Adventures in Research, Part I: Time of Departure

I’m sure every novelist has his or her personal formula for research. Recently, Criminal Element asked me to talk a little bit about mine.

Not to sound too obvious, but in my book (yes, there’s that boring pun again) there are three branches of research required if you want to get things right.

First comes the essential exercise of poring over non-fiction sources and searching the internet for alternative facts (just kidding). The point is, there are no shortcuts to basic research. Your readers expect you to know what you’re talking about. And dogged persistence is often rewarded with unexpected bonuses—such as discovering a little factual nugget that adds a new twist to the plot, or one that lends an extra brush-stroke of reality to the imaginary world of the story.

The next task is to track down and interview, where possible, professionals and experts who can give you a real sense of that job … or that place … or that lifestyle. For those of you who have read Time of Departure, you’ll know that the novel’s central character is Claire Talbot, a tough-as-they-come Florida prosecutor. I was most fortunate that one of my oldest friends is a former Treasury agent who later became a Florida state attorney and, later still, a Florida public defender.

I met Lee Peters decades ago when he was Special Agent in Charge at the ATF’s Portland, Oregon, headquarters and I was a Crown prosecutor in British Columbia. Lee was my key witness in a cross-border fugitive case, and his testimony—calmly delivered in his gentlemanly Southern accent—simultaneously riveted our Judge and eviscerated the defense. On top of Lee’s obvious expertise on the legal front, he was also responsible for introducing me to Cedar Key, a community on Florida’s Gulf Coast that plays its own role in the novel. Years ago, Lee had taken me there on a one-day visit, and I couldn’t get the image of that unique little community out of my head.

That leads me to the third essential branch of research—the on-the-scene, thick-of-the-action kind. Such as, say, riding shotgun in a cop car during a high-speed chase. That happened to me once when I was a prosecutor. Or the ruining-your-favorite-sneakers kind, crawling around in a Florida swamp, exploring the scene of an imagined crime. Been there, done that. Or just putting in long hours on the ground, exploring an alley, a forest, a river, an undersea mine (later in this series, I’ll take you into a Mediterranean salt mine), searching out those dramatic little corners of Geographica that will add a distinctive “sense of place” to the story that is unfolding in my mind.

As Daniela Rapp, my editor at Macmillan, says: “When scenes in a manuscript are set in New York, it’s pretty easy to detect when the author has never set foot in this city.”

To me, it’s this third branch of research that is the most enjoyable—not only because my wife Melody and I love traveling to new places, but because so often these aren’t just research trips, they’re mini-adventures.

Time of Departure was my first novel with Macmillan, and the story is set entirely in Florida. But it wasn’t always meant to be located there. Originally, I planned to set the story in Bermuda and England. Those of you who have read the novel will be scratching your heads, asking: “How would that work?”

In the novel’s present form, it wouldn’t.

A little side trip: During the 1980s, I was working as a prosecutor in Bermuda. In the course of my work, I found myself sitting in the front room of the home of an elderly gentleman named William Stephenson—Sir William Stephenson, to be exact—the WWII spymaster now known the world over as “A Man Called Intrepid.” Unaccountably, Mr. Stephenson, his Bermuda home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and a LCD digital watch sitting on the coffee table gave me an idea for a novel. Within days, I was well into a first draft. But—time-worn excuse of the unpublished—life intervened, and I put the manuscript aside before it was finished.

Fast-forward to 2004. I had just finished a three-day screenwriting course in Los Angeles. (I spent the whole three days sitting next to Drew Barrymore, which was totally cool.) Inspired by the course, I took up the story again, changed the setting to Florida, and turned it into a feature-length screenplay. The working title was The Crab’s Eye, later changed to Time Out of Mind. That screenplay took first prize in its category in a Hollywood screenwriting contest, and Time of Departure, the novel you’re now so eager to read, is based directly on the script.

Read an excerpt from Time of Departure!

