Pauline lives to the other side of the village–even looking at a map hadn’t helped me properly orient it until I actually drove down it and said, “Whoops.”)

On this most recent jaunt to the north country, I corralled Carl as my chauffeur so I could focus on the landscape and not on the road, and we set out to figure out which street looked the most promising for the setting for a murder. It didn’t take long before we found it, on the road that leads to Morley (readers of Candles might remember that Morley is the home of the mill that was the setting for that murder). It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining and all the fields shining greenly in the sun thanks to the frequent rains this month, a light breeze blowing … the kind of idyllic day in the country people dream about but rarely get to experience. Just right for a mild little adventure.

My specifications were fairly simple: it needed to be by the river, fairly lonely, not frequently traveled, and beautiful. Off Rt 27, we found the exact right side road. Don’t you love it when that happens?

All these houses are far too fancy for my fictional house that is the heart of this story, but they certainly provided plenty of inspiration as well as admiring gasps as Carl drove very slowly past while I took frantic snapshots out the windows.

Back on Rt 27, we stopped by St. Mary’s Cemetery to poke around a bit–ostensibly for research purposes, but mostly because I have a hard time resisting the lure of old gravestones. So many fascinating stories hidden behind the names and dates and epitaphs!

Both so young–obviously the twelve-year-old even more so, but the twenty-three-year-old as well.
I never think about Canton being a hot spot for immigrants, but there certainly were a lot of Italian and Irish names here in the Catholic cemetery.
What a full and adventurous life Patrick must have had! I bet he had stories to tell his grandchildren.

I got the lowdown on the different roads (and what they would or would not have been called in the ’30s) from my dad when I got back to the house, which made for the perfect cap to the day.

Sometimes research looks like hunching over a computer or old books, poring over details to make sure yours match, and that has its charm (though it’s best if one remembers to take frequent breaks to rest one’s eyes and stretch one’s back), but this sort of research has to be my favorite. A beautiful day, a drive through the countryside with my husband, followed by a chat and reminiscing with my dad. It doesn’t get much better than that!