But back to that “on-the-ground” research I was talking about. Time of Departure starts out in the State Attorney’s office in Gainesville, Florida (pop. 130,000), but soon moves to backwaters like Cedar Key (pop. 700) and Cross Creek (pop. “maybe 50”), and then to even more obscure little spots such as an aging, boarded-up, dog-trot cabin on the banks of the Suwannee River. With scenes like that … well, it was all just too, too tempting. Which is why Melody and I traveled to Central Florida three times before I finally submitted the Time of Departure manuscript to my agents.

On one trip, we spent some time scoping out Cedar Key, a pivotal location in Time of Departure’s plot. It’s a village where the seaside half of aptly-named Dock Street sits on a forest of pilings, lapped by a cocoa-brown mixture of salt water from the Gulf and tannin-stained outflow from the nearby Suwannee delta.

It’s also a town where the pelicans are as tame as Central Park pigeons. Meet our friend Roderick:

Melody and I spent days exploring the bogs and cypress groves lining the shores of the Suwannee River, and then we visited Cross Creek in the hammock country southeast of Gainesville. This microdot of a community was the setting for Marjory Kinnan Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling, and it is also a critical location in the unfolding narrative of Time of Departure. Our arrival was greeted by the unwelcome sight of a flock of vultures picking over the carcass of a road-killed deer.

The macabre irony of this spectacle wasn’t lost on me: Marjory Rawlings’s novel was about a backwoods boy who adopted an orphaned fawn. That poor creature’s story didn’t end well either.

On a later trip to Florida, Melody and I teamed up with our old friends Larry and Maria Fernandez (to whom Time of Departure is gratefully dedicated) for a houseboat cruise through the uncannily spooky lower reaches of the Suwannee.

And that’s when things got really interesting. It all started at a little riverside settlement called “Treasure Camp.” I’m not kidding about the name. The place even has a general store. And what do you think that store is called? That’s right, shopaholics! Welcome to “YA’LL MART.”

(I couldn’t help but notice that they had misspelled the name of the river that was flowing right past their front door.)

For ship-to-shore transport, we’d been towing a canoe behind the houseboat. Handling a canoe is no problem for Melody and me—we both grew up in the wilds of British Columbia. After we’d anchored the houseboat in the center of the channel (per firm instructions from its owner), I paddled the girls ashore and then went back to pick up Larry. That’s when disaster struck.

Let’s just say … my friend lost his balance while boarding.

Oh, and yeah, the canoe capsized.

And, yeah, we both ended up in the river.

While we were splashing and porpoising, trying re-board the houseboat, our canoe floated off down the river. As we climbed back onto the houseboat’s afterdeck, streaming water and mouthing curses, we suddenly became aware that our aquatic performance had been closely monitored by a prominent member of the local swim team.

Fortunately he’d been too drowsy—or contemptuous—to come to our aid.

As I explained in my last article for Criminal Element (“Why I Write Women”), it’s times of crisis like these that brings out the quick-thinking resourcefulness of hard-bitten female heroines. Melody and Maria, watching from the shore, saw the canoe disappearing downstream and instantly knew what they had to do. Ignoring the plight of their spluttering, humiliated husbands, they sprang into action.

“What action?” you are asking. “The river’s 600 yards wide at that point. How were they going to intercept that canoe before it disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico?”

Easy. By using their innate female insight and intuition. They hunted down a couple of local fishermen who were about to launch an aluminum boat with a big Merc outboard and sweet-talked those two backwoods boys into making a high-speed run downriver.

Do I need to repeat the names of the two waterlogged goofs who ended up being rescued from the houseboat by their serenely smiling wives?


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Douglas Schofield is the author of Time of Departure and Storm Rising. He was raised and educated in British Columbia, where he earned degrees in history and law. Over the past thirty years, he has worked as a lawyer in Canada, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands. Douglas and his wife, Melody, live on Grand Cayman, along with their most excellent and amazing talking cat, Juno.

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